From education to employment

Could David Blunkett’s Compulsory “Citizenship” Lessons make Young Citizens More Activ

In the first of a two ““ part series, FE News journalist Joe Paget looks at citizenship education and its potential impact on Britain today.

When the idea was first mooted, many teachers and learning providers reacted to the government’s plans for compulsory citizenship education with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Some learners taking specialist vocational subjects also questioned the point of taking up so much time with something that didn”t really seem relevant to their training.

In the event though, many learners who took part in the pilot scheme found citizenship an interesting and rewarding experience, and many tutors found it a fun subject to teach. Citizenship allows teachers and learners to explore exciting and controversial subjects, and ““ as Chief Inspector of Schools David Bell pointed out in a recent speech ““ it also gives them the chance to work from the morning’s news rather than old textbooks.

It even looks like citizenship can be a genuinely empowering experience for young learners. Case studies published in a recent ALI/Ofsted report make clear that discussions, debates and research undertaken during citizenship lessons have inspired post-16 students to take further action outside the classroom. Many have pushed for and achieved changes within their learning institutions and out in the wider community. The politicians, it seems, may not realise what they have unleashed.

Chairman Blunkett’s Little Red Book

The government’s aim when they introduced citizenship was to produce better citizens for the UK. This is essentially why it was criticized: it looked like an attempt to churn out model citizens according to David Blunkett’s concept of what a model citizen should be. It also sounded rather like the government thought the people of Britain weren”t good enough, which wasn”t so very far from the truth.

The egos of political figures in Britain have been stung by the fact that a large proportion of the population are totally uninterested in what they do. Voter turnouts in elections ““ local, general and European – have steadily declined, and the younger electorate have proved particularly unwilling. A combination of low voter turnout and the “first past the post” electoral system meant that Tony Blair and his government were only actually endorsed by 21.6% of the electorate in this year’s general election.

Rather than take a good hard look at why people find them so boring and unattractive, politicians habitually respond to low voter-turnouts by blaming the voters ““ particularly the young ““ and dismissing them as “apathetic”. In reality, many are not apathetic: they are frustrated, and as the ALI/Ofsted case studies show, the conclusion many have drawn from citizenship lessons is that, to change things as a democratic citizen, you sometimes need to do a bit more than put a piece of paper into a box.

DIY Culture

To be fair, this is exactly what Blunkett said citizenship should do. “I believe we need to build in youngsters at an early age a knowledge of their own society, their part in it and their citizenship,” he told Radio 4 in 2003. “This is not a passive citizenship, such as voting occasionally, but an active one, where people make the world around them a better place by what they do and how they do it.”

The thing is, people often have very different ideas about what “makes the world a better place”, and sometimes these can clash (to say the least) with the agenda of those in power. Blunkett thinks citizenship should teach learners “morally and socially responsible” methods of effecting change, but again, this definition is open to interpretation. However much learning providers preach an official line ““ “don”t be extreme or break the law” – there are plenty of examples from history to show that, to bring about real change, you sometimes need to do exactly the opposite.

Full democracy, or what passes for it, was only achieved in Britain in 1918. Women won the vote by taking non-violent ““ and violent – direct action, breaking the law, and being sent to prison. There, on hunger strike, they were force fed through tubes on the orders of the then Liberal government. Do we now think the suffragettes” extreme and illegal methods were “morally or socially irresponsible”, or do we think they were right?

Joe Paget

Read part two of “Citizenship: Power to the People?” right here at FE News!

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