Keeping citizenship in schools
As an education minister in 1999 I was proud to oversee the introduction of citizenship into the national curriculum for schools across England and Wales. Before David Blunkett, as education secretary, championed the change it was considered perfectly OK for a young person to leave school having received no education in how the democratic institutions around them worked; to have no idea about their rights and responsibilities as a citizen; and to have no opportunity to explore how to recognise and use power and influence in its broadest sense.
The government is currently reviewing the national curriculum again. Apparently, it would have liked to scrap citizenship completely. I can imagine that just one look at the citizenship programme of study which explains how the subject ‘encourages pupils to challenge injustice, inequalities and discrimination’ might have rung alarm bells for this government. Labour gave citizenship a statutory place in the curriculum and this government doesn’t want to go to parliament to wholly remove the subject. It is, however, taking pride in having reduced the curriculum from 29 pages to less than one according to yesterday’s Sunday Times. The focus will now be on the British monarchy, parliamentary democracy, theories of liberty and rights and how these are underpinned by the constitution. Presumably there’ll be compulsory lessons in translating the meaning of Magna Carta!
This aims to reduce citizenship to little more than an old-style civics lesson. There is so much more to being an active citizen than simply understanding the monarchy and parliament. Just in terms of content, there should surely be coverage of local and international institutions, the justice system including policing, the media and how rights to association, free speech and to vote have been gained over the years. But most of all, this new approach wants to dilute the ‘active’ element. The current curriculum encourages activities such as advocacy and representation and taking reasoned and informed action. Precisely the sort of skills a ‘big society’ would want its young people to have, I would have thought.
The Sunday Times also implies that this slimmed-down version of citizenship will do away with the need for such peripheral issues as ‘identities and diversity: living together in the UK’ and ‘contemporary preoccupations’ (sic) like equality and climate change. This disdain for issues like equality and climate change sits strangely with the emphasis that is also being placed on reviewing the history and geography curriculum. In history, there will be about 200 personalities, subjects and events that pupils should have an understanding of. including the fall of the Roman Empire, monarchs, the acts of union and the decline of British power in the 20th century. They will go on to consider issues like Soviet-US relations and the influence of immigration on British society. These are all things which I believe that young people should learn about, but I doubt that they’ll be able to make full sense of Soviet-US relations or the influence of immigration without also understanding political and democratic institutions or issues of identity, diversity and equality.
In geography, the emphasis will be on understanding the human and physical processes that have shaped the world. But apparently that doesn’t necessitate consideration of that ‘contemporary preoccupation’, climate change!
Surely understanding the rights, responsibilities, duties and freedoms you have as an active citizen and being able to consider a range of political, social, ethical and moral issues is at least as important as knowing about an oxbow lake or the lives of Alfred and Athelstan. In addition, though, I want people to be able to take an informed, active and challenging approach to all seats of political power – perhaps that’s where I really differ from this government.
citizenship, coalition government, David Blunkett, education, equalities, history, Jacqui Smith