Young citizens

9th October 1998 at 01:00
Tom Samain, headteacher of Earlham School, Norwich, talks to Alan Combes about the meaning of citizenship to his students.

THE SCHOOL

We have 600 students, 70 of them sixth-formers. Our catchment area has its share of social problems, so working on student self-esteem is an essential aspect of my job.

HOW DOES THE SCHOOL APPROACH CITIZENSHIP?

We tell our students that they have knowledge and can make a contribution which will help other people see the world differently. Citizenship is something they can feel as well as understand.

The school varies the emphasis according to year group. "Personal responsibility" has a high profile and is central to the school's aim of developing "a culture of community awareness".

Also high on the agenda is the linking of the school council with other community action groups. Norwich council is committed to creating community forums and neighbourhood action groups which can advise on matters such as the use of public buildings that have fallen into disrepair and facilities for the young.

Representatives from the school council (four from each year) go to talk to city councillors and they, in turn, visit us. The important thing is to put young people in a position where their view will count for something. Many of them come from families which are cynical about public service. With the best will in the world, working on procedural values and institutional practices won't stem the tide of disaffection. Youngsters need to interact with adults about live issues of common concern.

HOW DOES CITIZENSHIP FIT IN THE TIMETABLE?

A year group will spend a whole day off-timetable investigating an issue.For example, Year 10 had a day when editors of local newspapers came in and we staged a simulation exercise with pupils as "journalists".

Year 8 had a multicultural day working with representatives of ethnic minority groups. The University of East Anglia has strong links with the Egyptian education department so we also had an Egyptian Day, which was a resounding success.

WHAT WAS YOUR MOST EFFECTIVE EVENT?

Our Holocaust event for Year 9 was incredible as our citizenship co-ordinator brought in two survivors of the Nazi death camps. They were youngsters at the time, living in ghettos and being smuggled across Europe.It was the way in which they were able to create empathy among the students about what it feels like to be stripped of one's rights. Of course, the horror of the camps moved everyone, but they were also moved by the idea of being turned into a non-citizen.

With the aid of our visitors, they did activities such as recreating news articles based on the arrival of Allied armies at the concentration camps and came to realise what "unempowerment" means. Young people often consider themselves powerless, but this exercise made them realise how far from the truth that is.

DO YOU THINK THEY LEARNED ANY LIFE LONG LESSONS?

One member of the teaching staff was German. But one thing the Holocaust survivors stressed was that all the great democracies have the potential for going off the rails through corruption of the power system and that we must be vigilant. The letters of thanks written by our students afterwards showed they had been moved in a way the curriculum could never have done without this special input.

DOES YOUR SIXTH FORM GET INVOLVED?

In one part of their timetable - outside studies - they can elect to become involved. It's an offshoot of work experience and involves them working in primary schools, with adult learners who have disabilities, and so on. They can also follow a course to become community sports leaders another empowerment exercise. We give them the opportunities, and the sixth-formers give us feedback through vehicles like assembly and Young Enterprise.

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