Leading Article: Will civics teaching make a good subject?

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MINISTERS' COMMITTEES are not always just a means of placing problems on the back burner. Their members, such as Professor Bernard Crick, can come up with good ideas too. Those in today's report of the group advising David Blunkett on Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools are especially welcome.

"Civics" - classes in citizenship conducted in schools - are a part of the life of other democratic nations. British schools have not been so enlightened as their American or European counterparts. Such classes now look to have a future in Britain, given Mr Blunkett's enthusiastic response to the report. This is all to the good. Britons, as Crown subjects rather than equal citizens, living in a relatively old nation which did not feel the need to bind together polyglot races, have ignored questions about their identity, and neglected their communal life, for far too long.

Civics classes will not suddenly transform this situation; it is caused by social change that education alone cannot reverse. Access to diverting entertainments, and the decay of class bonds, has meant politics has less and less relevance to daily life.

But some action is imperative; more than 80 per cent of teenagers polled recently knew only a little, or less, about Parliament. This is evidence of a wider problem: in fact, not many citizens trust politicians, and only a few more even care about what they do.

Turnouts in all types of elections continue to fall, as all parties' membership go on slowly declining. How is good government to be conducted in the midst of such indifference?

Teachers, already overburdened, cannot be expected to clean up all our problems; but school is the only place where the mechanics of our collective life can be taught systematically. Best practice already incorporates current affairs discussions in the syllabus; for all our sakes, schools attended by the majority of our children should not lag too far behind.