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Citizenship education: a missed opportunity?

"Do we want to protect our democracy? Kids are born citizens, but they're not born with an understanding of democracy and how it works." Interview in the run-up to the World Forum for Democracy 2016.

David Kerr Billy Sawyers
31 October 2016
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Flickr/Number 10/Georgina Coupe. Some rights reserved.

David Cameron and Theresa May visit a high school in Luton to discuss the government's Counter Extremism Strategy. Flickr/Number 10/Georgina Coupe. Some rights reserved.As part of openDemocracy’s coverage of November’s World Forum for Democracy, we took part in Skills for democracy, an open forum in the House of Commons hosted by Titus Alexander of Democracy Matters and Lord Blunkett of Brightside. To find out more about the state of citizenship education in the UK, we spoke to David Kerr, Head of Initial Teacher Training at the University of Reading and Director of Education for the Citizenship Foundation.

Billy Sawyers: What have been the main challenges for you in training teachers about citizenship in a way that can then be taught in schools?

David Kerr: One of the main challenges is clearly them understanding what 'citizenship' is. They come in from a wide range of degrees with all sorts of different experiences with elements of citizenship. So you get people with law degrees, who understand about how law works for citizenship. You get people from sociology degrees, who understand who social systems work. You get people from history degrees. What you need to do is allow them to bring their different experiences together, so they have a whole, rounded understanding of what citizenship is.

The simple way of doing it, if they want to teach in schools and colleges, is to think of citizenship having three Cs. There's the bit in the curriculum, which is the subject and has real knowledge to it – as I mentioned: politics, economics, law, volunteering. Teachers can see where elements of those come into it, and they understand how it works in the curriculum as a subject that links to other subjects.

Then they need to understand it in terms of the second C of culture - school or institutional culture. So you educate young people to have a voice and then you give them opportunities in the school, through school councils, campaigns and different kinds of experiences. 

The third C is around community. Or communities, because with new technology now you can connect to anyone in the world. So it's a question of how you then link out to the communities in a way that serves the school. So if you think of citizenship in terms of curriculum, culture, communities, then that's a useful framework. A robust definition.

BS: When you're getting to that definition, one thing jumps out at me. All that we're talking about in terms of citizenship relate to a deeper level of relation. How do we argue with each other? How do we discuss things with each other? There are quite fundamental things there that need to be taught to children.

DK: Absolutely. When you're talking about bringing knowledge, understanding and skills together, I would say one of the most fundamental things you're doing is getting children to understand how to deal with controversy. I've done some work with the Council of Europe in which we produced some materials that help teachers understand how to tackle controversy in the classroom, about their own role and the uncertainties they might have.  

That's fundamentally what citizenship is about: to stop people shouting. It's about actually getting them to listen, because you can talk with listening. So it's really getting them to understand other people's opinions, weigh up the evidence, and then decide which side – or sides – they're going to be on. That's what it's about at the heart.

Think about the amount of information we get thrown at us in society – it's massive, so we need to have the skills to understand. What's the bias here? Why are they giving me this? Young people don't have that compass to help them to deal with issues – be it Brexit, the environment, fracking or whatever – and that's what is missing from our education system.

BS: Is it a case of laying out that compass from quite an early age in education?

DK: Absolutely, from a very early age. There are all sorts of organisations out there, like Philosophy for Children, that work around moral education. Most young people have a pretty good compass in terms of what's right and what's wrong. 

If you think about it, when they first go into school, they're going into a community, even if they're four or five years old. They're going into a community where they have to learn to negotiate. You can't just do what you want to do; the teacher asks you to do things; you can't just plonk your stuff anywhere. You need to negotiate with other kids – you might not have the verbal skills, but you know how to use communication in different ways.

And you build on that as you go through the school system. That's what the Crick Report did. It talked about social and moral responsibility and in primary schools, kids would learn about being part of the community, what you can and cannot do. Then they start to learn about the communities around in the school, not just in the classroom, and then they learn about the wider community out there. As they learn, they then think, 'I want to have a voice'. So how do they get the voice?

The good thing about introducing citizenship at schools is that it allows children to make mistakes in a safe environment; you only learn by making mistakes.

BS: Given all that importance, does that mean that citizenship should be compulsory the whole way through education?

DK: I would suggest so. It's non-statutory at the moment in primary schools, statutory in secondary schools but not in academies. If you really want to do it properly, if you think maths is important, science is important – imagine the outcry if we said 'no we'll cut maths or science. There should be a similar outcry over citizenship.

Do we want to protect our democracy? Kids are born citizens, but they're not born with an understanding of democracy and how it works. You think of the thousands of people who sacrificed themselves for the vote, for protecting democracy, and it really seems strange that people in the House of Commons don't value the importance of education for democracy.

BS: How have recent governments failed citizenship education? Have citizenship initiatives lived up to the Crick Report?

DK: The recent white paper stressed the need to educate young people for adult life in 21st-century Britain “that will help them to navigate a rapidly changing world with confidence.” It was a missed opportunity not to have Bernard Crick's vision of citizenship as 'political literacy' – in providing young people with the knowledge, understanding and skills to be effective in public life – at the heart of such an education. 

Instead, citizenship has been pushed to one side and been superseded by initiatives such as Prevent, Fundamental British Values (FBV) and character education which are primarily defensive, piecemeal, conflicting and apolitical, and which do not add to a coherent response in educating for life in modern Britain.

The issue is not of Prevent, FBV and character education as initiatives per se, but of how they have been introduced into the education system in a piecemeal way without proper consultation and a clear rationale as to how they fit into what already happens in education and schools. 

The backdrop provided by the existing Crick Report, its emphasis on political literacy and community involvement is encapsulated in the citizenship National Curriculum and post-16 citizenship developments. It provides an ideal rationale and broader context through which schools and colleges and those who work in them can consider how to approach each of these initiatives and make stronger connections between them. 

Prevent, FBV and character education instead remain often rootless, isolated and unconnected in the education system making it hard to understand and embed them effectively into policy and practice. Not linking them more strongly and centrally to the citizenship initiative was a major opportunity that has now been lost.

openDemocracy will be at this year's World Forum for Democracy, exploring the relationship between education and democracy with a citizens’ newsroom. Register here.

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