Volume 17 Number2
Why Should They Be Good Citizens?
01 April 2004

James Wood teaches a subject which challenges both schools and society at large.

Since September 2000, Citizenship has been a compulsory subject in English and Welsh secondary schools. Its aim is to develop young people as fully-fledged members of all the communities to which they belong, from their school to the global village; to help them make sense of the world and to know how they can take part in it.

Being a citizen is more than voting or joining pressure groups; Citizenship, they say, is ‘not a subject but a way of life’.

At the secondary school where I teach, students of all ages spend between two and five hours a fortnight studying a combined course in Citizenship and PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education). In later years, this also includes RE (religious education). The Citizenship staff are also responsible for careers education.

This apparently unconnected set of topics can be complementary. Religious education should contribute to a student’s basic understanding of the world, and spiritual experience influences our view of the personal issues, such as drug use, relationships and personal safety, which are discussed in PSHE. This in turn links to the Citizenship curriculum which asks students to consider the operation of the law in areas such as marriage and sexuality.

At the heart of Citizenship is the concept of rights and responsibilities. The subject encourages students to develop such skills as discussion and teamwork, both through the classroom and through activities like the student council and sports.

The hope is that what is discussed in Citizenship will influence students’ thinking in the classroom, on the sports field, in the playground and beyond the school gates. Questions such as ‘Should I drop litter in the playground?’ or

‘Is it right to buy this brand of coffee?’ are just as important as understanding that each student has the right to their opinion and that the school community demands certain standards from its members.

There is some truth in the suggestion that Citizenship asks us to teach children what their parents ought to teach them. Two key questions now dominate in my thinking. First, is Citizenship just a formalization of what schools and communities always did? Second, how can we succeed without a moral consensus beyond the school gates?

In a society which is losing its values and direction, students do not come to school with an established and agreed morality. Without an implicit agreement between teachers, parents and students as to what is expected, a school community cannot function effectively.

The introduction of Citizenship to the national curriculum shows that the government has understood that it cannot hope to solve Britain’s social problems without first addressing their underlying moral causes. Unfortunately addressing these issues in schools will be no more than a drop in the ocean unless it is allied to a change of heart in society at large.

Without this change of heart students who are involved in crime or who hold prejudiced points of view will simply be hardened against authority. Their question, ‘Why should I?’ is a good one. Why should they obey the law, avoid drugs and vote in elections? These are questions on which society holds no consensus.

As part of our Citizenship and PSHE courses, I bring in guest speakers on issues such as drugs and law. There are many people queuing up to tell our students what not to do but I have yet to find the people who can offer young people a positive vision for their future. Teachers can contribute a great deal, but this is also the role of society at large: we cannot do it on our own.

Citizenship has had success in informing our pupils, and in connecting them to the life of our local community. It has taught them about their rights and responsibilities and the effects of their decisions. But the ‘Why should I?’ question remains unanswered. Why should I take part in the life of my community? Why should I treat others with respect? Why should I obey the law if I can get away without doing so? Teaching Citizenship in a moral vacuum makes finding meaningful answers impossible.

James Wood is head of Citizenship at a secondary school in Hertfordshire, England.

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