Why is Citizenship so Important?
Why is Citizenship so undervalued? Pupils need the chance to understand the world around them.
Growing up in Australia, my education never included a subject remotely resembling Citizenship. I was never taught about the structure of the Australian Parliament (it’s bicameral, by the way, but both assemblies are elected), the rights that I have, or even told about how to register to vote. I know of some nearby schools who took a week-long school trip to Canberra to visit the Houses of Parliament, but upon reflection it seems odd that in a country where citizens are legally required to vote in elections, there was no thought to educate children about this civil duty formally.
I’ve lived in the UK for almost eleven years now, and I remember thinking how interesting Citizenship sounded when I first arrived. I fell into teaching Citizenship and PSHE through a rather naïve conversation with my first headteacher, as I volunteered to lead on the combined subject as it became properly timetabled and staffed.
As I ploughed my way through that first year, I felt like I had found my fit; a subject where I could, among other things, help pupils understand the rights that they have, see how they can make an impact on the world around them, and maybe even learn to get along a little better whilst doing so.
A decade on, I still love what I teach, and the reactions that I get from my pupils. But in the world of school subjects, it still seems like Citizenship is the distant relative that no one really wants to talk about.
Lord Harries of Pentregarth summed it up pretty perfectly a few weeks ago during the House of Lords committee report on Citizenship and Civic Engagement, calling Citizenship a “Cinderella subject”. I find it highly ironic that MPs and the DfE don’t seem to hold Citizenship in higher esteem, considering that it gives them an opportunity to demonstrate the work they do and how it shapes the country. A cynic, perhaps, might suggest that this is exactly why they don’t focus on it.
In some ways, I get the Government’s view; Citizenship isn’t exactly quantifiable in the same way as a Maths test. But neither is an English essay or a Geography report about the erosion of beaches. Surely we need to be looking at the best interests of our pupils – and our wider society – and start educating our young people to be more than just a filled vessel.
I’m fortunate to be working in another school where Citizenship is valued, having moved a few years ago to Hampshire. I’m currently taking my first GCSE Citizenship Studies class through, and am so pleased that I’ve been given the support in developing pupils’ understanding of the world around them.
But it saddens me when I look around and see how few schools around me seem to be doing the same. I wish that more schools would find that lost space on the timetable to give pupils the chance for proper Citizenship lessons, because these schools don’t seem to know what they’re missing out on.
The best Citizenship lessons help to encourage pupils to find their own voice.
They engage pupils with our society and foster pride for the communities in which they live.
They outrage and frustrate pupils and lead to debates which continue on long after the end of the lesson.
They show pupils that it’s okay to disagree about an issue, and that having a civil conversation is more important than resorting to name-calling or petty insults.
They help pupils to understand their rights, and to see where injustice continues around the world.
They inspire pupils to take action, following in the footsteps of other young people like Malala Yousafzai and the students of Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.
They lead to pupils engaging in projects within the school and in the wider community, where pupils learn first-hand what can happen when you take a stand or work together to address an issue.
And – possibly most importantly in today’s age – they help pupils to make sense of the world that we’re living in.
In the time that I’ve been away from Australia, they’ve now developed a Civics and Citizenship curriculum to help plug the gaps that existed before. I am hopeful that things will go the same way here in the UK, and that Citizenship will be given the time and attention it needs to make a difference to our pupils’ lives, both today and in the future.