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Citizenship education: making kids conform

The UK citizenship curriculum is authoritarian, undermines independent thinking and it won't solve the problem of political disengagement.

Kevin Rooney

Topics Politics

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‘We aim at no less than a change in the political culture of this country both nationally and locally.’

This ambitious statement sounds like it should have come from a political party’s manifesto, but it is actually to be found in the final report of the Advisory Group on Citizenship Education, otherwise known as the ‘Crick Report’. The report gave birth to the new compulsory subject of citizenship being taught in schools in England since August 2002. The stated aim of introducing this new subject into the education system was to reverse the decline in young peoples’ participation in public and political life in the UK. The Crick Report argued that research revealed ‘a historic political disconnection’. In effect, an entire generation has opted out of party politics.

However, we should be wary about citizenship education for a number of reasons:

  • It is not the responsibility of teachers to solve what are political and social problems like apathy, low voter turnout, alienation and an absence of social cohesion. To expect teachers and schools to solve these problems is to redefine the role of teaching and education;
  • citizenship education allows politicians to evade responsibility for their failure to inspire and engage young people with politics, and the failure to create a dynamic context in which political contestation exists
  • citizenship education is anti-intellectual, prioritising values over academic enquiry. The emphasis on social engineering is to the detriment of the integrity of individual subjects
  • citizenship education is insidious and authoritarian, because it lays down the values that young people are expected to hold without subjecting those values to public debate;
  • citizenship education will not solve the problems it was set up to address. In fact, citizenship classes make things worse, as they reduce politics and the possibility of people fighting for meaningful change to a set of values and dispositions that can be acquired in the classroom through, in effect, a programme of behaviour modification.

Background

The debate about the disconnection of young people from politics has absorbed a growing number of academics and policy makers around New Labour for some time. Reports published by think tanks like the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) and Demos have acknowledged that the British political system is facing a crisis of legitimacy. All the political parties have lost their social base and find it particularly difficult to connect with young people. Teaching unions, exam boards, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), political parties and pressure groups have all welcomed the compulsory nature of citizenship education as playing a positive role in combating youth apathy.

At a one-day citizenship conference organised by the AQA exam board in June 2007 to launch the first Advanced Level course in citizenship, speaker after speaker claimed that extending compulsory citizenship lessons to post-16 pupils would ‘help prevent family breakdowns’, strengthen communities, ‘underpin social cohesion’ and strengthen participation levels amongst young people.

At the same conference, Sir Keith Ajegbo, who led the Diversity and Citizenship curriculum review, explained how inserting a new compulsory strand on Britishness from September 2008 into the citizenship curriculum would ‘provide young people with a common sense of identity and belonging’. At the same conference, Boris Johnson MP, then the Conservative spokesman on higher education, claimed that: ‘Citizenship education for four- to 18-year-olds would help bolster national solidarity and counter the (perceived) crisis of socialisation.’

One of the most striking things about citizenship education is the speed with which it has moved from the theoretical musings of policy wonks to a compulsory subject, which is seen as a panacea for a range of our political and social ills. That is not to say that there has been no disagreement over what and how students should learn. Concerns have been expressed by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) about the quality of some teaching – in particular, the lack of intellectual rigour and content associated with the subject. But what is lacking is any real philosophical or political debate about the effectiveness and consequences of this new subject. Educationalists and policymakers alike need to address a number of fundamental questions about citizenship education.

Will it work?

This is a question that supporters of citizenship education have been asked for some years. Their understandable response was to give it time. Five years down the line, it is now possible to make some preliminary observations since the subject was made statutory for Key Stage 3 (pupils from 11 to 14 years old) and Key Stage 4 (ages 14 to 16) in August 2002.

There has been no rise in voter turnout amongst first-time eligible voters in the last General Election of 2005 or the 2007 local elections. Research from the British Youth Council shows that the figures for young people getting involved in any type of political or direct action campaign or pressure group activity remain static at around two per cent over the past few years. So far, citizenship education is failing to reconnect young people to our political system or promote any substantial type of improvement in participation rates.

International comparisons do not bode well either. Despite well-established ‘civics programmes’ in US schools, young Americans appear even more reluctant to vote than their British counterparts. According to US expert Morris Janovitz, two decades of civics education in the USA have failed to achieve the enhanced levels of civic engagement that they openly seek to promote. Australia is a model of citizenship education that some proponents in the UK admire, yet voting trends in that country continue on a downward slope despite its well-established civics programme.

What the international examples tell us is that voter apathy is a result of a poor political climate, rather than the absence of citizenship lessons. My own experience after many years of teaching politics A-Level is of highly literate students who understand the political system but still choose not to vote. If the reality is that the contemporary political culture is failing to inspire or engage young people, it follows that there is little that can be done in the classroom to rectify this.

Is it a teacher’s job to create active citizens?

Many educationalists and commentators now believe that a key role of teaching is to turn young people into active citizens who participate more in civil society, vote and volunteer in their local community. In a review of Key Stage 3 citizenship carried out in December 2006 amongst citizenship teachers, one of the main conclusions was that ‘skills and active citizenship were felt by the vast majority of our respondents to be more important than knowledge and understanding within the content of the curriculum’.

Teachers have always had some role to play in the creation of citizens. A good, rounded, liberal education can contribute informally to the socialisation of our young people into broader society. However, until recently, this process was implicit and was more a by-product of a sound education. Above all, the integrity of individual subjects and their content were automatically respected and seen as the key to a proper education.

This is no longer the case. Citizenship, in particular via its cross-curricular themes, is damaging the integrity of every subject. The crude explicit requirement that citizenship concepts, values, dispositions, skills and aptitudes be spread across all subjects has resulted in a hollowing out and diluting of specific subject content. In short, citizenship education is having a directly damaging effect on subject knowledge. Academic subjects have become subordinate to the imperative of social engineering. The curriculum is increasingly seen principally as a vehicle for overt socialisation, even indoctrination, into the latest fashionable cause or value. No matter what the subject, teachers are now expected to make links in their schemes of work and lesson plans to topics as diverse as safe sex, relationships, healthy eating, diversity, homophobia, Islamophobia, voting, volunteering and sustainability, to list just a few.

Lessons in academic subjects like history, biology or geography that would once have been considered outstanding would now fail an Ofsted inspection if these citizenship themes were not included. These new requirements redefine dramatically the role of a teacher and purpose of teaching. This change needs to be challenged. Teachers should not be playing this kind of role in what is, essentially, a social engineering project. Instead, there should be a robust defence of the value of academic subjects for their own sake.

A society struggling for common values

Citizenship education is an attempt to instil a new set of values in today’s young generation. Proponents acknowledge that almost all the institutions that once represented the moral and social arbiters of our times – the Church, the family, trade unions, political parties and scientists – can no longer be relied on to inspire the necessary trust and respect to impart values to the nation’s youth. In a recent article in the Guardian Education supplement, former education secretary Estelle Morris let slip that many parents can no longer be trusted with the task of teaching moral values, a comment I’ve heard increasingly (off the record) at citizenship conferences from leading citizenship advocates. Citizenship education is seen as offering future generations a moral compass now sadly lacking in society.

But is it possible for teachers to transmit a common standard of moral values at a time when our society appears to have such difficulty in defining what those common values are? This is a challenge even the most passionate advocates of citizenship education have failed to meet. The National Forum for Values in Education – the body charged with contributing a set of common values into the Crick Report – struggled to reach agreement on what constitutes a common set of values in today’s society. To avoid a split, and after a series of threatened walkouts, its final report was a banal compromise of views, which could mean all things to all people.

Similarly, the government has ordered that a fourth strand be added to the citizenship curriculum from September 2008, titled ‘Britishness and Diversity’. Yet, when asked on BBC Radio 4 what Britishness was, then Education Secretary Alan Johnson stuttered and hesitated. After a while, he mentioned tolerance, equality and democracy as virtues of Britishness. Does this imply that a Frenchman or Mexican would somehow refute these ideas? The problem is that Britishness has been added to the citizenship curriculum at a time when there is no consensus on what Britishness is. Citizenship education represents an attempt to shift the problematic issues of public debate from the terrain of politics to the classroom, in the hope that teachers can solve them. Ironically, the very subject that was created to overcome the moral vacuum has itself suffered an erosion of authority.

Amid this uncertainty over values and what our society should prioritise as important, the citizenship curriculum, and the school curriculum more broadly, has become a battleground (or gravy train) for a whole host of campaigns zealously trying to get their moral message into the classroom. Recent campaigns include more focus on fairtrade and Third World debt. Indeed, many schools teach global citizenship straight from teaching materials produced by the charity Oxfam. Public health officials demand more attention to healthy eating, obesity, safe sex – even the dangers of sunshine! Other groups demand more black history or gay history or examples of positive multiculturalism. Banks promote financial capability as a virtue. Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, has been sent to every secondary school in the country to urge greater responsibility towards our planet and environment. No doubt some of these campaigns may have worthy aims. The point, however, is that these are issues for public policy and debate, not for the classroom.

Whose values are we teaching?

At first glance, the citizenship curriculum may look like it is promoting uncontroversial values like honesty, fairness, tolerance, etc. However, closer inspection reveals that alongside these goes a set of personal behaviours recast as moral values. For example, in citizenship literature, community is now a value, as is participation (voting), volunteering, sustainability and caring for the environment. This process of redefining certain political positions and opinions into values that are uncontested first emerged in the Crick Report but has intensified over the past two years.

In the classroom, via citizenship, many of the unresolved issues of public life are transformed into new concepts to be passed on to children as a fait accompli. Racism, environmentalism and other political ideas are converted into matters of moral and ethical behaviour. While concern for the environment may be desirable, should it be prescribed as a value? Where is the space for intellectual debate about such questions?

In the past, schools were asked to produce well-educated young people capable of making independent decisions about what to do with their lives. Now teachers are increasingly meant to produce people with a particular set of views repackaged as moral values. But the absence of any moral consensus in Britain today will not be solved through indoctrinating children into the latest fashionable values. The problem with trying to instil new values solely through the classroom is that they often lack any resonance or real connection with peoples’ lives. Real values, strong values, emerge not out of schoolbooks but from strong communities and a real clash of ideas in society.

This values-led education is insidious and authoritarian. If left unchallenged, this trend could eventually destroy the spirit of intellectual enquiry within education, potentially undermining the individual student’s freedom of conscience and his or her right to determine their own social and political value system. The danger is that students are now being told what to think. This may seem a wild exaggeration, but let’s think about those young people who may reject the prescriptive values taught in citizenship lessons. Official guidelines quite clearly stipulate that students must demonstrate a concern and commitment for the values laid out in the curriculum in order to achieve a good assessment. So, what marks will be awarded to the young man who has concluded that there is no point in voting (rejecting the value of participation), the young woman who feels that ‘sustainable development’ may be robbing the developing world of the most advanced technology, or the pupil who has decided to get involved in party politics – with the far-right British National Party?

It is understandable that a government that is desperate to re-engage young people and would like to tackle our contemporary moral vacuum would wish to see young people regard volunteering, voting, sustainability, etc as moral values. But using education as a direct tool of social engineering is a dangerous move and one that everyone – teachers in particular – should question.

Conclusion

By transforming the act of political participation into a subject that can be taught, the proponents of citizenship have trivialised and undermined the whole concept of political activity. A striking example of this trivialisation is the way that many advocates of citizenship believe that young people can be encouraged to acquire the ‘habit’ of political participation. The widespread establishment of new forms of school councils and youth parliaments are intended to turn the school into some kind of participation factory that will churn out students who are used to participating.

But this reduces the essence of political activity to the utterly banal. The truth is that no amount of practising and ‘doing participation at school’ will perfect the art of active involvement in society. It is a myth and a distortion of the truth to suggest that involving students in participatory activities in school will result in increased levels of political participation and voting when they become adults. Throughout history, people have become involved in politics when they believe they can make a real difference and effect real change. Relying on the education system to revitalise a stagnant political culture is not only doomed to failure, it is also a dangerous attempt to shift the responsibility from where it really lies – with the political leaders who have completely failed to inspire our young people with a vision of a society worth engaging in.

Despite the enthusiasm of those behind the introduction of citizenship, the reality is that this new subject is more a reflection of the current malaise than a recipe for it. It says a lot about our political leaders’ lack of confidence in their own system that they now feel their best chance of persuading people to take part is by putting it alongside Maths and English as a compulsory subject at school.

Kevin Rooney teaches A-Level government and politics at a London school.

Previously on spiked

Kevin Rooney said pupils wouldn’t buy the citizenship textbook. Josie Appleton explained why the Manifesto Club held a pub quiz version of the British Citizenship Test. Frank Furedi warned that education is being hijacked by zealous campaigners. Wendy Earle said young people’s political engagement and citizenship can’t be forged online. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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