A tale of two citizenship curricula

Michael Gove has got off surprisingly lightly with his latest take on the school curriculum. Maybe it was relief that some of the worst features of the first version – notably history and design technology – have been changed. Or maybe it’s nearly holiday time and nobody much is paying attention.

But the reality is that this curriculum remains deeply flawed. There is still no attempt to articulate any broad aims for education. The government is still simply listing the stuff it thinks children should know and is leaving it to schools to work out whether there is anything else they should be thinking about.

Much is made of the supposed rigour of the curriculum. What this means apparently is doing something earlier than before regardless of whether young children have developed the capacity to cope with what is proposed.

The whole exercise is outrageously politicised with no attempt being made to build a consensus amongst either professionals, parents, pupils or other stakeholders. Success it would seem is defined as a good headline in the Mail or the Telegraph.

One area of the new curriculum which has received little attention is citizenship. There was some relief, clearly, that it did not vanish altogether but that is no reason to allow the changes to be unchallenged.

Labour’s citizenship curriculum was all about enabling young people to play an active role in society and about enabling then to understand and debate the issues that the country is facing. In summary it said that:

“Citizenship encourages them (young people) to take an interest in topical and controversial issues and to engage in discussion and debate. Pupils learn about their rights, responsibilities, duties and freedoms and about laws, justice and democracy. They learn to take part in decision-making and different forms of action. They play an active role in the life of their schools, neighbourhoods, communities and wider society as active and global citizens.”

For a Tory this is clearly scary stuff. The last thing they want it seems is people standing up for themselves and “trying to make a difference in their communities and the wider world”. The new curriculum has a very different focus. It’s all about the mechanics of government and the legal system. There’s no sign of any attempt to address the actual issues that face young people nor any attempt to develop the skills needed to engage actively in debate and decision making.

So, “pupils must be taught about how the political system of the UK has developed as a democracy, including the role of parliament and the monarch”.

So at least they will get to learn about the role of the monarch and about “the precious liberties enjoyed by the citizens of the United Kingdom”. But no debate about the balance between freedom and security and no encouragement to address these issues in contexts – such as school rules – that younger children could relate to. No doubt Chris Grayling and Theresa May will be mighty relieved if the job of defining what “precious liberties” we are to be allowed is left to them.

You can only think, looking at these two documents that this government sees no value in encouraging debate and in giving people the skills and knowledge they need to be a real participant in their community. It’s all just about passive learning with no encouragement to critique how country is run.

No doubt in practice many teachers will subvert this stuff and will carry on providing the experiences that they know young people really need. But the dismal lack of imagination or ambition for young people that the new curriculum demonstrates is deeply depressing.

Labour’s citizenship curriculum can be found at http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/teachingandlearning/curriculum/secondary/b00199157/citizenship

The coalition’s version can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/210969/NC_framework_document_-_FINAL.pdf

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One Comment on “A tale of two citizenship curricula”

  1. David Pavett says:

    I agree that the new draft curriculum is misconceived, backward-looking and contrary to informed opinion. I am not so sure, though, of some of the detailed points made against it.

    John says: “There is still no attempt to articulate any broad aims for education.”

    In fact the document starts with

    Every state-funded school must offer a curriculum which is balanced and broadly based1 and which:
    * promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society, and
    * prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.

    and

    The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.

    One might argue that this is inadequate or misconceived in some way but one cannot, it seems to me, say there is no attempt to formulate broad aims.

    I am not clear either about the force of the criticism that the government is “…simply listing the stuff it thinks children should know and is leaving it to schools to work out whether there is anything else they should be thinking about.” Isn’t this what a framework, or core, curriculum favoured by most on the left would do? I may have missed something on this and would appreciate some further clarification.

    Having said that Labour’s citizenship curriculum was about “… enabling young people to play an active role in society and about enabling then to understand and debate the issues that the country is facing.” John adds that In summary it said that: “For a Tory this is clearly scary stuff. The last thing they want it seems is people standing up for themselves and ‘trying to make a difference in their communities and the wider world’.”

    In fact the draft curriculum specifies that what is required is “A high-quality citizenship education helps to provide pupils with knowledge, skills and understanding to prepare them to play a full and active part in society.”

    Later on it says that “Pupils should be taught about”

    * parliamentary democracy and the key elements of the constitution of the United Kingdom, including the power of government, the role of citizens and Parliament in holding those in power to account …

    * human rights and international law …

    * the different ways in which a citizen can contribute to the improvement of his or her community, to include the opportunity to participate actively in community volunteering …

    Again, I do not want to say that this is adequate or well-conceived, and I agree that Labour’s citizenship curriculum was significantly better, but one cannot claim there is nothing in the draft about rights or about active participation.

    I also think that it is a mistake to think that the Tories, and the right in general, do not have a concept of active citizenship. That might have been true in the days when social deference dominated the relation between classes. It is no longer true today. One has only to consider the social activism of the American right in, for example, opposing gun legislation or health care reform. Many of the reforms of our social provision (including education) are arguably designed to create narrow-minded individualistic activism of this sort. Right-wing does not mean social inactive. In my view to make this assumption is a big mistake. What is at issue is not activism or not but the content of that activism.

    I make the above points with the aim of trying to ensure that the criticisms we make of the draft national curriculum hit home and are not subject to easy refutation.