Learning to vote by rote
The new citizenship education fails to inspire teacher Kevin Rooney
From September 2000, citizenship will enter the national curriculum as a compulsory subject, covering all pupils aged five to 16. It will become a GCSE and AS-level option from 2001. An increasingly strong lobby argues for the introduction of citizenship education to pre-fives in nursery school.
When the Tory government floated the idea of citizenship education, many commentators poured forth condemnations of 'indoctrination' and 'brainwashing'. But today, the new subject has largely been welcomed with open arms, with just a few reservations about the mechanics of its implementation. The words indoctrination and brainwashing have simply disappeared. Most worrying is the widespread acceptance that it is the educators' job to do what politicians have singularly failed to do - enthuse and engage young people in the political process.
The new subject of citizenship is the culmination of several years' discussion, and based mainly on the report Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools, put together by the Advisory Group on Citizenship headed by Professor Bernard Crick. Countless submissions to the report note worrying levels of apathy, ignorance and cynicism about public life, and the recent poor voter turnout in local elections, Euro elections and several by-elections. One report states that 'one third of 18-34 year olds see themselves as outside the system', while 'less than one sixth of 18-25 year olds saw themselves as having a duty to vote' (John Potter, Education for Life, Work and Citizenship, April 1999). Even our dynamic prime minister seems to see the solution to voter apathy at the level of education. He has welcomed the innovative ideas emanating from schools today, like mock elections, mock parliaments, school councils, and even a 'bring your parents to vote' day.
The main aim of Professor Crick's report is to show how to re-engage and reconnect young people back into the political process. It identifies three strands which will run through all courses:
Social and moral responsibility
'...Morally responsible behaviour both in and beyond the classroom, both towards those in authority and towards each other.'
'...learning through community involvement and service to the community.'
'...pupils learning about the institutions, problems and practices of our democracy and how to make themselves effective in the life of the nation, locally, regionally and nationally, through skills and values as well as knowledge.'
The authors of the new citizenship curriculum are at pains to point out that they seek as wide a consensus as possible and aim to be 'inclusive' when implementing and delivering the new subject. But you either have a consensus on social and moral responsibility which relativises everything and defeats the object or, as is more likely, you end up teaching the social and moral responsibilities as defined by this New Labour government. Do you think that a teacher would be free to tell his year-11 citizenship class that he sees nothing particularly wrong with adults smoking or engaging in casual sex? Dream on! In fact, I was recently informed that to discuss with my students the motion that 'GNVQs are dumbing down the sixth form' was irresponsible and offensive. Already you can see how the social and moral responsibility aspect of citizenship will be used further down the line to censor views and opinions that don't fit in with the government line.
The emphasis on community involvement - the second strand of citizenship - stipulates that to be a truly 'active citizen' the student is encouraged to join a voluntary organisation. Of course, if a young person doesn't want to join a 'voluntary organisation' they stand to fail their GCSE. The citizenship proposals emphasise what they see as the positive side and benefits of volunteering, and do not specifically state that volunteering will be compulsory (yet). But why would any young person voluntarily brand themselves a bad citizen, by refusing to get involved?
The third component of citizenship - political literacy - is an attempt to give students a knowledge of the institutions and processes that have traditionally made up British politics. This is quite ironic when you consider that the traditional institutions like parliament and the cabinet are now ignored and the process of representative democracy is largely redundant. This strand rests on the mistaken assumption that if it was people's lack of knowledge of the political process that was responsible for apathy, then a learned knowledge of the political institutions and processes will help to enthuse and reconnect people to politics. You might say this is naive - but most of Bernard Crick's advisory group have convinced themselves that it is the case.
As a teacher of A-level politics, I am concerned that fewer than 10 000 students entered the exam last year - the lowest number ever. I am even more concerned about the way politics teachers are clamouring to be held up as best suited to teach citizenship at a time when A-level politics is on the decline. The likely consequence is the death of A-level politics, to be taught only in a few specialised institutions and put on a par with Latin or Greek.
So what, you may say. But for all my criticisms of A-level politics, at least it still contains an element of rigour, and demands an ability to analyse, interpret and present an argument in a coherent, rational and logical manner - something that its replacement is unlikely to do. Citizenship represents a dumbed-down attempt to moralise politics as well as individual and social relationships. So nebulous and unspecific is it that its list of topics to be covered increases almost daily. Bullying, racism, sexism, homophobia, sexual health, parenting, inter- and intra-personal skills, feelings, relationships, fairness, sharing, right, wrong, global community, rights and responsibilities, world population, ageism, environmentalism (very big in the new proposals) make up probably less than half of what will now be taught under the rubric of citizenship. The words 'indoctrination' and 'brainwashing' come to mind.
Reproduced from LM issue 127, February 2000