This article is from the August issue of Total Politics
I experienced two fantastic examples of citizenship education during recent visits to secondary schools.
Both involved actively engaging younger secondary school pupils in topical issues and helping them see how they could influence both their local environment and a wider political issue.
At City Academy in Norwich, the year seven pupils were taken off their timetable for a week and asked to develop an exhibition on environmental problems and solutions to present to the local community.
Speakers, including myself, gave an overview of key challenges and the students could then choose an issue on which to carry out their own research. They were encouraged to consider everything, from the global impact of the issues to what could be done in their city, school and home.
The teachers behind the initiative had a big challenge in co-ordinating the departments and different elements of the curriculum that made up the event, but it was clearly worthwhile.
The other was a project for year eight pupils at the Joseph Rowntree School in York. They were among young people from just three schools around the world to participate in a live link-up to world leaders at the Rio+20 Earth Summit on sustainability.
One pupil had taken the initiative to link up with two schools in other continents and arrange for her and her classmates to create a film of questions to present to world leaders.
The teachers had seen the huge educational opportunity this provided and worked with the students to organise their own Rio Earth Summit one evening. This involved bringing together different local organisations and political and civic leaders to present information on their roles in working for sustainability, but also to hear the students’ views and work on addressing environmental challenges.
Again, pupils were given time to work off-timetable in preparation, with support from teachers of a range of subjects.
In both these schools, the youngsters were really engaged with the subjects. The format of the initiatives meant that they not only learnt about the science of environmental problems such as climate change, but were also engaged in considering solutions and how to bring them about, both in terms of their own lives and community and the wider political context.
The teachers had found ways to combine a practical experience of citizenship with use of skills and knowledge from many subject areas, including English, geography, ICT, art and drama.
It wasn’t about teaching the theory of rights and responsibilities, nor about prescribing a particular set of views or way of life for the students to follow, but about presenting social challenges and enabling the students to develop their own views and ideas on addressing them.
Both these examples focused on the environment, but the engaging, cross-curriculum format could work well for other subjects, such as crime and justice.
These are fantastic examples of how young people can be engaged in current affairs in an educational way – but many tell me that citizenship is not treated seriously in their schools.
There’s an occasional lesson, which many students and teachers see as a break from the main timetable, but it’s not taught in a practical way that could give young people the knowledge and experience of playing an active role in society.
Many teachers are asked to teach citizenship in addition to their main subject, with little training and support. It’s no wonder that many schools treat it as an add-on to the pressured main curriculum.
But it would be disastrous for young people, and the future of our democracy, if citizenship is removed from the curriculum, as recommended in the review currently being undertaken by the government.
Indeed, I would call on the education secretary to make citizenship a fundamental part of the curriculum.
Taking a real concern that young people experience daily, and encouraging them to address and analyse the facts and perspectives, is an effective way of inspiring them to learn and develop skills in research, analysis and debate.
We ask young people to spend lots of their school time reading and analysing literature and history, and these are crucial for a broad education, but why don’t we encourage them to engage with current affairs in the same way?
In Scotland, there’s an academic subject that does just that – modern studies. One way to ensure that citizenship is treated more seriously in all schools in the UK would be to introduce modern studies to the curriculum.
This would show young people that an awareness of current affairs is just as important as learning about literature and history. It would also mean a group of teachers would be given the time and training to focus specifically on teaching the subject.
We need our young people to leave school with an understanding of how our political system works, and how they can be active citizens and influence decision-making at different levels.
Giving schools flexibility in how the curriculum is delivered is also critical. More cross-subject initiatives that enable students to pursue current affairs subjects in detail will help develop skills in a range of subjects, while showing students how they can take an active part in society.
It’s clear to me that young people are interested in the world around them, and that harnessing that interest is a way of absorbing them in their school work and enabling them to be active citizens.
Adrian Ramsay is deputy leader of the Green Party