Fighting for citizenship


As the government prepares to publish plans for curriculum reform, campaigners fighting to protect citizenship education are holding their breath.

“Every young person has the human right to learn about their human rights – where is the opportunity for that on the curriculum if citizenship loses its statutory status?”

This is the message from campaigners to the government as they continue their fight to safeguard the future of citizenship education within the national curriculum.

The campaign is being headed by Democratic Life, a coalition of organisations committed to citizenship, and was launched in the aftermath of education minister Michael Gove’s announcement last year that the secondary curriculum was to be reviewed.

Campaigners fear that citizenship could be dropped in the shake-up, as the minister has previously said that he wants to slim down the curriculum and give it a more academic focus. Launching the review last year, Mr Gove would not be drawn on the future of individual subjects.

And more than a year on, while the primary curriculum review has been published, we are still waiting for news of the secondary review. The long wait has only served to heighten campaigners’ fears.

In December 2011, they were dealt a blow when the final report of the National Curriculum Expert Panel stated: “The basic curriculum should be expanded to include some subjects that we recommend should be removed from the national curriculum, in order to slim it down.

“We are not persuaded that study of the issues and topics included in citizenship education constitutes a distinct ‘subject’ as such. We therefore recommend that it be reclassified as part of the basic curriculum.”

According to the Panel, provision in the basic curriculum should still be compulsory but schools should determine for themselves the nature of this provision. This means that schools would be able to decide how much citizenship to teach.

A Department for Education spokesperson would not be drawn on the subject’s future, telling SecEd: “We are still considering what the secondary national curriculum will look like, including citizenship, and we will set out our proposals in the autumn.”

Amnesty International is a leading member of the campaign to safeguard citizenship. Its human rights education manager in the UK, Laura Jayatillake, believes citizenship education is vital and warns that without it, the UK could be “left with an apathetic generation, who lack the knowledge and skills necessary to engage effectively in society”.

Liz Moorse, governing partner for Democratic Life and senior manager at the Association of Citizenship Teaching, wants to send a “clear message to schools”.

She explained: “Internationally, the best performing countries academically all teach citizenship, so it needs to be seen as a priority at both primary and secondary level.”

Citizenship became a statutory subject at key stages 3 and 4 in 2002 and as many as 500,000 young people having gained a citizenship GCSE or A level since 2002. The subject focuses on the society in which students live and tackles issues such as politics, human rights and the media.

Andy Thornton, chief executive of the Citizenship Foundation, said citizenship allows young people to “make sense of the world”. He continued: “Once they comprehend their rights and responsibilities, young people move into adulthood more readily and more capably.”

Campaigners are also at pains to point out that in May 2012, the EU announced that all of its member states had integrated citizenship education into their primary and secondary curricula. This means that if citizenship was dropped, the UK would be the only country in the EU not to teach it.

Elsewhere, a new front on the battlefield has opened up with the dramatic expansion of the government’s academies programme. Academies do not have to follow the national curriculum and Ms Jayatillake said the campaign would “appeal to the vast number of academy schools to keep citizenship education”.

She added: “Schools that have invested in the subject have reported an improvement in their school’s ethos, with a more respecting culture, children writing their own behavioural policies, and getting involved with their school councils.”

There has been some positive news, however, when in June, Democratic Life representatives were involved in two meetings at the DfE to discuss the future of citizenship. Writing on the Democratic Life website, Ms Moorse added: “The discussions allowed us to raise a range of concerns about the way in which recent government policies and the on-going uncertainty about the future of the subject, has negatively affected provision in some schools.

“We spent time with the secretary of state discussing the role of citizenship in any future secondary curriculum. The waiting game continues for now, but we departed the meetings feeling they had been open and constructive and left the way open for discussion to continue.”

So what does Amnesty want to see when the review is unveiled? Ms Jayatillake would look for citizenship to be statutory, with “adequate curriculum time, teachers who are trained specialists, senior leadership giving it support, and assessment that is rigorous and meaningful”. 

She emphasised that the subject provides a vital opportunity for students to discuss contemporary events: “For example, take last year’s riots, without citizenship where would have been the curriculum opportunity for children to discuss what was happening, debate it and really understand it?”

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