Battle in Print: Citizenship education is not working

Kevin Rooney, 19 October 2007

Why citizenship?

‘We aim at no less than a change in the political culture of this country both nationally and locally’ (Crick et al. 1998: 7).

This ambitious statement, which could be from a party political manifesto, can be found in the final report of the Advisory Group on Citizenship Education, otherwise known as the Crick Report. At the time, the report argued that citizenship must be introduced into schools in order to address what some had described as young people’s ‘historic political disconnection’ (Crick et al. 1998: 16). It did not take long for the theoretical musings of the Crick Report to be translated into practical action. In August 2002, New Labour made citizenship a compulsory subject for every student in English schools.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this process was not the speed with which an entirely new subject was developed and introduced. It was fact that there was no serious debate. Whilst many, such as OfSTED, have questioned the quality of citizenship teaching, and others have debated how and what students should learn in citizenship education, few have examined the central article of faith on which citizenship education is based. This is the notion that the alienation of young people from politics can be resolved through education. Instead, teachers’ unions, exam boards, the major political parties and pressure groups have uncritically welcomed the introduction of citizenship education.

The many effects of citizenship education

In fact, the subject’s advocates are now proposing that citizenship lessons be made compulsory in post-16 education. This is being justified by rather extravagant claims. At a recent citizenship conference organised by the AQA exam board, speaker after speaker argued that it could ‘help prevent family breakdowns’, ‘strengthen communities’, and ‘underpin social cohesion’. Sir Keith Ajegbo, author of the Diversity and Citizenship Curriculum Review, added that the new ‘Britishness’ strand of Citizenship would ‘provide young people with a common sense of identity and belonging’. Even the Tories, who you might expect to be critical of a New Labour initiative, were desperate to get in on the act. According to Boris Johnson MP (shadow minister for higher education) ‘citizenship education for 4-18 year olds would help bolster national solidarity and counter the perceived crisis of socialisation’.

But can citizenship education really engage young people in a political system that fully-grown adults find less than inspiring? And what are the costs associated with using education to address the crisis of politics? I believe that it is time that educationalists and policy-makers attempted to answer these important questions.

Has citizenship education worked?

No. Five years since its introduction into schools it is now possible to assess the efficacy of citizenship education. Its stated aim was to increase rates of youth participation and there is no evidence that it has. There was, for example, no rise in voter turnout amongst first time eligible voters in the last general election, or the 2007 local elections. British Youth Council research shows that the figures for young people getting involved in either direct action campaign or pressure groups is static at about two per cent.

International comparisons do not bode well either. Despite a well-established civics programmes in US schools, young voters appear even more reluctant to vote than their UK counterparts. According to US expert Morris Janovitz, two decades of civics education in the US has failed to enhance levels of civic engagement. And Australia, which has a civics programme that many consider exemplary, is experiencing similar voting trends, with participation rates on a downwards slope.

Domestic and international evidence clearly demonstrates that citizenship education does not work. It shows that voter apathy is in fact a response to the wider political climate, rather than a product of the absence or presence of citizenship lessons. Indeed, as a teacher of history, citizenship and politics, I have seen nothing in my teaching career to convince me that political illiteracy induces voter apathy, or vice versa. My students, I can say with confidence, evidence high levels of political literacy in terms of their understanding of the mechanics of the political system, but many still choose not to vote.

The impact of citizenship education on the curriculum

It seems clear to me that citizenship education is a waste of valuable curriculum time if it is being taught to engage the young in politics. In itself this would be sufficient cause to oppose the subject. However, citizenship education represents more than an unnecessary diversion as its introduction into schools is undermining the wider curriculum. The principal mechanism for this has been the development of the cross-curricular citizenship themes, to which all subjects are now required to align their practices. This undermines teachers’ ability to deliver their subject knowledge in a coherent fashion, as they are expected to demonstrate how each of their lessons addresses a prescribed list of citizenship-related concepts, values and dispositions. This hollows out and dilutes the subject content delivered, as teachers are expected to make links with topics such as Islamaphobia, voting and sustainability, regardless of the topic being studied. For those teachers who don’t comply, the consequences are serious, as OfSTED fails practitioners whose lessons do not meet the citizenship criteria. 

What’s new about citizenship education?

Of course one could argue that education has always been a mechanism for socialising the young, for inducting them into the values of society, including those that relate to democratic participation. However, there is one key difference with the past. Previously, political socialisation was always done indirectly and subtlety. Promoting engagement in democratic politics was always considered a secondary effect of the attempt to offer a well-rounded, subject-based, liberal education. For this reason the intellectual integrity of individual subjects, such as English and history, was automatically respected. Today, by contrast, citizenship education is little more than a crude and unmediated attempt to instil a new set of moral values in today’s youth, when traditional moral arbiters, such as religious institutions, family, trade unions and political parties have failed.

School teachers cannot resolve the crisis of politics

Ironically, the task of defining a common set of moral values to be conveyed in schools is something on which the political and educational elite cannot agree. The National Forum for Values in Education - a body that was charged with defining a common set values to inform the Crick Report - had to broker a banal compromise amongst its members to avoid splits and a series of threatened walkouts.

Similarly, when the government ordered that a fourth strand be added to the citizenship curriculum, the previously mentioned ‘Britishness’ component, its very own education secretary, at this point Alan Johnson, was unable to define what these values might be. When asked by a Radio 4 presenter to clarify what were uniquely British values, he stuttered, hesitated, and after a while mumbled a few platitudes about tolerance, equality and democracy. As if a Frenchman, or a Mexican, wouldn’t claim these as their own.

Alan Johnson’s inability to provide a substantive account of what the British stand for, and the fudge at the National Forum, draws our attention to the key problem. Those in power cannot in fact agree on any meaningful definition of the values that should be held in common. For this reason they are incapable of inspiring adherence to these values in the electorate. And, for some unknown reason, they expect teachers to pick up the pieces. Consequently, the very subject that New Labour has created to engage the young itself lacks authority.

Values are being imposed on the young 

At first glance, the citizenship curriculum may look as if it’s promoting uncontroversial, if bland, values such as honesty, fairness and tolerance. However, a closer inspection of citizenship education reveals that more specific viewpoints are also being conveyed through the subject. Interestingly, however, these viewpoints are being recast as universal moral values against which students are expected to model their personal behaviour. For example, in citizenship literature, sustainability and caring for the environment are described as values, when in fact these are political attitudes towards economic development and the natural world that many, including myself, would dispute. 

Aside from being a moral sleight of hand, one consequence of redefining politics as values is that the intellectual content of classroom practice that explores these topics is emptied out. Instead of engaging the young in knotty and unresolved questions that need to be unpicked and explored, students are instead presented with an ideological fait accompli. The presentation of climate change within citizenship classes is a classic example. Here a scientific and political question has been translated into a values statement. At the level of the classroom this means that rather than looking at arguments for and against human intervention in nature, or the debates around sustainability and development, it is assumed that the only question is how we might effectively adjust our individual actions to counteract the consequences of climatic change. Alan Johnson made this point clear when he argued that: ‘If we can instil in the next generation an understanding of how our actions can mitigate or cause global warming then we lock in a culture change that could, quite literally, save the world’ (Johnson 2.2.2007).

All aboard the citizenship gravy train 

Amid all this uncertainty over values, the citizenship curriculum, and school curriculum more broadly, has become a battle ground - or gravy train - for a whole host of campaigns that are zealously trying to get their moral message into the classroom. Recent campaigns have included Fair Trade and Third World debt (note: many schools teach global citizenship straight from teaching materials produced by Oxfam). Public health officials have also demanded more attention on healthy eating, obesity, safe sex and the dangers of sunshine. Other groups have demanded more black and gay history, whilst banks have argued that schools should promote the virtues of financial capability. Likewise, failed American presidential candidate Al Gore has sent his film An Inconvenient Truth to every secondary school in the country to urge greater responsibility towards the environment. No doubt some of these campaigns have worthy aims, but surely these are issues to be addressed by adults in the political sphere, rather than teachers and their students in the classroom.

Citizenship education undermines the moral autonomy of students 

Rather than attempting to win the argument with adults, New Labour is instead turning to schools. But the absence of a moral consensus in Britain today will not be solved through indoctrinating children into the latest fashionable values. This represents an abdication of political leadership and it can only fail, as real values, strong values, emerge not out of school books but from strong communities and a real clash of ideas in society.

In addition to this, values-led citizenship education undermines the spirit of free intellectual inquiry that schools are in fact responsible for fostering in the young. It limits students’ freedom of conscience and their right to determine their own social and political value system. Here the model of the autonomous independent student is being replaced with a young person who undergoes behaviour modification through the imposition of values. If you think that I am exaggerating, consider the position of those young people who choose to reject the values taught in citizenship lessons. Official guidelines quite clearly stipulate that students must demonstrate a concern and commitment for the values laid out in the curriculum in order to achieve a good assessment grade. So what marks will be awarded to the young man who has concluded that there is no point in voting (rejecting the value of participation), or the young woman who feels that ‘sustainable development’ may be robbing the developing world of the most advanced technology, or the pupil who has decided to get involved in party politics - with the British National Party?

Citizenship education: a symptom, not a cure

Advocates of citizenship may argue that my critique offers no solutions to the apathy of the nation’s youth. They may point out that my vision of a good all-round liberal education system feeding young people into a dynamic political culture is idealistic. In the real world, they might add, something must be done.

No one would agree more than me that something must be done when an entire generation appears to have turned its back on the political system. But I would strongly argue that citizenship education is the wrong response and one that brings new problems in its wake. By transforming the act of political participation into a subject to be taught, the proponents of citizenship have trivialised and undermined the whole concept of political activity. One example of this is the widespread establishment of new forms of school councils and youth parliaments which are intended to turn the school into some kind of banal ‘participation factory’. This reduces political activity to the utterly banal.

Despite the enthusiasm of the advocates of citizenship education, the reality is that this new subject is little more than a symptom of the malaise in politics. Citizenship education conveniently enables our leaders to displace political responsibility, as it is they who have in fact failed to inspire our young people with a vision of politics and the good society.

It says a lot about our political leaders’ lack of confidence in their own system that they now feel their best chance of persuading people to take part is by putting it alongside maths and English as a compulsory subject.

To sum up, we should oppose citizenship education for the following reasons:

1. Citizenship education cannot resolve the crisis of politics;
2. Citizenship education allows politicians to evade responsibility;
3. Citizenship education is anti-intellectual, as it prioritises values over academic inquiry;
4. Citizenship education is insidious and authoritarian because it seeks to impose values on the young;
5. Citizenship education trivialises political participation, reducing it to a programme of behaviour modification.

Kevin Rooney is head of social science at Queens’ School, Bushey. He teaches history and politics and also has responsibility for citizenship education. He is an occasional contributor to various political, cultural and educational magazines, including Fortnight, the biggest selling political magazine in Ireland. He has contributed to several books on the theme of citizenship education, including The Routledge Falmer Guide to Key Debates in Education. He has been a panellist on various BBC Radio 5 Live current affairs shows. Apart from his interest in education and politics more generally, his other great passion in life is Celtic Football Club, in which he is a shareholder and season ticket holder.

 References

Crick, B. et al. (1998). Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools. London, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Johnson, A. (2.2.2007). ‘Children must think differently’. Independent.

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