Citizenship

This post is prompted by a question, asked on Twitter by Dawn Cox  ( @missdcox , as I’m sure you know )  whether the teaching of citizenship be mandatory in all schools.

I voted no. But I’m not sure.

My immediate reaction was no, because as a teacher of History & Politics I’d expect to get roped into teaching it, and I’d rather teach History or Politics. Not just because of the content: I’ll come to that shortly. But as a mandatory-but-not-respected subject it would fall into one of two categories: either a subject which the pupils wouldn’t take seriously, and which would consequently just be that bit harder to teach, or a subject which the pupils wouldn’t take seriously and so are entered for a public examination in order to ensure that they do take it seriously, possibly with less teaching time than other GCSE subjects, but with all the usual pressure on results. I don’t fancy being responsible for that.

As I’ve voted no, and it’s too late to change my mind, at least on Twitter, I’ll take this further. The demand to make something a compulsory school subject is frequently made, and the corollary – that something will have to be taught less in order to accommodate it – is far less often acknowledged. The demand is made for History; it’s made for coding; it’s made for financial literacy; it’s made for ‘wellbeing,’ or whatever this week’s trendy fad is. So which part of the curriculum should be scrapped or downgraded in order to make way for Citizenship? I can’t think of an obvious example of a subject which gets too much attention at the moment.

My school doesn’t have to teach citizenship, and it doesn’t. We are, though, bringing in new compulsory subjects. Computing and Metacognition are being introduced. This will no doubt make the school look modern. But it will also mean that pupils will be dropping subjects like Art, Design & Technology, Drama, and/or a modern language even before the end of Key Stage Three, and I’m inclined to think that this is not a positive development. Which of those subjects is unimportant?

Add it to the PSHE programme? I’m willing to acknowledge the potential benefits of ‘personal, social & health’ education. I’m well aware that it is important for inspection, and that consequently what I’m about to say will be rejected by everyone who depends on the opposite being true for positive results when the Inquisition arrives. And maybe in some schools it is taken very seriously indeed: my experience may well be unrepresentative, even of the independent sector. But in my experience PSHE is taken seriously neither by pupils nor by teachers. I use the allocated time to chat to my form. Should I be finding a dozen different ways to tell them not to smoke, or drink, or have casual sex, or cyber-bully each other? Sure. Is it my professional duty to become an expert not just in the effects of illegal drugs but also in how to communicate their dangers to impressionable young teenagers? Maybe, but I’m not one. I’ll just tell them that there’s a reason why there are legal restrictions on these activities, that here’s what they are and why they exist, and that they should, when offered any of the above, say no, and if asked to give a reason say that Mr Grumpy told them so.

Seriously … here’s how you vote, here’s why it’s important, make sure you do it? Maybe. But I really doubt that teachers going through the motions to appease someone who has ordered them to deliver that content a couple of times a year is going to create a renewed citizenry. If we’re going to do this, we’d better do it properly, and wrapping it up with PSHE isn’t doing it properly.

Is this a bit of a cop-out though? Citizenship is very important. Perhaps we should decide what every pupil ought to be learning first, and then start negotiating over how much curriculum time each part gets, rather than immediately dismissing every proposed change to the ‘core’ with the rather unhelpful question about what we should stop doing.

When, for instance, as happened a couple of weeks ago, my Upper Sixth pupils rumble into my classroom full of outrage at just how ignorant of the political process their peers are, I am inclined to think that there’s something wrong. For once, as I told her, I had every sympathy with a girl about to sit her A Levels in Politics, who won’t be eighteen years old until August, and who therefore won’t get a vote, but who was explaining to the young adults around her, who will, what a Member of Parliament was.

(This, remember, is one of the best-performing schools, in terms of academic results in public examinations, in the country.)

Should what is now the AS in Politics be transformed into a kind of British Citizenship Qualification? I’m not hugely impressed with the academic standards of AS Politics: it’s nowhere near that of AS History. But that’s partly because it’s new. Should there be … well, a kind of GCSE Short Course in which pupils learn what democracy is, and what pressure groups and political parties are, and how elections work, and the nature of the UK constitution, and the workings of the institutions of government?

In theory I’d be inclined to think that this would be a positive thing, yes. I would. (And not just because it’d enable A Level Politics to be more academically rigorous throughout the course, though that’d be a welcome side-effect.)

At the expense of GCSE Physics?

Ach.

As a teenager I’d have said yes, definitely. Why on earth were three sciences mandatory? I wasn’t going to be a scientist. Or a mathematician. Why couldn’t I do geography and religious studies and history? Why not French and German and Latin? What was so special about the sciences that the three of them had to be compulsory all the way to sixteen?

I continue to have some sympathy for the teenage me. But this would be my answer now.

Yes, it’s appalling that school leavers know nothing about politics. But they’ll pick it up. (Or they won’t. It’s not as though the population is full of people who remember their valencies, or how photosynthesis works. Quite why we think mandatory Citizenship lessons would create a population of political animals I don’t know.) Reaching adulthood without knowing the most basic elements of politics and citizenship is unfortunate. But so would be dropping sciences at the age of thirteen: for those pupils, too many doors would be closed.

Finally, what about History? American schools teach ‘social studies’ – History and Politics and Citizenship combined in one subject. Could it be the job of the History teacher to use the study of the past to teach citizenship too?

One answer is that since pupils can drop History at thirteen this wouldn’t be much of an improvement. Could a traditional chronological sweep, covering 449-1992 across five years, culminate in a final year of compulsory study which, in educating our pupils about the history of the twentieth century, would also cover the essentials of citizenship?

Well, I think in terms of the structure of how the past is taught between eleven and sixteen the ship sailed on that prospect some time ago. But there’s another and greater problem with the prospect of History teachers becoming instructors in citizenship.

Let me just confine myself to a very short period of history. Not one chosen at random, no. Let’s go back one century to 1917. What was going on then?

When we teach the suffragettes … what is the citizenship message?

When we teach the Defence of the Realm Act … what is the citizenship message?

When we teach conscription … what is the citizenship message?

When we teach the Irish question … what is the citizenship message?

Now there are reasonable historical debates about those issues. And yes, historians disagree about them; and yes, of course historians tend to take the views which conform to their ideological preferences. But I’d like to think, at least, that when History teachers talk to their classes about those issues they try to communicate their tremendous complexity, and to try to avoid the temptation to indulge too much ‘who were the goodies and who were the baddies’.

Here’s a controversial thought to end with.

Might a ‘good’ citizen be one who fervently believed that the NUWSS were sheroes, while the WSPU were villains? Like it or not, the teaching of citizenship is intended to create good citizens. A good citizen doesn’t vandalise property or deface works of art or attack elderly gentlemen on the platforms of railway stations, even if she is under the misapprehension that he is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, because that’s not how good citizens go about effecting historical change.

Does a good citizen do his government’s bidding in time of war? What if it’s a ‘good’ war? What if his government bids him join the armed forces? What does someone who doesn’t recognise the legitimacy of constitutional arrangements owe to those arrangements? These are Citizenship questions. But they’re not historical questions. Or, at least, while they’re interesting to ponder in class for a while, they’re very much not what the study of the past is about.

It is possible – though, dismally, there aren’t many people for whom this is true – both to disapprove of Emily Wilding Davison and to think that she made a positive contribution to women’s suffrage. (And, indeed, vice versa.)

A Citizenship course would require a teacher to tell pupils that Davison was Wrong. (Some teachers would, of course, tell their pupils that she was Right. Just as ahistorical.) This isn’t what should happen in the History classroom.

So I am in sympathy, broadly, with the principle that we should teach Citizenship. But I don’t see how it could be done.

I’m open to persuasion.

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