Everyone has a responsibility

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The Independent Online

For me, citizenship means playing a role – an active role – in our society. It is important that every child in this country grows up with the chance to have a full life in society and that they understand their rights and responsibilities.

For me, citizenship means playing a role – an active role – in our society. It is important that every child in this country grows up with the chance to have a full life in society and that they understand their rights and responsibilities. But active citizenship also brings new responsibilities for others too – for politicians, the business community and society at large.

The Government must play its part. That's why we have brought citizenship into the national curriculum for the first time. Citizenship lessons have three strands: social and moral responsibility, community involvement and political literacy. Young people learn about the legal system, government, the importance of voting and rights as well as responsibilities.

But it's not all theory – just as young people learn about democracy and society, so they must learn about business realities to be fully prepared for adult working life. While schools rightly have a crucial role to play, they cannot do this alone. Business and education partnerships can help young people develop as citizens and improve pupils' educational standards. The creation of new opportunities through sponsorship, debating programmes or funding extra-curricular activities means both sides can learn to appreciate the issues and views of the other.

It means businesses such as Barclays going into schools – and bringing students out of schools so the pupils gain an understanding of life outside the school gates. City law firm Linklaters is working with three schools in Tower Hamlets and Hackney to discuss with students issues around citizenship and to bridge the gap between education and business. Topics discussed include discrimination, consumer law and civil/human rights issues.

Water company Severn Trent has renovated and converted an old corn mill into the Cromford Venture Centre, designed to improve young people's employability, skills and attitudes. More than 12,000 disadvantaged youngsters have benefited from this scheme so far – reinforcing the view that young people will respond to self-development in an environment of stimulating and challenging activities and experiences.

These are just two examples, but our work to bring together business and education is much wider. I believe it is time to raise the profile and build the esteem of work-based education and training. For too long vocational education has been neglected and relegated to the back burner of our education system as a second-rate commodity. Not any more. This government knows that by working with business we can create in the next generation productive citizens with the passion and excitement for business vital to the economy.

I hope many more businesses choose to get involved and rise to the challenge of a new role working more closely with schools. The educational benefits are clear, but the business benefits are strong too: helping to create a generation of highly skilled individuals with business sense and workplace understanding.

We recently unveiled new plans for 14-19 education and training. This is a crucial time in which young people develop many skills key to future working life. Our plans include building stronger links to the workplace so that young people can experience working across the full range of business, whether in a small company, on a farm or in a modern factory.

These changes are important in their own right, but are also vital in encouraging young people to stay on post 16, to acquire modern skills and to gain the chance of a college or university education. Too many young people still leave school at 16 – and too many leave underqualified. But it's clear that young people need something new and more engaging to encourage them to stay in school. Working with business, I believe we can create options that help re-ignite children's interest and engagement.

Motivation is a key part of citizenship education. It's not about preaching to young people, but about encouraging debate and discussion, developing the skills of enquiry and exercising moral and social responsibility. Young people do care about society and democracy, they just want to engage on it in terms they can understand.

As an MP, I know that we too have a role in making politics appeal. It is too easy for cynics to say that young people are not interested in politics. This is wrong. They care deeply about issues that affect them. Young people want to do something about their community: to take violence off their streets, to make their world a fairer, safer place.

So active citizenship is all about partnership. It means young people gaining a voice, engaging with society, business and politics. But we too must play our role and rise to the shared challenge of giving young people the skills and opportunities to live a full life in its widest possible sense.

Stephen Twigg is Minister with Responsibility for Citizenship Education