Why some schools still need 'a bit of a kicking'

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
Exams on citizenship can offer great opportunities for mischief. Cynics sitting a sample GCSE multiple-choice paper might be tempted to tick the wrong box and define a democracy as "a political system where the most powerful people always get their way" and a trade union as "a small political party linked to Labour".

But the greatest mischief can be had with the paper's essay question: "Is active citizenship 'a waste of time'?"

The evidence suggests that some schools would still answer: "Yes".

A long-term study by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has found that schools are becoming better at making citizenship part of the curriculum and teaching pupils about such topics as the environment and human rights.

But teachers continue to have difficulties with the active element - giving pupils a democratic say in the way their schools are run and enabling them to make a positive contribution to their communities.

The NFER report notes that less than a quarter of schools can be categorised as "progressing", which means they do both aspects well, but the number which are "minimalist", and do both badly, has fallen to a tenth. They found that, even though school councils are widespread, pupils rarely had chances to make real changes and that such projects usually involved only limited groups of students.

Sir Bernard Crick said: "About a third of schools are dragging their feet, and with another third it is hard to tell. So I think schools still need a bit of a kicking."

Matt Burfield, from the Charter school in south London, was one of the first wave of teachers to train to teach citizenship. He said the active element was difficult because it was very different from traditional lessons. His GCSE pupils have organised a range of projects in the past term, from fundraising talent shows and football tournaments to schemes designed to raise awareness of charities such as ChildLine.

"It's the hardest part of citizenship, especially when you have more than 180 pupils all doing projects at once, but it's the most rewarding as well," Mr Burfield said. "Some headteachers think they can just tick the box simply by having a school council, but it is no use if just a few pupils are involved and they meet once a year to decide where to put the playground benches. The best schools I have seen give the council real power on behaviour policy, on appointments and on what they should spend money."

Specifically-trained teachers such as Mr Burfield remain rare, though a continuing professional development certificate in citizenship is being launched this autumn which may encourage more teachers to gain a qualification.

Around 250 students take postgraduate teacher-training courses in citizenship each year, although only 88 of the 28,000 secondary-school jobs advertised in The TES last year were for citizenship teachers.

Most schools continue to teach citizenship as a unit within personal social and health education, with more than a fifth making little distinction between the two.

The Association for Citizenship Teaching said recently that the subject was frequently taught poorly by teachers who lacked knowledge and commitment.

"They are often pressed men and women who teach citizenship in tutor time and have been given the subject to fill their timetables," the association said. "They damage the subject and provide a second-rate experience."

The NFER study indicates that confidence among citizenship teachers is improving year on year, but remains low overall. Fewer than a third of those who teach the subject said they were "very confident" taking lessons on such core issues as voting or Britain's membership of the EU (see bar chart above).

The NFER citizenship education longitudinal study is at www.dfes.gov.uk

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