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A ‘Dis-service’ to Citizenship: It must be both taught and caught, learned and lived by pupils to prepare them for life in the 21st Century

David Kerr is a member of ACT Council, co-editor of the ACT Journal Teaching Citizenship and Consultant Director of Education at Young Citizens. He was Professional Officer to the Citizenship Advisory Group chaired by Professor (Sir) Bernard Crick.

A ‘Dis-service’ to Citizenship: It must be both taught and caught, learned and lived by pupils to prepare them for life in the 21st Century

Following the publication of the report from the House of Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement, entitled The Ties that Bind: Citizenship and civic engagement in the 21st Century, Bernard Trafford, an experienced school leader who has been an advocate of Citizenship in the past, wrote to the TES with a ‘blueprint’ for Citizenship going forward. He described Citizenship as a ‘concept, a state of mind and a vital element of ethos’ and suggested a three-step approach:

  • Dropping Citizenship as a curriculum subject
  • Focusing instead on active service programmes
  • Replacing Citizenship teachers in schools with a teacher in charge of ‘service’
  • So what’s wrong with these suggestions? Well, nothing if you want to promote ‘service learning’ in schools, as it’s termed in the US, but everything if you want to promote Citizenship. ‘Service’ is not Citizenship and never will be, it’s not even Citizenship ‘lite’.

    Bernard Trafford’s suggestions are akin in English to dropping it as a curriculum subject and instead getting pupils to go out and experience reading, writing and listening around them as organised by a teacher in charge of ‘societal communication’: or in Geography of scrapping the curriculum subject and instead just going on field trips coordinated by the teacher in charge of ‘fieldwork’. This is great for ‘societal communication’ and ‘fieldwork’ but English and Geography have much greater depth and rigour as subjects than this. They need to be both taught in the curriculum and caught or experienced in and beyond schools.

    It’s the same with Citizenship. Citizenship is a real subject that needs to be taught in the curriculum and caught or experienced in the school culture and through community participation and engagement beyond in order to have maximum impact for pupils. It explains why the Council of Europe uses the slogan ‘learning and living’ democratic citizenship to describe the subject.  It also explains why the Citizenship Advisory Group, in its 1998 report that led to the introduction of Citizenship in schools, defined Citizenship in relation to three interrelated strands:

  • Social and moral responsibility
  • Community involvement, and
  • Political literacy – the knowledge, understanding and skills to be effective in ‘public life’
  • The first two strands set the foundations but it is the third strand which is the new and crucial element of an education for Citizenship. It is this last strand which is wholly missing from Bernard Trafford’s argument and the reason why his proposed ‘blueprint’ is fundamentally flawed in its logic and design. Educating pupils to be politically literate through Citizenship entails them being both taught and learning about/experiencing:

  • Knowledge and understanding - about how the political, legal, economic and financial systems work in the UK and beyond, civic knowledge that is not covered by other curriculum subjects
  • Concepts and skills – such as rights and responsibilities, advocacy and participation and diversity and identities which are the lifeblood of Citizenship
  • Dispositions and behaviours -  in relation to what it means to be a citizen who is active, informed and responsible and works with others to address community/societal issues and attempt to bring about change
  • Large-scale research studies in Citizenship, including the IEA International Civic and Citizenship Study (ICCS) and NFER’s Citizenship Education Longitudinal Study (CELS) in England, have underlined the critical importance of pupil acquisition of civic knowledge. The higher pupils’ levels of civic knowledge the stronger the influence of that knowledge on their likelihood to participate in society and to hold positive attitudes to issues such as diversity, race relations and equal rights.

    Indeed, through these major research studies and others we already know what creates the most effective teaching and learning environment for Citizenship in schools. It is where Citizenship is:

  • Present in the school curriculum, the school culture and in wider communities beyond the schools - often referred to as the ‘3 Citizenship contexts’
  • A reflective process of being taught civic knowledge in the classroom, having opportunities to put that knowledge into action in and beyond the classroom, reflecting on the outcomes of ‘taking action’ in terms what further civic knowledge and action is required to be more effective going forward
  • Planned and taught by trained teachers who can successfully blend the taught and experienced element of Citizenship
  • Experienced regularly and consistently by pupils throughout their school life from primary through to secondary
  • A process that involves rigorous assessment of pupil outcomes
  • It explains why Citizenship is often described as ‘a subject and more than a subject’. It needs to be both taught in the curriculum and also caught or experienced in the school and in public life beyond. Reducing it to mere ‘service’ threatens to rip the heart out of it as a subject, reducing it to unconscious volunteering and ignoring its critical reflective element in balancing the learnt and lived elements.

    Professor (later Sir) Bernard Crick, the architect of Citizenship, used to say it was fine for young people to carry out service in society by helping the elderly or picking up litter  - that was volunteering – but for such service to become Citizenship meant giving young people the knowledge, skills and dispositions to begin to ask wider questions about the state of care of the elderly in society or the nature of environmental challenges and to work with others to try to bring about changes in these areas.

    I did the kind of ‘service’ that Bernard Trafford proposes in my grammar school in the 1970s – in my case helping improve levels of literacy in the local comprehensive school. However, that was the extent of it. What I don’t remember was any attempt to teach me or others Citizenship in the school. I fear that Bernard Trafford’s service ‘blueprint’ is in danger of reproducing the narrow grammar school experiences of my youth and not delivering a broader education for citizenship that prepares pupils with the civic competences – knowledge, skills, attitudes and dispositions – necessary if they are to be able to participate as informed, responsible, active citizens across ‘public life’ in the 21st century. They face many more challenges in society than my generation did and need to be educated to address them with confidence derived from their Citizenship learning and experiences.

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