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Learning to be a model citizen

March 9, 2015

Over 1,000 learners are following AS/A-level ‘Citizenship Studies’ courses across the country as part of their overall A-level programme, including Newcastle Sixth Form College in the city. This is to be welcomed by all those who want to see a ‘politically educated electorate’ in the second decade of the twentieth-first century.

Numeracy, literacy and information technology (IT) – commonly known as ‘functional skills’ in the further and adult education sector – are all taught in our school sixth forms and further and adult education centres. Yet post-16 courses in Citizenship Studies remain neglected, with the exception of the 250 providers across the UK.

Like fixing a plug or mending a fuse, citizenship education is a ‘life and social skill’ that we all need, irrespective of age, socio-economic status, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and ability or attainment.

One crucial aspect of citizenship education is a grasp of political, legal, economic and social processes. For instance, politics is concerned with power in our society. It affects nearly every feature of our lives. Decisions not only have to be taken in national, local and European settings, but also need to be taken within day-to-day social relationships. In essence, this is what politics is all about.

To participate effectively within the various decision-making processes, it’s essential that people are suitably equipped with the relevant civic or political knowledge, skills and confidence.

The last thirty years has seen the rapid development of society with the consequences of more centralised political-decision making, despite devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Centralised power has reduced the ability of citizens to actively influence decision making, let alone understand it. More disturbingly in last decade, a huge chunk of the population feel ‘alienated’ from the democratic process, especially youngsters, adults with learning disabilities or mental health issues, some minority ethnic groups and a section of the white working class. About four out of 10 of those registered to vote in the 2010 general election didn’t bother. Turnout in the 2014 council elections was even lower and only 15 per cent of the region’s electors turned out to vote for the election for a Police and Crime Commissioner in November 2012.

If this is unsettling consider voting among young people. According to Angela Ellam and Peter McBride in their important book, ‘A Councillor View of Modern Local Government’, only 20 per cent of 18 to 21-year olds voted in the 2005 general election, and a derisory one in 10 put a cross on a ballot paper in the last European elections!

Such a degree of ‘apathy’, it’s argued by some, stems from a lack of confidence in elected representatives’ ability to tackle the problems that affect everyday lives – an issue that’s become more acute in light of the revelations concerning the ‘expenses’ scandal amongst some Members of Parliament including M.Ps and members of the House of Lords.

Yet, ignorance about the issues at stake and of people’s own role in implementing change is a major factor in accounting for this ‘disillusionment’.
Citizenship education in the post-compulsory sector can help to create an active and informed electorate. The maintenance of a successful mature democracy is dependent on people exercising a choice between political parties and policies. Civic education can provide an awareness and deeper understanding of the ‘rights’ and ‘responsibilities’ of citizens. It’s essential that people know how to keep and exercise these rights, something which can’t be achieved without an understanding of the democratic and political process.

It’s in post-16 schooling and at college that young adults need to acquire the skills and attitudes which make them better informed about politics, the law, how our economy works, and social issues and their participation in public life. Youngsters need to be able to appreciate and grasp the point of views of others, to present arguments based on ‘empirical’ evidence and to recognise and evaluate bias.

It’s crucial that young people by the age of 19 understand how their local council works, what the various political parties stand for, what a local councillor, M.P, M.E.P or magistrate does and how the British legal and government system operates. Furthermore, they need how to get involved in a local charity through voluntary work such as Oxfam, MIND or Cancer Research. Lessons in citizenship can help combat voter apathy, low levels of civic participation and create a politically aware, literate adult community.

Some policy- makers are sceptical about the role of citizenship in the post-16 curriculum as there’s the danger of dogmatism or bias. Yet history, which is widely taught across state and independent schools across the city can’t possibly avoid value judgements. Bias can’t be eliminated, but it can be recognised. It’s the responsibility of the teacher to maintain professional integrity, to acknowledge and encourage an awareness of a diversity of viewpoints on important civic, economic, legal and equality related issues.

Open, honest bias is often employed in universities to stimulate learners into a reaction; though in secondary or further education it ought to be rejected as some students are not ‘mature’ enough to challenge the views of their tutors and may even accept them as gospel.

Nevertheless academic reports and OFSTED Inspection feedbacks have shown that few problems have arisen from allegations of indoctrination or bias in the teaching of citizenship studies.

In an era of rapid change and declining participation in public affairs together with the Coalition Government’s interest in the ‘Big Society’ and Labour’s renewed commitment to the ‘rights and responsibilities’ agenda, the need for citizenship education in the post 16 educational curriculum could not be greater.

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