Skip to main content

When democracy is too hot to handle

Schools are ill-equipped to use citizenship classes to intervene in contentious areas of political debate, says Fred Forrester

I HAVE known a few teachers, all of a left-wing persuasion, who entered teaching with a view to influencing the political views of younger generations. While delivering the normal curriculum, and without falling short of professional standards, these teachers would seek to engage young minds in political debate.

For this small group, "citizenship" or its predecessors would be a favourite timetable slot. The great majority of teachers, however, avoided political debate in the classroom. Few would deny the importance of politics but many found that political ideas had an awkward relationship with mainstream teaching. Learning about language or mathematics or science or the environment had an objectivity which could never be present in politics. Elements of political study were included in modern studies and economics, but these were minority options in the upper secondary school.

Now Teaching and Learning Scotland, with the implicit support of the Executive, wishes citizenship to permeate the primary and secondary curricula. Anyone reading its paper will conclude that it has been inspired by a number of contemporary political problems. There are references to public scepticism about "the traditional structures of representative democracy" as shown in low turnout at elections and diminishing participation in the activities of trade unions and political parties.

Concerns emerge about "a low level of political literacy", about whether citizens are able to make informed choices in products and services, about a perceived lack of "a respectful and caring disposition in relation to people, human society generally, the natural world and the environment".

The proposals are nothing if not ambitious. Young people are to be given "the capacity to express, explain and critically evaluate views that are not their own". They should be able "to demonstrate the capacity for thinking and acting creatively in political, economic, cultural and social life".

They are to be encouraged "to recognise and respond thoughtfully to values and value judgments" that are part and parcel of the same political, economic, cultural and social life.

In a passage on "creativity and enterprise", the paper produces an agenda of staggering depth, involving young people identifying and framing their own questions and suggesting solutions; responding in imaginative ways to social, moral and political dilemmas and challenges; transferring knowledge and skills from one context to another; managing change; and exploring and understanding their own creative abilities.

These, it might be argued, are just further expressions of a liberal, middle-class agenda to be imposed on schools by a cultural elite, though the aspirations are predictably at arm's length rom the day-to-day concerns in classrooms in comprehensive schools. Such a criticism could be made, of course, of many other areas of the curriculum. But "citizenship", as set out, comes perilously close to current mainstream political, social and moral debates.

Many teachers will be uncomfortable. As professionals, they have no difficulty with the concept of "knowledge and understanding" or with teaching core skills. They have problems, however, with the shifting nature of political ideas and with distinguishing between fact and "spin" in the pronouncements of politicians.

The problems are compounded if the political ideas are philosophically associated with moral concepts and with wider notions like creativity. Teachers are much more vulnerable than in the past to complaints from parents and others outside the school. They will want to be sure that elements of the proposed citizenship curriculum are educationally kosher rather than reflecting the current preoccupations of those in power, nationally or locally.

A proper educational treatment of some of the issues raised in the paper would take teachers into very uncomfortable areas of debate. For example, what is the relative importance, in sustaining a democracy, of voting or being a member of a political party as opposed to running a tenants' association or a credit union? How much power should be entrusted to those elected to political office on a low turnout in an area dominated by one political party? To what extent is it right that the best educated and most articulate members of society should dictate the political agenda? What is the role of the media in a liberal democracy?

Until there is more consensus on these issues in the outside world, teachers will hesitate to raise them with pupils. And, where they are raised, for example by the pupils themselves, the response from teachers and school managements is likely to be cautious and anodyne.

Schools are ill-equipped to intervene in contentious areas of political debate. Education as a concept has its limits. It is concerned with a large corpus of knowledge derived from centuries of human civilisation. Equally it is concerned with giving pupils the core skills that will equip them for employment and adult life. Academic discussion of political issues is appropriate in higher education but not in schools.

Certainly there are some parts of the citizenship paper which touch on the skills required if a young adult is to be equipped to handle the rights and duties associated with living in a democratic society. But such skills must be clearly distinguished from current political issues if the paper is to have credibility. It needs a substantial rewrite.

Next week: Judith Gillespie is a scathing critic of the citizenship proposals.

Fred Forrester is former depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you