Leading article: Citizenship for a new generation

SHOULD British children be taught how to be citizens ? Yes, says the Government, whose report on how to bring this about in schools will soon be out. The Prime Minister's favourite education guru, Professor Michael Barber, wants teachers to fill the gap left, as he puts it, by "the absence of God and Marx". No, says Patrick Tobin, a leading spokesman for fee- paying schools, who has attacked Professor Barber about the dangers of "indoctrination". So who's right?

No part of British education has been so dangerously neglected as "citizenship". We do not adequately teach our children about what it means to be citizens in a modern state. The 1988 Education Act places a clear obligation on schools to promote the "spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society". The fulfilment of the last of these is patchy. This is why the intervention of the Government's head of the standards and effectiveness unit, to give Professor Barber his precise title, is so important. Here's what he said: "Christianity has become a minority interest, still hugely influential historically and culturally, but no longer able to claim unquestioning obedience. The vigour and urgency with which we are seeking to modernise our education system is driven in part by a belief that together we can and must do better if the generation currently in our schools is to find fulfilment. I am looking for an ethos that can be shared by people who have religious beliefs and those who do not".

Well, that ethos is ready and waiting - plural democracy. Mr Tobin, Chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, says this means making teachers "deliver a particular view of society". He misses the point. The promotion of liberal, democratic and plural values and the stimulation of moral thought ensures the precise opposite.

The far greater danger is endure a system in which teachers deliver no particular view - or understanding - of society at all. We are already living with some of the consequences of this - manifested as it is in cynicism about politics and politicians, poor and declining turnouts in elections and referendums, and the weakness in civic discourse in this country.

Recent research by Professor Ivor Crewe has shown a strong link between fostering social, political and moral "debate" and "participation". It surely stands to reason that if children are not informed about the existence of something called a local council and what it does they are less likely to grow up into the kind of people who think it is remotely worthwhile to bother to vote for it, stand for election to it, or even be aware of what it does. In John Kennedy's model of citizenship - "ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country" - we are increasingly unlikely to be able to answer even the first question. It represents another, less talked about, aspect of social exclusion.

But there is a potent, danger with teaching "citizenship" - boredom. The worst of all possible worlds would be to so botch the effort that a whole generation thinks that citizenship is about as interesting as geology or algebra. The way in which a more controlled, productive and practical "citizenship" is taught is obviously crucial. Bodies like the Citizenship Foundation have developed excellent ideas for encouraging children, from primary school onwards, to develop morally aware habits of thought. Teaching methods and materials can be developed which ensure that one of the major failures of "civics" in the 1950s and 1960s - an air of detachment - can be avoided.

The Government's own proposals, from the Advisory Group on Citizenship Education, chaired by Professor Bernard Crick, are imminent. We should expect great things from the author of In Defence of Politics.

Citizenship needs to be taught well but it also needs to be taught differently - not as an exam subject and certainly not with a rigid curriculum.

The fostering of a generation of "responsible citizens" is possible. There is sufficient goodwill for it and it need not make huge demands on resources. The quality of public debate on devolution in Scotland stands as an example of what can be achieved. One has only to think about the urgency and complexity of issues like the single currency to realise the challenge that awaits government and teachers alike. Tony Blair's government has embarked on a great programme of political reforms. The fostering of a generation of responsible citizens has the potential to be the vital human underpinning of those changes.