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Towards a spirit of citizenship

What exactly will be taught under the banner of 'citizenship'? As the Government's advisory group oncitizenship prepares to publish its report this month, Alan Combes asks for clarification from its chairman, Professor Bernard Crick (right)

That David Blunkett was committed to the teaching of citizenship in the nation's schools became clear to Bernard Crick, the Birkbeck College professor whom the Education Secretary chose as chair of the citizenship advisory group, many years ago.

"I knew David when he was a student at Sheffield University, and we were both active in a group called the Politics Association, made up of teachers who thought democracy could be taught in our schools. Once he had an exchange with Sir Keith Joseph, who agreed with him that learning citizenship was desirable, but declared 'God forbid that an Education Secretary should have the power to require the teaching of any subject except, of course, religion!' Even then David Blunkett begged to differ."

So, when his political dreams were realised and he became a Cabinet Minister, it was no great surprise that Blunkett turnedto his old professor, Bernard Crick, to take charge of the citizenship advisory group. The panel's high profile reflected its perceived importance with a representative of the Speaker, Sir Stephen Tumim, former Chief Inspector of Prisons, former Education Secretary Lord Baker and ITN's political editor Michael Brunson, among its luminaries.

In its initial report, the advisory group identified three strands to learning about democracy and teaching about citizenship: social and moral responsibility, community involvement and political literacy. The final document, rather than prescribing how or what should be taught, states desirable learning outcomes so that teachers can beat their own path to a prescribed door.

"We don't think the spirit of the citizenship order can be met by straight-line teaching, but nor can pupils learn about who holds power or about quangos purely through participating in the running of the school," says Bernard Crick. "Lots of Birmingham and Manchester schools follow this latter road, but in itself it's not sufficient."

When I suggest that most secondary pupils I had taught probably thought quango was a new fruit drink, he chuckles.

"Lots of us have been depressed about the degree of ignorance in terms of political literacy for a long time. I don't think it's anything new. Whether introducing citizenship in schools will make people help out more in the community or take a greater part in political processes, we don't know. It just seems to be a commonsense bet that they will. But I have to admit that a bad citizenship programme, a boring one based on something like learning the constitution, might do more harm than good."

Schools will find it encouraging to hear the advisory group's chairman talking about teaching citizenship through real issues and that one of its members, Alex Porter, has been commissioned to write a guidance paper for the teaching of controversial topics. But what exactly will be taught?

"I don't think we're demanding a level of knowledge beyond what an ordinary citizen should have anyway - a knowledge of the working of the local social services, for example. If granny is stuck upstairs, should it be the health or the social services that the parents go to? A difficult and taxing question at the highest level, but simple and basic in the family situation. The relationship between social services, health and GP is something even primary-age youngsters can have a knowledge of."

A constantly recurring word in Bernard Crick's conversation is "cumulative". Citizenship teaching should start at the beginning of key stage 1, he believes.

"In primary schools, perhaps an early requirement is developing a pupil's confidence sufficiently for them to express an opinion. By the end of key stage 2, opinions need to be backed by reason. The learning objectives could be met within a PHSE programme, including elements now touched on in geography. Citizenship would build on the concepts of oracy and literacy now in use.

"By key stage 3, pupils should be able to agree with others on how to make written and spoken advocacies and should also be made aware that facts can be tainted. In studying an issue, alternative sources should be sought, even if it only means searching out another tabloid newspaper.

"The target for key stage 4 might be activities which related to the real political world."

Pupils would be expected to know about the aims of the main political parties and pressure groups, and understand political terms such as taxation, xenophobia and lobbying.

The proposals are too complex to be brought in all in one go with the revised national curriculum in 2000. Instead, they will be phased in, perhaps over a decade.

"Some schools which already have some citizenship teaching will have less to do," Professor Crick explains. "The curriculum is by learning outcomes, so once teachers understand just what this means, they will realise there's a lot of flexibility."

How will it fit into an already overcrowded curriculum?

"We're only asking for 5 per cent of the timetable. Not bad for a subject with so many ramifications - the community and political world, relationships with Europe, human rights, United Nations, sustainability. And different schools might put it in different places. Tutor time or PHSE, for example."

Could citizenship be an award-based course?

"That's one for the future. Current A-level courses in politics and government are not broad enough for the advisory group's concept of citizenship."

What will all this mean to the class teacher at Hardcheese Comprehensive who is faced with delivering citizenship in the classroom? Isn't it all too serious?

"That is a worry, yes," he admits, "but in political discussion at its best there is some kind of athletic joy, so why not in the classroom? The people we entrust with power should give some evidence of enjoying discussion."

All his life Bernard Crick has been concerned with the question of political judgment, and plainly he sees no reason why pupils in the classroom cannot also derive some pleasure and insight from their version of the same activity.

A fortnightly column on how schools are tackling citizenship will appear on these secondary pages from next week

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