A right is not a right unless you know about it: why we must defend citizenship education

Hugh Starkey

Despite rumours of its untimely demise, citizenship education in England is alive and kicking. Following a rather lukewarm endorsement in the report of the expert panel in December 2011, last month’s new national curriculum Framework document for consultation retains citizenship as a subject at key stages 3 and 4 but with a very much reduced programme of study.

Democratic Life, the coordinating group for organisations associated with citizenship education, including the Association for Citizenship TeachingCitizenship Foundation and Amnesty International, considers this as something of a moral victory. But is it?

In England’s current national curriculum Citizenship is a statutory subject with a brief but carefully constructed Programme of Study for each of the four key stages. At Key Stage 3 the key concepts are: Democracy and Justice; Rights and Responsibilities; Identities and Diversity: living together in the UK, and the new programme of study contains the vestiges of these themes. “Pupils should be taught about … how the political system of the United Kingdom has developed as a democracy”. The justice system includes “the role of the police, and how courts and tribunals work”. An overarching aim is developing understanding of “the rights and responsibilities of [UK] citizens”. At Key stage 4 pupils should be taught about: “diverse national, regional, religious and ethnic identities in the United Kingdom and the need for mutual respect and understanding”.

This may feel like a diluted version. But in practice, the national curriculum may have relatively little influence on what happens in schools. The most recent Ofsted report,  Citizenship established? Citizenship in schools 2006/9 noted that more than 10% of schools visited “had done little or nothing to implement citizenship, a National Curriculum requirement that has now been in place for seven years” (p5). Clearly the schools felt that they had other priorities and that the national curriculum would not be the only factor determining their arrangements.

The NFER’s longitudinal study of citizenship education in schools found in 2009 that less than half of schools had a dedicated time slot and less than half had specialist teachers. In other words, whatever curriculum advice schools get, only a minority are able to commit to best practice for citizenship education even when it is a statutory obligation.

However, the national curriculum has great symbolic importance. It is the public and explicit statement of the knowledge, skills and dispositions that are deemed essential to transmit as embodying a cultural heritage as well as preparing for the future. It may, in practice, have relatively little impact on the priorities of schools. It gives expression to the essential elements of knowledge, skills and understandings that the current generation wishes to see transmitted to the next. It provides an opportunity for political leadership in standard-setting.

One of the first actions of the Conservative-led Coalition Government on 11 May 2010 was to sign a formal Recommendation supporting the Council of Europe Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education. The ministers of education collectively agreed to recommend to their governments that: “Member states should include education for democratic citizenship and human rights education in the curricula for formal education at pre-primary, primary and secondary school level”. This commitment is barely visible in the new programme of study, suggesting that an opportunity to emphasise the importance of democracy and human rights for our diverse society has been missed.

The new proposed programme of study for citizenship alludes, rather quaintly, to “the precious liberties enjoyed by the citizens of the United Kingdom”. These liberties or freedoms are guaranteed by the UK’s commitments to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. But these “precious liberties” are at risk if citizens do not know that they are entitlements in international law and that people everywhere struggle for them. A right is not a right unless you know about it.

The debate on citizenship education in multicultural societies comes to IOE on Monday 11 March 2013 with the visit of Professor James A. Banks, Kerry and Linda Killinger Endowed Chair in Diversity Studies and Director Center for Multicultural Education, University of Washington, Seattle. Invited by the International Centre for Education and Democratic Citizenship (ICEDC), he will launch his monumental SAGE Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education in presence of a distinguished panel of contributors to this four volume work. This will be followed by an open public lecture in the series sponsored by the Faculty of Children and Learning on the subject: Diversity and Citizenship Education in Global Times.

One thought on “A right is not a right unless you know about it: why we must defend citizenship education

  1. Reblogged this on Seyi's thoughts on education and commented:
    As a generation we need to ensure that we are doing all we can to impart out knowledge onto the next generation. We should continually find ways to new and exciting ways to empower young people but the basic foundations have be right and delivered effectively, otherwise the knowledge built on top of these foundations will eventually breakdown. Citizenship education is a basic fundamental tool to educate, empower and inspire anyone and everyone! Let us go back to basics and get it right!

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