We must put our own stamp on citizenship;Platform;Opinion

29th October 1999 at 01:00
England's brand of pupil democracy is the wrong prescription for Holyrood's fledgling voters, says Henry Maitles.

FOR MOST people involved in education the establishment of the Scottish Parliament with its emphasis on participatory democracy and the development of an active citizenry showed real promise. It is surprising to many how quickly disillusion has developed.

All the more important that the area of citizenship is kept to the fore in Scotland, especially as it is very much in the thinking of the Westminster Government, which has issued a consultation document on the whole area.

In terms of education, there is the active promotion by Westminster of compulsory citizenship education in England and Wales. There are many who hope that the Scottish Parliament will take up a similar call and introduce compulsory citizenship into our schools curriculum.

Interestingly, there has been remarkably little critical analysis directed at these proposals. In some ways this is both surprising and unsurprising: surprising, because the proposals as outlined are so weak and could conversely have the opposite effect to their intent, with a deeply alienating effect on young people and teachers; yet unsurprising, as many of us involved in the development of values education, citizenship and political literacy in schools have for so long pressed for some kind of compulsory citizenship education that anything appears better than the status quo.

Particularly noticeable was how little criticism there was at the July conference on citizenship in London. However, I think that going along uncritically would be a dangerous tack to follow and the proposals need to be subjected to scrutiny as, having waited so long, it would be a disaster to introduce unsatisfactory courses.

It is not just pupils who need to have this area thoroughly analysed: two recent cases in the media have shown that citizenship for young people, with its consequent rights and responsibilities, can be seen by some adults as extremely limited. The first, almost Orwellian in its nature, involved independent religious schools in England raising a case in the Court of Human Rights for the right to continue caning.

The second relates to female pupils in a Gateshead comprehensive being refused the right to wear trousers. It can be imagined how difficult citizenship education will be unless some note is taken of pupil rights.

The proposals are that there should be an entitlement to citizenship education at all stages in the national curriculum. No problem so far, but how is it to be delivered? The guidelines suggest three elements: political literacy (in Scotland, relatively successfully delivered to pupils who pick modern studies) is to be taught by some amalgam of history and English teachers, perhaps those a little light in their timetables.

Values education is to be delivered by religious education departments; and there is to be some form of compulsory voluntary work in the community.

Further, the whole thing is to be evaluated by the OFSTED inspectorate.

I am not an expert on English schools or the attitudes of English teachers, but these proposals seem to me to be a recipe for disaster. First, the potential lack of coherence and lack of co-ordination may mean that this compulsory citizenship course does not develop the skills of citizenship hoped for. Rather it could become a fairly meaningless experience, something that has to be gone through to satisfy course requirements, instead of the active enthusiastic preparation for life it is intended to be.

Second, the notion of voluntary work with a compulsory component goes fundamentally against developing the kind of community involvement required.

Third, there is the difficulty of assessing such a course or indeed whether such a course can or should be assessed. This point was discussed at the London conference, but there was neither consensus nor vision as to the way forward.

Fourth, there is the disturbing question as to why, in the light of the Macpherson inquiry into the killing of Stephen Lawrence, there is to be no race awareness education in the package.

Fifth, there is the thorny question of how much say pupils should have in the running of their school. Can democracy and citizenship be taught in fundamentally undemocratic structures? The London conference did touch on this and the general impression given by Bernard Crick, chairman of the group preparing the report, and Education Secretary David Blunkett was that there should be a bit more democracy and consultation, but not very much.

Finally, there is the issue of regular OFSTED inspections of citizenship courses in schools, with the consequent strains and stresses. With all the pressures on teachers through the national curriculum, this proposal could potentially be a last straw, which would be a real shame as many teachers are committed to the general ideas of citizenship education.

For the Advisory Group on Citizenship, and in particular Professor Crick, long-term champion of citizenship education, the tantalising promise of the something was too tempting to allow more complex (and expensive) proposals as to its delivery sidetrack the opportunity. Advice from Scotland as to the importance of having volunteers to teach the areas rather than conscripts was accepted in principle as worth while but as impossibly expensive.

For us in Scotland, though, it is essential that the importance of citizenship education is kept to the fore with the Parliament, the Executive and with the public, but it must be accepted that central to its successful introduction is effective delivery. Pupils, teachers and parents deserve better than the Government's proposals for England and Wales.

Henry Maitles is head of modern studies in Strathclyde University's faculty of education.

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