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  1. Politics
18 December 2000

Schools can’t compensate for society

Politicians want teachers to turn children into good citizens. What a cheek!

By Michael Duffy

When the industrialist Lord Leverhulme built Port Sunlight for his workers, he insisted on compulsory citizenship lessons for the lot of them. It didn’t go down very well. Now, more than 100 years later, citizenship is about to join the school curriculum. And David Blunkett and Jack Straw have launched a 241-page textbook for schools to follow.

Blunkett is no Leverhulme, but he shares the industrialist’s belief in moral education. Three years ago, he set up an advisory group under Bernard Crick, his old university tutor, to report on how citizenship and “community activity” could best be taught in schools. The outcome is a statutory order laying down the programmes of study to be followed and the learning outcomes to be achieved from the year 2002.

Not much of it is new. School councils and community service, for instance, have been going on for years. The order simply draws these activities into the framework of what Sir Bernard has called (with unconscious ambiguity) “a subject at last”.

Given the complexities of British citizenship, that’s a significant remark. We may be British citizens, but we are also subjects of the Queen, and the appellation “citizen” does not come easily to us. There is something unsettling about it, something slightly foreign, slightly absurd.

Both the order and the textbook make citizenship sound simple, a matter of common sense. But citizenship was never simple. It has always been contested. “About citizenship,” Aristotle said, “there can be no unanimity.” In multicultural Britain, at a time when globalisation on the one hand and devolution on the other are transforming our sense of cultural and national identity, as well as our democracy, that comment is self-evidently true.

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The paradox is, the more uncertain we are about the nature of our citizenship, the more sure we are that it is the job of schools to teach it. In a recent MORI poll, 95 per cent of those questioned agreed that children should be educated to be good citizens. Exactly the same percentage, however, said that they judged themselves to be good citizens already.

Within the new subject, children will learn about “the work of parliament, the government and the courts . . . and the importance of playing an active part in democratic and electoral processes”. They must also know “how the economy functions, including the role of business and the financial services”. They must understand not only “the importance of a free press and the media’s role in society”, but also “the wider issues and challenges of global independence and responsibility”.

All of which is very well – until you ask: what are the messages about citizenship as a whole that the order is meant to be conveying? What does the government expect “good citizens” to be, to do, to accept? Citizenship, Crick argues, entails social and moral responsibility, community involvement and political literacy. Children must learn “from the very beginning, socially responsible behaviour . . . towards those in authority and towards each other”. They must be “helpfully involved in the life and concerns of their school and their local communities” and learn “how to make themselves effective in public life through knowledge, skills and specific values”.

Crick has claimed that this is wholly consistent with Thurgood Marshall’s classic definition. It isn’t. For Marshall, citizenship was about rights: “the civil rights necessary for individual freedom . . . the right to participate in the exercise of political power . . . and the social element . . . the whole range from the right to a modicum of economic welfare and security to the right to share to the full in the social heritage . . .”

But Crick’s citizenship is overwhelmingly about duties. It is more of a commodity than an entitlement, a consumer good, something that you earn – in part, by the quality of your learning. The realities that many schools live with, of poverty, discrimination and second-class citizenship, are airbrushed out of the picture.

Or rather, almost airbrushed out. There is a revealing passage in the guidance booklet that comes with the order. “Citizenship in school will complement that provided by families . . . ” it says. “Citizenship may become part of a home-school agreement . . . Sensitivity and support will be needed where parents themselves have not been able to secure their rights as citizens.” It will indeed.

There are two implications. One is that schools are being asked to preach a message that runs directly counter to the everyday experience of many pupils. That is not, as any teacher will tell you, the route to effective learning. The other, more subtle and more dangerous, is that when we support (as we instinctively do) the proposition that “citizenship” should be taught in schools, we are conniving in a fundamentally dishonest pretence. In effect, we are asked to accept that equal access to education about citizenship can make up for unequal access to its entitlements. It is all the more a pretence because we still cannot achieve equal access to literacy or numeracy. Citizenship, in other words, is a political issue, not an educational one.

Crick disputes this. Citizenship education, he says, is a necessary condition of a more inclusive society. Like Blunkett, he deplores the “inexcusably and damagingly bad” state of political literacy in this country and the cynicism with which, increasingly, our politics are viewed. But where young people are concerned, he may be painting too depressing a picture. Cynicism is not the same as indifference (for more on this, see Nick Cohen, page 9). At the local level and on a single-issue basis, many young people are genuinely, passionately, committed. To say, as Crick does, that “we aim at nothing less than a change in the political culture of our country” is either naive or tendentious. It is also asking for far more than schools can possibly deliver.

But it does hint at the real thrust behind the drive for citizenship in schools. It is there, at the beginning of Crick’s own definition, in the demand for social and moral responsibility; it is there, quite explicitly, in the assertion of Nick Tate (who ran the government’s curriculum and qualifications quango until his elevation to the headship of Winchester College this year) that “first, citizenship is about values . . . and citizenship education is about promoting and transmitting values”. By teaching citizenship, the argument goes, we make people good. We make a better society. Lord Leverhulme in a nutshell.

I am not arguing against the teaching of values. They should be implicit in everything we do. Whatever journalists might say, schools are actually very moral places: more moral than the workplace; more moral, very often, than the home; more moral than the media; more moral, I suspect, than many churches.

But schools cannot, in themselves, be agents of moral change. They can only do those things that we, as individuals and as a society, are ready and able to support them in. They can’t compensate for society. They cannot forge citizenship for us, if the world outside the school gates is pulling in the opposite direction.

And yet they try. The real paradox of the citizenship order is that, for all the apparent reasonableness of its individual prescriptions, it makes trying that much harder. “Citizenship” becomes statutory, subject to the rigours of Ofsted inspection, to Ofsted number-crunching and to the subtle tyrannies of what the inspectors deem good practice. A lot of good things will happen in lessons and outside them – but they won’t make it easier for teachers to challenge, say, an outbreak of media hysteria about asylum-seekers, or the obscenity, after the death of Sarah Payne, of lynch mobs parading across the nation’s TV screens. What price lessons in citizenship, against the lessons of scenes such as that?

That’s a question for politicians to answer. Politicians, clearly, would rather leave it to the schools.

Michael Duffy is a former comprehensive school head

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