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Last Updated: Friday, 29 September 2006, 23:34 GMT 00:34 UK
Citizenship lessons prompt debate
By Mike Baker
Education correspondent, BBC News

The House of Commons
Citizenship aims to teach pupils about the working of society
What did you think of the London secondary school pupils who greeted Tony Blair's visit to their school with boos and anti-war chants recently?

Were they being rude to a distinguished visitor or were they being active citizens, using their understanding of democracy, civil protest, and the media to influence the political process?

You will have your own views. Some might say the students were being manipulated. Others will praise their political awareness.

As it happens, a classroom assistant at the school was suspended for alleged involvement in organising the pupil protest. The school's management was clearly embarrassed. Downing Street was annoyed. The media had a field day.

I was reminded of this incident by the news this week that the teaching of citizenship was found to be inadequate in a quarter of all secondary schools in England.

The schools' inspectorate, Ofsted, which made the judgement, found some schools seemed unwilling to take the subject seriously, even though it has been part of the national curriculum for 11- to 16-year-olds since 2002.

High status

Perhaps that is because there is still confusion over the precise aims of citizenship. As Ofsted asked: was citizenship "intended to produce compliant young people or to educate them to be critical and active citizens?'"

Were the pupils protesting against Tony Blair being "critical and active citizens"?

However good your citizenship teaching is, it will not do much to boost league table performance

Or should they have been taught that the prime minister is the elected leader of their country, endorsed by the electoral and parliamentary process, and therefore entitled to respect?

The importance being accorded to citizenship in schools should not be underestimated.

It now has a status no longer accorded to more traditional subjects such as French, German, history and geography, all of which can now be dropped by pupils at the age of 14.

Some of the reluctance to give citizenship greater attention may be because schools feel they already have enough government-set priorities: numeracy, literacy, healthy eating, religious education, and physical exercise.

League table performance

Yet, many would argue that preparing young people for the rights and responsibilities of adulthood could hardly be more important in this age of disengagement from the political process and uncertainty over what citizenship entails.

Could the reluctance to take it seriously be the effect of the high stakes accountability in education, where what matters most is what is measured most?

However good your citizenship teaching is, it will not do much to boost league table performance.

It is currently only possible take a short-course GCSE in citizenship. An extra 0.5 of a GCSE does not make much difference to a school's league table position.

Ofsted has recommended that a full course GCSE in citizenship should be established as a priority.

Perhaps a further step would be to require citizenship to be one of the five GCSEs (alongside maths and English) required for the new-style league tables?

But it would be rather sad to resort to league table performance as a reason for promoting citizenship. Schools need to believe in it - not be forced to do it - if it is to succeed.

Contemporary politics

The rise of citizenship is an interesting one.

It is not so long since a Conservative government ruled that history in the national curriculum should end at least 20 years before the present.

Most European countries teach citizenship or something very much like it

That appeared to arise from a fear that schools might try to indoctrinate pupils in contemporary politics.

Now, though, with politicians of all parties concerned about the disengagement of young people from the political process, there appears to be wider support for schools to discuss contemporary political issues.

England is far from alone in using schools to improve citizenship amongst young people.

Most European countries teach citizenship or something very much like it. However the approach varies.

In France, for example, part of the compulsory curriculum aims to teach "republican values".

That might sound a bit alarming to monarchists but, in essence, they cover issues such as equality, democracy, rights and duties.

Respecting nature

Some Nordic countries (Finland, Iceland and Norway) include "respect for nature" as an element to be promoted within "responsible citizenship".

Sometimes there is an explicit link with religion. The law in the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany states that "awe of God" is a distinctive aim of education.

These examples are enough to show how sensitive it can be when central government sets out what citizenship education entails.

After all, it is not so long ago that even the idea of a national curriculum was considered dangerous in Britain, with war-time memories of National Socialism's control of the school curriculum in Nazi Germany.

However, providing that citizenship is never about promoting the ideology of any one particular political or religious group, but rather about encouraging young people to think for themselves about contemporary issues, it should avoid that trap.

As a recent EU report on citizenship education in Europe put it, the subject is normally intended to guide pupils towards political literacy, critical thinking and active participation.

The current short course GCSE tests pupils' knowledge of legal and moral rights in school, work and the local community, how power and authority are exercised in the UK and the EU and how laws are made and operated.

The coursework element asks candidates to produce a report of a citizenship activity that they have been involved in at school or in the community.

I'll leave it to you to judge whether the latter would include a report on how pupils took to the pavements to make their own political protest against the visiting prime minister.

Citizenship lessons 'inadequate'
27 Sep 06 |  Education
What school citizenship involves
28 Sep 06 |  Education

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