Schools: Good citizens from little children grow

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The Independent Online
It is not enough to be a good pupil - you have to be a good citizen, too. But how can schools teach it? On the day a new report comes out, Judith Judd looks at a surprisingly controversial issue

"A modern democratic society depends on the informed and active involvement of all its citizens. Schools can help ensure that young people feel that they have a stake in our society and the community in which we live by teaching them the nature of democracy and the duties, responsibilities and rights of citizens."

Government White Paper, 1997

At first sight, the idea that schools should try and turn pupils into good citizens looks like one of the most uncontroversial proposals around.

But a committee appointed by David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, has found that the issues are complicated.

Professor Bernard Crick and his team on the advisory group on citizenship education and the teaching of democracy in schools have been battling with the questions and his report is due to appear today.

Crick would like pupils to spend 5 per cent of lesson time on citizenship, which would include teaching about moral values, community service and political education as well as some of the elements at present taught in personal and social education.

To teachers already struggling with a pile of government initiatives and even threatening a boycott of excessive paperwork, the prospect of compulsory lessons in citizenship may appear alarming.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, says: "This proposal is nonsense. We shall have to consider whether we boycott new initiatives if the time for them is not taken from elsewhere in the curriculum.

"Why don't the political parties start doing something about citizenship? If they were a bit more honest that might help to foster citizenship. Most schools are already doing moral education and encouraging citizenship."

To head off a teachers' revolt, the Government is suggesting that some citizenship activities should take place after school. Supporters of citizenship education believe, however, that only legislation will ensure that schools actually teach it.

They speak from experience. In 1990, another working party on citizenship produced guidelines on how schools should teach it - not as a discrete subject but through every lesson in the timetable. The small amount of government money allocated to the project came to an end and the initiative faded as teachers were overwhelmed by the pressure of other reforms.

As Don Rowe of the Citizenship Foundation, one of the bodies represented on the Crick committee, puts it: "The pressures on schools were such that they felt obliged to channel money into things like improving their position in the league tables.

"We think that unless some kind of rule of thumb is provided - we recommend about a period a week - then schools will simply say this is something we are doing reasonably well, through school assemblies and personal and social education. At present, it is very patchy."

Current legislation which provides for pupils' social, moral and spiritual education needs to be strengthened, he argues, to make the teaching of citizenship explicit.

So what is citizenship education? That depends on your point of view. Political, moral, and social education are all being thrown into the pot alongside community service.

The Citizenship Foundation wants it to concentrate on pupils' rights and responsibilities, the law and morality as well as basic political information, which is vital to anyone who wants to play their part in a democracy.

This, however, would be a far cry from old-fashioned civics lessons doling out facts about the number of MPs and the role of the Speaker of the House of Commons.

Citizenship education 1990s-style, the foundation believes, should try to address the problem of the growing proportion of young people who are interested in neither politics nor voting. Mr Rowe says: "Unless you motivate young people to see that there is a reason to be concerned about how laws are made, they will have no interest in the structure of Parliament or the number of MPs."

New materials produced by the foundation try to focus on legal and moral issues. There are proposals for a class debate on two parents who are trying to decide whether grandmother should go on holiday with them, contrasting grandmother's rights with those of the children in the family.

And there is an exercise in which pupils are asked to discuss the rights and wrongs of the case of the 10-year-old boy excluded recently from a Nottinghamshire school. Parents protested when the school's resources were diverted into one-to-one tuition for the boy because teachers refused to teach him.

Community Service Volunteers, another body represented on the committee, have a different perspective. They are keen that pupils should learn through genuine community activity and are pressing for everyone to do at least 1,000 hours of community activity between the ages of five and 16. Some of this would be time spent in school analysing community issues but the emphasis would be on learning through doing.

The charity is already involved in a series of projects in schools: older pupils help younger ones both academically and emotionally, pupils organise events for old people and children's behaviour improves because they help to write the rules and decide how they are implemented. Evidence from 300 schools involved with CSV through Barclays New Futures, a scheme which sponsors community service learning, suggests that these projects do improve young people's ability to communicate. Students are running arts festivals, community newspapers, refurbishing and reopening a cinema and providing a travelling library service for old people.

John Potter, the charity's director of education for citizenship says that, while the Citizenship Foundation has to persuade people that its agenda will appeal to non-academic as well as bright pupils, he has the opposite problem. "Community involvement locks into the ancient British tradition of voluntary service. The difficulty is that it isn't seen as having anything to do with learning. It's something you do on a wet Wednesday afternoon when there is nothing better on offer. Schools are not going to devote much time to it unless learning is involved."

He strongly believes that properly organised community service can improve pupils' literacy, numeracy and other skills. "We say that the agenda for school improvement is the same as the one we are talking about."

And he is certain that citizenship skills can be measured. That will be a harder task than marking maths or English but the Crick committee has promised to produce recommendations for its final report in the summer. That should help to ensure more than desultory study on a wet Wednesday afternoon.