Training ground for democracy

There is a growing interest in Britain in finding ways to produce more committed and civilised citizens. Could the answer be in the kinds of early experiences children have in schools? An accumulation of recent research led me to offer this conclusion last week at the 1998 TES Lucy Cavendish Lecture on primary citizenship education.

It seems that, despite our best intentions, we may be doing neither society nor young disadvantaged children a favour by offering them the kind of early education that concentrates largely on basic skills. Research in 1994 by Dr Maria Nabuco and Professor Kathy Sylva of Oxford University points to evidence from a study in Portugal that young children who have had this apparently "compensatory" programme do not thrive academically.

A second study from the USA not only supports this finding but provides additional and telling evidence that this type of education has an adverse effect on their adult social lives as well. A second follow-up report from a long-term survey (Schweinhart and Weikart 1997) shows that young children between three and six years old who have had what some might consider a privileged "fast track" programme turned out, as adults, to be three times more likely to be excluded from their senior schools, be involved in social misdemeanours, go to prison more often and be unable to maintain steady jobs or relationships than those who had attended what might be recognised in Britain as an informal play, activity-based nursery and early years class (called HighScope in the USA).

They were also - and this is where a concern for future citizens comes in - three times less likely to vote and be in any way actively involved in their own communities. Perhaps there is a critical stage in children's social development between three and six years old that could be met by a generous variety of opportunities for social interaction. If this social development is mediated by language, as has often been suggested, then articulacy should be considered a priority.

However, even in my small survey among headteachers it had relatively low importance, particularly at key stage 1.

The importance of debate and discussion, which in themselves require a measure of articulacy, is stressed in the Crick Committee's report, Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy. Among nearly 40 organisations that support some kind of primary citizenship education, I found that nearly 86 per cent recommended debate and discussion. Like articulacy, however, it wasn't ranked highly by schools, nor was knowledge about democracy and parliament, although this, too, is one of the Crick report's recommended learning outcomes at KS2.

This could have been the result of the headteachers' own citizenship education - or lack of it. Those that mentioned it all recalled dreary "civics" lessons of old. Only the headteacher in my survey who had lived and been educated abroad felt teaching about democracy to be really important. She thought that the English not only didn't appreciate what they had, but were in danger of losing it.

So it seems worth drawing attention to a model active citizen, born in 1887: Phoebe Cusden, whose work on Reading council, Berkshire, culminated with her being elected Mayor of the town in 1946, was also head of the then Nursery Schools Association in the 1930s.

In 1935 she wrote: "The greatest contribution of the nursery school is that it is a training ground for democratic citizens - citizens who will have learned not what to think - but how to think . . . (The) exercise in self-reliance, unselfishness and willing co-operation, which are also features of the nursery school, will go far towards producing the kind of citizen so vitally necessary if democracy is to be capable of the tasks that devolve upon it - or even to survive."

This is an abridged version of the lecture Annabelle Dixon gave last week on her research into preconceptions and practice in primary citenship education.Three one-year 'TES' fellowships at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, an all-women college, have been supported by News International

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