Brenda Despontin: We don't need another hurdle for our children

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The Independent Online

"I think we can really make a difference, you know." Hannah, one of my sparky sixth-formers, had hung behind at the end of school council, where the idea of our becoming an eco-school had been received with overwhelming enthusiasm. A pupil committee would begin its whole-school review, establish aims, targets, a time-frame, and raise awareness in staff and pupils of how small gestures can impact on the environment - and it would be fun.

My heart sank, therefore, to read on the same day the Ofsted proposal that "citizenship" should be assessed: it needs to gain credibility, it seems, and to be taken more seriously. What is it with this government that nothing has any value in a school unless it can be attributed a percentage or a grade? Our beleaguered teenagers, already the most frequently assessed in Europe, are threatened with yet another hurdle.

It was a misguided concept at the start, this notion that "citizenship" could be imparted just like other knowledge, in a neat timetabled slot, somewhere between history and games on a Wednesday afternoon, and taught by staff whose lesson allocation appeared slightly low for the year. A doomed genesis indeed, and one which, for all the many brave attempts in state schools to give it substance, often breeds resentment. This new proposal can surely lead to nothing more than shallow, tick-box learning, and that way madness lies.

Of course our young people need to learn altruism: of course we as adults have a responsibility to challenge their misconceptions and prejudices. Ours is a war-torn world which reels from the reality of school sieges, teenage gun crime, and a "me" culture. We need a forum for serious, wide-ranging debate with the young - but not exclusively in a 40-minute slot after lunch with an eventual GCSE to confirm a 16-year-old has "done" citizenship. Besides, those disaffected youngsters for whom an Asbo is a badge of honour, and who would possibly benefit most, are the ones most likely to miss the lessons in the first place.

Raising awareness in young people of their place in the community, and of their responsibility for others around them, is a fundamental duty of all adults, not just those tasked with delivering a curriculum. We might start with the politicians themselves - all those tabloid stars, prone to self-promotion of the first order, and sporting dubious value-systems. What kind of citizenship do they promote? One, at present, in which public, media-hyped apologies justify bitter character assassinations. Role models they most certainly are not. No wonder that more young vote for The X Factor than at local elections.

Parents, too, must play their part. What does a child take away from a selfish, bitter divorce? Where is the logic in "throwing a sickie" but punishing the child for truanting? Why be surprised when a six-year-old uses profanity when such terms are all he hears from the moment he wakes? And I still recall clearly the lad I once taught who was beaten in the morning if he failed to return from his paper round with stolen milk. Citizenship is absorbed, not taught; cultivated like a precious plant, through exposure to fairness, compassion, tolerance and love. It can only be assessed by how we lead our lives, by our humanity, and never by a two-hour examination.

Schools live and breathe their value system. They have no other choice if their main purpose is to nurture young minds and prepare the adults of tomorrow. The underlying values are in every action, every interaction, every day. They are present in the message in assembly, whatever the faith observed, in the celebrations of pupil success, in the daily greetings between pupils and staff, in the respect shown for each other, for property and visitors. Pupils are consulted, included, valued in their school community, even if they are ignored at home, and they learn to listen to the views of others. They organise extraordinary fundraising projects, elect their prefects, learn to be part of a team, and to win or lose with grace.

They start to care, about the environment or about other cultures and creeds, not because "citizenship" is a statutory requirement on the curriculum, but because dedicated professionals in our classrooms know how to "connect" with the young and, sometimes against all odds, lead them heroically into a wider, deeper sense of self and others.

Hannah was right, of course. Our eco-school project will make a difference, but not just to the environment. It will help develop the value-judgments of my pupils. Hopefully, it will make them better citizens, better human beings. Ofsted can never hope to assess that, I thought, as I placed the newspaper carefully into our new recycling box.

The writer is the president of the Girls' Schools Association and the head of Haberdashers' Monmouth School for Girls

education@independent.co.uk

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