Citizenship: The view from the classroom

'A chance to explore topical issues'
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The Independent Online

One of the main challenges of citizenship teaching is its reluctance to fit neatly into a lesson format that can squeeze into already over-stretched timetables. The subject itself is nebulous, crossing departmental boundaries yet defining a whole school agenda. For me this is also what makes it interesting and exciting. While there is a clear knowledge content to the curriculum, there is also a requirement to include student participation and the development of skills, much of which cannot be taught in the traditional classroom setting.

One of the main challenges of citizenship teaching is its reluctance to fit neatly into a lesson format that can squeeze into already over-stretched timetables. The subject itself is nebulous, crossing departmental boundaries yet defining a whole school agenda. For me this is also what makes it interesting and exciting. While there is a clear knowledge content to the curriculum, there is also a requirement to include student participation and the development of skills, much of which cannot be taught in the traditional classroom setting.

I trained last year to teach citizenship, but as citizenship is not necessarily a timetabled subject, most of my classroom experience was gained in humanities. These subjects have a number of links and overlaps with the requirements of citizenship and provide opportunities to engage students in topical debate. The Civil War and the rise of Parliament link very nicely with the role of Parliament today, and the French Revolution has obvious links with human rights teaching.

Meanwhile, studying the effects of globalisation is a requirement of both the geography and the citizenship curricula. I discovered that distributing chocolate to students in proportion to the respective gross domestic products of continents provoked a near riot from "Africa" and "Asia", when population increases meant their chocolate allocations had to be shared. This outrage prompted a stimulating debate about global poverty, world trade and our responsibilities as world citizens.

Fortunately, the citizenship agenda of political literacy, social and moral responsibility, and community participation strongly underpins my school's ethos. Citizenship is delivered through almost all the curriculum subjects, as well as in specific citizenship/personal, social and health education (PSHE) lesson time.

In addition, students are learning the skills of active citizenship and political literacy through a series of meetings which encourage them to have their voice heard and which provide opportunities for participation in their school community. Small group mentor meetings of two to three students feed into larger, class-sized "learning team meetings", which then feed into the year councils and the school council.

Students have not necessarily embraced citizenship. It proved a challenge to my diplomatic skills to guide the seven self-selected school council members away from the idea of a benign oligarchy to trusting in the democratic process as a means of expanding the school council. Giving this small group of committed (but unelected) students the title of school council steering committee, who will now advise the elected school council, has not only proved effective in allowing democracy to flourish, but has also enabled those students to practise the skills of project management.

What excites me about citizenship teaching is the opportunity to explore topical and controversial issues with students. Encouraging students to think for themselves and to express their thoughts in a responsible and informed way feels like one of the most useful things any teacher can be doing.

It can be frustrating, however. Despite my best efforts to highlight the moral issues, one class stalwart insists that not having a Sony PlayStation 2 could justify stealing one. The student argued cogently, so has demonstrated the skills outlined in the curriculum. It is my job to help him focus a little less on his skills and a little more on his understanding.

Sarah Bamford is humanities teacher at Peacehaven Community School, East Sussex

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