Today's lesson: citizenship for beginners

In an attempt to combat apathy, ministers are introducing lessons in citizenship to all secondary schools this autumn. But, asks Joel Wolchover, will they be enough to compete with <b>Pop Idol</b>
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The Independent Online

Why do young people think Black Rod is a porn star? The answer is that they know nothing about the political and parliamentary system, preferring instead to hone their expertise in fashion, celebrities and football. Western politicians have been tearing their hear out over such apathy for the past decade. Now the Labour government thinks it has the answer.

Why do young people think Black Rod is a porn star? The answer is that they know nothing about the political and parliamentary system, preferring instead to hone their expertise in fashion, celebrities and football. Western politicians have been tearing their hear out over such apathy for the past decade. Now the Labour government thinks it has the answer.

From this September, all secondary school pupils will receive compulsory lessons in citizenship as part of the Government's efforts to teach young people about living in a democracy and voting for more than their favourite Pop Idol. Children, however switched off from parliamentary democracy, will be taught about their rights and responsibilities as citizens – how to complain if they buy a shoddy DVD player, what to do if they are stopped by the police, how to lobby their local council about waste recycling. The new subject is the brainchild of the Home Secretary David Blunkett, who for years has been nurturing the idea of teaching children to be good citizens. As a former politics student himself, he cares passionately about it. One week before the 1997 general election he called Professor Sir Bernard Crick, his former politics tutor at Sheffield University, to ask him to chair a committee on citizenship education.

The rest is history. In fact, one day, citizenship may be taught in history, because citizenship will be taught across the disciplines – not in discrete citizenship classes, but as part of English, geography or even art and music. Schemes of work produced by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority show that pupils in maths classes may be asked to calculate the VAT on a CD, and think about what the government will use the tax for. Modern language teachers are advised to "use the context of welcoming and receiving a guest to consider social and cultural differences and the need for mutual respect and understanding".

This inter-disciplinary approach has brought sighs of relief from head teachers, who dreaded having to carve out time for yet more compulsory lessons, but it has drawn criticism from other quarters for not being rigorous enough. Bob Worcester, chairman of MORI, thinks it's a cop out. "Isn't that so wimpish?" he says. "It's just like this country. It's going to be milk toast, pap. I think it's essential for every student to have at least a structured term of civics to teach them how the system works. If you don't know how the system works, you won't know what to do if you come up against it."

Worcester distinguishes between disengagement, which he attributes to a lack of knowledge about politics, and apathy. His polling reveals the scale of the problem. Two-thirds of 15- to 24-year-olds feel they know little about their rights as citizens and half of them feel the same way about their responsibilities. Nine out of 10 don't know how their local council works.

Professor Crick defends the interdisciplinary approach against the charge that it is too vague. "Bob is forgetting a body called Ofsted," he says. "They have produce excellent notes on inspecting citizenship education. A school that tried to bluff it out by saying we do a bit here and bit there will be in for a caning from Ofsted."

He is happy, however, that citizenship education will move away from the formal teaching of "civics" towards learning through discussion and participation. "There was quite a lot of civics around in the Sixties and Seventies, teaching the powers of local government and Parliament, but it was nearly all dreadfully boring," he says. "I believe we learn best about institutions by talking about the issues that concern them. There's no other national curriculum subject that stresses discussion of issues as much as citizenship."

The guidance states that children should learn to take part as responsible citizens, as well as have formal lessons. That is the philosophy underpinning school councils which are regular meetings of student representatives discussing issues of concern to them at school. Pupils can raise issues that they care about – school uniform, the quality of the food, thefts from lockers or the school's policy on punishment. The most recent survey, conducted four years ago, found that a third of secondary schools and a quarter of primaries have a school council. Many more are rushing to join the party, spurred on by the requirements of the citizenship curriculum and the fact that Ofsted will be looking for evidence of pupil participation in school life.

At The Compton School in Finchley, north London, every class elects a representative to attend their year-group council, and every year-group chooses representatives to attend the whole school council, which meets every two weeks. Teacher Louise Taylor helps to run the meetings and, once a month, head teacher Teresa Tunnadine attends the school council, to hear at first hand pupils' complaints about such matters as the state of the lavatories and canteen food.

The Schools Councils UK model recommends that pupils meet without a teacher present, and with a small executive group delegated to report grievances to the head. It also suggests that heads give the schools council a budget and make pupils responsible for allocating funds.

Not everyone agrees. Pointing out that the school council is a place for pupils to put their views to teachers, Tunnadine says that's why it helps to have staff present. "They don't have a budget but if they identify needs I will try to find the money. For example, they wanted music in the canteen so I asked them to choose a CD player with me. It's now their responsibility. They are good at making sure it's fed with CDs and that people don't spill anything on it."

Even with a teacher present, not to mention a reporter and photographer, members of the school council talked freely about the issues on their minds. Frustration with the behaviour of other pupils was a common theme, with some saying they wanted cameras installed or a system of tokens to stop fellow students vandalising the lavatories. One girl asked about mobile phones which are banned. She wanted to bring one in to use after school. Her colleagues pointed out that phones are often stolen from changing rooms during PE lessons.

The atmosphere was earnest but civil; students listened politely to one another and no-one's point of view was ridiculed or dismissed. But even at grass-roots level the school council suffers from the kind of apathy that is taxing Westminster politicians. "A lot of older pupils don't care what happens in the council because they are leaving soon and won't see the benefits of the decisions we are taking now," says Maciek Gmerek, 15. "I was the only one in my class who wanted to be on the school council. I got on because I put my hand up."

Gideon Lyons, training and marketing co-ordinator for School Councils UK, is concerned that councils are being set up for the wrong reasons. They may want to impress Ofsted, rather than establish councils because they think they are a good idea. In reality, teachers can be threatened by the idea of giving pupils real responsibility, says Lyons. "Everyone wants to talk about students' voices but not everyone wants to listen to them, particularly when they might be saying something controversial."

School Councils UK, 020-8349 2459; www.schoolcouncils.org

education@independent.co.uk

10 TOP TIPS FOR SCHOOL COUNCILS

1. Involve everyone
The more pupils are involved the more interest will be engendered. How about setting up a working party to discuss key issues.

2. Lay on training
Success comes through key skills and teamwork. Approach pupils from another school to do the training.

3. Adopt a constitution
Because the membership changes frequently, it is important to have a vision and ground rules.

4. Appoint the right link teacher
A link teacher provides continuity.

5. Meet frequently
Regular, shorter meetings are better than occasional, long ones. Notice should be given of meetings.

6. Acknowledge success ­ and failure
The head teacher should always give reasons for turning down requests.

7. Ensure the council has a high profile
Use all existing forms of communication.

 

8. Choose the right size and structure
In a large school one council with representatives from each class is unwieldy. Successful councils comprise year or Key Stage councils.

9. Don't get hung up on pupil issues
Don't get stuck on uniform and food. Behaviour, teaching and external relations are vital, too.

10. Make it real
Pupils can spot the difference between a token exercise and a real attempt to involve them in decision-making.

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