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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 September 2006, 11:21 GMT 12:21 UK
What school citizenship involves
House of Commons scene
Students must learn about the functioning of democracy
One in four secondary schools in England is failing to offer pupils adequate lessons in citizenship, the education watchdog Ofsted has warned.

Citizenship as a school subject was born, as Ofsted puts it, out of "the political determination to confront key issues facing society": disengagement from public life and apathy on the part of young people, confusion of identity and a perceived breakdown in moral values.

It is optional during the primary school years.

But it was made clear to schools that citizenship was to be taken seriously when it was made a statutory subject in not only the early secondary years but also at Key Stage 4, from 14 to 16, when most students are working towards their GCSEs or other public exams.

To put that in context, it was thereby elevated above history and geography, for example, while modern foreign languages and design and technology, which had been statutory, lost that status.

Its inclusion was rapid: introduced in the revised National Curriculum in 1999 with schools being given until September 2002 to prepare to teach it.

What youngsters have to study is in three "strands":

  1. Knowledge and understanding about becoming informed citizens - such as legal and human rights and responsibilities, the work of Parliament and courts and how the economy functions
  2. Developing skills of enquiry and communication - for example, researching a topical issue and analysing sources of information
  3. Developing skills of participation and responsible action - which includes using their imaginations to consider other people's experiences
Ofsted notes that the basic knowledge appears similar to the citizenship taught in many schools a century ago.

Common subject matter includes learning about the institutions of central and local government and how they work, elections and voting, and law and justice.

There are differences, however.

In 1900 pupils learned about patriotism, the flag, the armed services and "our duty towards foreign countries".

The 1999 version addresses social division through its focus on diversity, respect for human rights, and conflict resolution.

"Empire paternalism has given way to relationships with the European Union, Commonwealth and United Nations, and broader issues of global interdependence and sustainable development."

The national curriculum also includes the significance of the media.

But the biggest change is the other two "strands" of study: enquiry and communication, and participation and responsible action.

These include thinking, writing and talking about topical political, spiritual, moral, social and cultural issues, problems and events, and taking part in school and community-based activities and reflecting on that participation.

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