Citizenship: Is this the worst taught subject?

Some teachers are complaining that the new citizenship lessons are unnecessary. The Government disagrees. Steve McCormack reports

The education minister Bill Rammell has asked a London head to lead a six-month review into how this new topic can be added to the curriculum.

The announcement was part of the Government's longer-term response to last year's London suicide bombings, carried out by four young British Muslim men, all, to a degree, products of the British education system. One, Mohammed Siddique Khan, had worked as a teaching assistant in a primary school.

Rammell didn't list the core values he thought should be taught, but said areas covered might include: how different communities can build a "strong, cohesive, modern Britain"; Britain's contribution to world culture and the values that other communities have brought to British life; the tradition and importance of free speech; and civic responsibilities in British society.

The Government's objective, bringing British values into sharper focus in young minds, is likely to be addressed by adding to the already lengthy list of areas covered in history lessons and those of the relatively new school subject, citizenship. However, the implementation of citizenship, which has been a statutory requirement in secondary schools since 2002, has been beset by problems, and last year Ofsted labelled it the worst-taught subject in secondary schools.

Citizenship first appeared in recommendations from Sir Bernard Crick, the trusted adviser to David Blunkett when he was Education Secretary in the late 1990s. It followed a bout of government soul searching and concern that growing numbers of teenagers were becoming disconnected from society, and had little or no knowledge of any of the institutions underpinning the country either at local or at national level.

It was decided that only by formally including citizenship in the national curriculum would teenagers understand, and perhaps get involved in, the communities where they live.

So the requirements for citizenship have been broken down into minute detail, and schools have been on the receiving end of large amounts of paperwork, detailing what their pupils should learn. This ranges from details about the law, human rights and the electoral system to the media and international bodies such as the UN.

In addition, and more controversially, schools are supposed to measure and grade each pupil's personal adherence to some of the values covered. This is a far cry from the value-free testing in all other subjects, and an unenviable, some would say inappropriate, task for teachers of adolescents.

In the wake of these new requirements, an extensive network of public and private bureaucracies has been created, publishers have produced masses of new material, and Ofsted inspectors have been given another part of school life to investigate.

But many schools question whether any of this is necessary, and have voiced doubts over whether the concept of citizenship lends itself to being taught within the confines of a timetable. "You teach citizenship and values about the way you live in 101 ways, inside and outside lessons," argues Clarissa Williams, head of Tolworth Girls School in south-west London.

Mike Stewart, head of Westlands School in Torbay, Devon, agrees. "I don't think it needed to be done. I was forced to change my timetable to demonstrate explicitly something that was being done already."

His point is that at most schools, pupils have long been exposed to citizenship ideas in innumerable ways, including the administration of discipline and rewards, in the work of the school council and in assemblies. And subjects already on the timetable, such as history, RE, English and PSHE (personal, social and health education) provide abundant opportunities for more formal, relevant learning to take place.

But some schools identify elements of the citizenship curriculum that bring something new. James Wood, assistant head at Hertswood School in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, says topics such as democracy, the legal system and human rights would not be covered if the subject were not compulsory.

He advocates grabbing the bull by the horns and doing as much as possible to "sell" the subject to pupils and to spend time making lessons interesting, including as many practical activities outside the classroom as possible. In that way, he claims, the subject has become popular at Hertswood. "If we need to teach topics like these," he says, "citizenship is the way it should be done," he says.

A further widespread concern, however, is the additional pressure of time that citizenship has put on the school day. "You've got to think of the curriculum as a shelf full of books," explains John Troake, head of Hayling High School, a comprehensive in Croydon, Surrey. "If you cram another one in, something will fall off the end."

Sue Kirkham, president of the Association of School and College Leaders (formerly the Secondary Heads Association) takes issue with curriculum changes, driven by what she calls the latest government whim. "What we find organisationally very difficult is that almost every year there's something else thrown in to the timetable," she says.

These concerns have been complicated for most schools by the fact that, until recently, there were no qualified citizenship teachers. Even now there are only a few hundred. Schools have been forced to utilise other members of staff.

The story of one Home Counties comprehensive illustrates timetabling realities. In autumn 2002, faced with the need to give every class one citizenship lesson a week, but with no specifically qualified teachers, PE teachers were asked to do the teaching. After that proved less than an unqualified success, the responsibility was transferred to senior teachers, each with a different specialism.

Next, form tutors and drama teachers were asked to contribute, and now a further change is being tried, where the timetable is, from time to time, suspended for a whole day, so that a year group can have a burst of citizenship teaching. "There is a real lack of appreciation of just how difficult this can be to organise," one senior teacher explains.

This goes some way to explain the "worst-taught subject" label attached by Ofsted, whose inspectors have been zealously strict, even when schools have tried to demonstrate that, in the broadest sense, they were developing good citizens.

"Developing good citizens," Ofsted observed, "is not the issue. The National Curriculum provides a programme of study for citizenship... additional to general provision that supports pupils' development as young citizens."

The Government has shown sympathy with staffing difficulties by announcing an expansion of a pilot scheme to speed up the training of citizenship teachers, and all schools have been sent a book, Making Sense of Citizenship, to help them improve teaching.

But the commitment to the subject and its place on timetables remains unshakeable, says the DfES. "We need to embed greater understanding of our values and what our society expects from all its citizens. Britain is a multicultural society and education has an important role in ensuring that all our young people are well equipped to take full advantage of all that culture offers."

What the National Curriculum says teenagers should learn

Over the course of five years at secondary school, pupils should, by the age of 16, acquire knowledge about the rights, responsibilities and duties of citizens, including the need for mutual respect and understanding, the role of the voluntary sector, forms of government, and the legal and economic systems.

They should have skills of enquiry and communication, so they can understand and use the media and other information sources to form and express opinions, and evaluate the effectiveness of bringing out change in society.

Finally, they should show participation and responsible action, by taking part effectively in school and community based activities, demonstrating responsibility in their attitudes to themselves and others.

As well as formal classroom lessons, many schools include practical and off-site activities to illustrate citizenship themes, including:

* Visits to law courts to see mock trials

* Talks from speakers representing local charities and pressure groups

* Campaigns and elections for school councils

* Pupils taking part in community environmental projects, such as litter clearing or re-cycling campaigns

* Debates on topical issues, including religion, race and politics

* Discussions about how different parts of the media try to influence public opinion

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