Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.
 
       
 

Citizens can't be made in class

Citizenship is 'the worst taught secondary-level subject' and pupils have little idea what it is about. However, it is the curriculum, not teachers, that is to blame.

Despite the fact that most people are profoundly concerned about the quality of secondary education, officials are reluctant to acknowledge the real state of affairs.

Secondary schools in England ill prepared for the introduction of citizenship teaching

So when David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, spoke recently about the "high level of unsatisfactory teaching of citizenship", you know that something must be seriously wrong.

And when Ofsted provides evidence that citizenship is the "worst-taught subject at secondary level", it is obvious that the introduction of this so-called subject into the national curriculum has proved yet again that social engineering is inconsistent with the values of real education.

From its inception, citizenship education was a disaster waiting to happen. As far back as July 2002, Ofsted inspectors warned that many secondary schools in England were ill prepared for the introduction of citizenship teaching in September. A year later, the inspectors complained that schools appeared confused and complacent. Standards were "often low" with a lot of "unsatisfactory management" of the subject.

Another year later and the situation had still failed to improve, as a report by Community Service Volunteers pointed out. It euphemistically noted that teachers still needed "more help" with citizenship lessons, two years after they were made compulsory.

This is one problem that should not be blamed on the teaching profession. It has been evident from the start that leading supporters of citizenship education had little idea what the subject was about. Debating the meaning of citizenship turned into an exchange of platitudes.

Nick Tate, then chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, argued that citizenship education was "about promoting and transmitting values", "participation" and "duties". But the obvious question of "values about what?" was carefully avoided. Instead,its advocates cobbled together a "hurrah list" of unobjectionable and bland sentiments rebranded as values.

Alongside fairness, honesty and community, participation and voting were turned into values. Prof Bernard Crick, who was David Blunkett's intellectual mentor and key adviser on citizenship education, stated that "students must demonstrate a commitment to active citizenship, commitment to voluntary service and concern for the environment".

In other words, in the guise of studying an academic subject, school children have to adopt a particular form of behaviour demanded by the prevailing political code of conduct.

The significance that the curriculum attaches to the value of participation is symptomatic of the subject's lack of moral and substantive content. According to the curriculum, pupils are required to "take part in school- and community-based activities, demonstrating personal and group responsibility in their attitudes to themselves and others".

However, the exhortation to participate is not founded on any vision of what constitutes a good society or what it means to be a responsible citizen. Nor is it clear what kind of community-based activity pupils should engage in. Foxhunting? Going to the pub? Protesting against the building of a new supermarket?

The inability of the curriculum to endow participation with meaning suggests that the promoters of this subject cannot provide a convincing account of what it means to be a good citizen. Not only is citizenship education not an academic subject, it is also a cause in search of an argument.

It is therefore not surprising that 10 per cent of pupils polled did not know what was taught in citizenship lessons and another 17 per cent remarked that there was nothing memorable about them.

David Bell is right to raise the alarm about the state of citizenship education, but he is wrong to blame it on the quality of teaching. Whether or not children learn how to behave as responsible citizens is decided by their everyday experience of life. Children pick up their ideas about personal responsibility and what it means to be a citizen from the signals transmitted through their family and community.

Instilling ideas about what is right and what is wrong can be assisted by inspired political leadership and responsible adults. Unfortunately, inspired leadership and clarity about the meaning of being a British citizen is in short supply.

And the failure of society to address these important questions cannot be artificially rectified inside the classroom. Is it any surprise that so many pupils admit that they have little idea why they have to study citizenship education?

Of course, educators do not have to give up on the moral education of school children. They have a wealth of material that they can draw on. A creative use of the classics can go a long way towards illuminating the purpose of public activity and reflection.

Teachers who can instil in children a love of history or of literature can do a great deal to sensitise their pupils to the meaning of life, which will help them develop a sense of right and wrong.

But adopting this approach is not citizenship education. It is what ought to be called real education.

First published in the Daily Telegraph, 3 February 2005