Will the Class of 2007 be true citizens?

11th February 2000 at 00:00
LAST June, the Institute for Public Policy Research held a conference on citizenship and its implication for education. The curriculum is now finalised, but a key question remains: when and how will we know if citizenship education is a success?

Think on to June 2007. Out of England's secondaries will pour the beneficiaries or victims of a vibrant but turbulent era of school "modernisation". David Blunkett's job as Education Secretary rests on these pupils' key stage 2 performance in 2002. By 2007, they will be the first cohort of pupils to have been taught citizenship for five years. Explore expectations for the class of 2007, and we may be able to establish success criteria for citizenship education.

Since pupils will be taught the "importance of voting", one possible performance indicator would be increased election turnouts. A real stimulus could be the lowering of the voting age to 16, a proposal that has strong justifications and growing support. In 2007, Year 11s could not only be discussing elections; they could be voting in one, probably via their schools' ICT suites.

Turn-outs form a subset of the need to address what the Crick Report described as the "inexcusably and damagingly bad" state of political literacy among young people. This theme is susceptible to "golden-ageism". Young people's engagement with mainstream politics may be weakening, but involvement in the margins is flourishing. It's political literacy, but not as we know it. There is no reason to predict that citizenship education will reverse this trend.

Another key idea is the promotion of community involvement or "active citizenship"; one measure of success here would be an increase in young volunteers. Volunteer organisations are reporting dwindling numbers, especially among students; this may have less to do with changing attitudes than rising debts. There may need to be incentives for active citizenship. For instance, could GCSE, A-level or degree-level maths or English include opportnities to help teach the literacy or numeracy hour?

The final citizenship theme is "social and moral responsibility". This may prove to be the most valuable but least measurable aspect. Pupils must be given an understanding of the multiple identities of our population.

An overarching ambition is to forge a "common citizenship", a national identity and reserve of active empathy that transcends familial, regional or cultural loyalties. However, we are still recovering from two decades of policies based on the idea that "there is no such thing as society".

However the criteria are defined, success is by no means guaranteed. Will the subject actually be taught at all? Contrary to the dirigiste dreams of a few in government, schools do have some assertiveness left in their lockers. The priority that inspectors give the subject will be a factor, as will its accreditation status. Within what is a "light touch curriculum", schools must be given the freedom to prioritise their own values, to plan creatively, to take risks. Otherwise, teachers' enthusiasm for the new subject could be strangled in its infancy.

As the consumers of the new curriculum, pupils themselves will be the ultimate arbiters. Unless it is well-taught, well-resourced and given constant "relevance MOTs", citizenship could become the favoured truancy period in the 21st century.

It must not be restrained within the context of "preparation for adult life".

The Class of 2007, currently in Year 4, already hold rights and responsibilities, so citizenship education needs to be valuable for children as children.

Avoid the pitfalls, and citizenship could be a catalyst for dynamic cultural change in schools, transforming relationships with pupils, parents and the community.

Books, Friday magazine, 22 Joe Hallgarten is an education researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research. 'Tomorrow's Citizens' is available from ippr@centralbooks.com tel 0181 986 5488 fax 0181 533 5821

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