Citizenship: 'Will a visit to Parliament put us off politics?'

Political literacy: Stephen Twigg responds to queries from teachers and students about the new curriculum
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Citizenship has been taught in PSHE lessons in my school for the last 15 years. Why has it been made compulsory when part of our role as teachers is to prepare our students to take their place in the community?
Jan Pugh, Head of PSHE and Head of Year 11, Hertfordshire

Citizenship has been taught in PSHE lessons in my school for the last 15 years. Why has it been made compulsory when part of our role as teachers is to prepare our students to take their place in the community?
Jan Pugh, Head of PSHE and Head of Year 11, Hertfordshire

I am really encouraged to hear that you are already teaching citizenship in your school. Although it is recognised that it is crucial for young people to develop skills, knowledge and understanding necessary to play a full and active role in society, many schools are less sure about how to do it well. The National Curriculum programme of study will help to spread good practice and ensure that students learn the basics to play their part in society. I hope that the flexibility in the programme allows you to continue to develop and innovate, and to share your experience with other schools.

Citizenship is part of our school PSHE programme where I am able to express my views freely and learn from others. Why should this be assessed or tested? That will take away my ability to speak freely if I'm worried about how my thoughts and opinions might be assessed.
Tom Moore (15), Hertfordshire

You are right that citizenship lessons should encourage the active participation of students. There is no question that the new programme should in any way stifle free speech. This is crucial to ensuring that participants can express their views, beliefs and questions freely. Any assessment that takes place will reflect things like your debating and reasoning skills, as well as your ability to reflect on other people's point of view. Teachers value and respect hugely any student's ability to participate in an intelligent and balanced debate about any subject. This is a vital part of the learning process and assessment will reflect rather than stifle that.

We learn about government through videos, worksheets, and the internet . What we'd really like to do is see it in action. Can we visit the House of Commons or are you afraid that we will be put off by the MPs' bad behaviour?
Liz Sullivan(15) and Sam Kilbey (15), Hertfordshire

There is a danger that government and politics is seen as removed from the lives of real people and it is really important that we work hard to break down that perception. Schools and members of the public are welcome to visit the House of Commons to see how MPs work at first hand and your local MP will be only too willing to help you, and should be able to arrange a visit to the Houses of Parliament . The parliamentary education unit organises visits – more than 8,000 students visit every September. Visit The debate in the House of Commons can certainly be lively, but I hope that this wouldn't put off either you or your friends from paying a visit. The House of Commons is the most important part of our democratic process and MPs, across all parties, would rather people visited than stayed away.

After the murders of Damilola Taylor and Stephen Lawrence, what can citizenship education do to tackle racism?
Kate Shaw Nelson, Corpus Christi School, Surrey

Citizenship has a vital role to play in tackling racism. We are not suggesting that schools can fix the problem alone, but education clearly has a vital role to play in challenging ignorance, promoting respect and understanding in our society. Issues that can be looked at are how we can live together in our diverse society: different cultures, different religions, the history of what people who have settled in Britain over the centuries have brought to the country. Much of this discussion will I hope be generated by pupils and students themselves. They have experience of living in society and they will want to explore what it means for them.

Many young people can't be bothered to vote. What do you think can be done to remedy this?
Emma Woolf (15), Liverpool

Getting young people to vote and be involved in politics is a challenge but one that politicians must confront. At the 2001 general election a majority of 18- to 24-year-olds did not vote. Research carried out by the Children and Young People's Unit earlier this year showed that 76 per cent of young people wanted to learn about politics. This suggests to me that it is not that young people cannot be bothered to vote, but that political parties still have a lot work to do to make their policies relevant to younger voters.

Citizenship is a vital part of our curriculum and contributes to the ethos of the school. Why do we sometimes feel that this is not valued or recognised?
Jan Pugh, Head of PSHE and Head of Year 11, Hertfordshire

There is no question that sometimes more easily measurable outcomes grab the headlines. As a teacher, you'll know that this does not always match with the reality of developing more rounded young people able to face an ever changing world with confidence. The three elements running through citizenship education – moral and social responsibility; political literacy; and community involvement – provide the framework for pupils to develop the skills they need for adult life. Making citizenship part of the National Curriculum reflects the importance we attach to the subject and hope that it will help raise its profile.

When will my teachers find the time to teach citizenship? They already have enough to do.
John McDonagh (16), Edinburgh

This is not about adding another burden on teachers, but taking the best aspects of citizenship education and ensuring that all young people benefit from it. Lots of schools are already teaching some or all of the citizenship curriculum. Many schools decided to teach aspects of citizenship through other lessons such as history, English and religious education. Some have set aside some time for citizenship lessons. Whatever they choose will depends on what is best for your school.

Stephen Twigg is Minister for Young People and Learning