Citizenship education programmes have to provide young people with both the knowledge required for effective citizenship – how our legal, political, social and economic system works and how individuals and communities can impact upon this system – and real experience of doing citizenship.
The ‘citizenship-rich’ school welcomes student and community involvement, and is innovative and inclusive in the way that it does so. This is a different kind of place in which to teach and learn: the developing of citizens, rather than just the qualifying of learners, is at the core of its mission. In such a setting, children and young people are seen as much more than citizens of tomorrow: they are recognised and treated as the learner-citizens of today, subject to, and enabled by, various laws and agreements (not least the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child).
This recognition and engagement is further enabled by a range of initiatives that begin to recognise the status of young people and their families as citizens: the Every Child Matters agenda, the government’s new focus on family learning and parent education, and the growth of emotional literacy programmes.
Ten years ago much of this would have been portrayed as a low priority – a distraction, even – for schools. However, since the introduction of Citizenship to the National Curriculum, attitudes have begun to change. Schools that embrace citizenship-rich principles and champion student participation rarely turn back: many point to positive impacts on educational achievement, especially among those often seen as ‘hard to reach’.
And there may be a wider benefit. Deferential obedience is no longer the defining characteristic of adult-child relations, but society has struggled to define an alternative. Seeing the child or young person as a learner-citizen (a full citizen but one that is still developing) – rather than an ‘empty vessel’ or a threatening ‘youth’ – might be a starting point. After all, if education is not for effective, informed, engaged citizenship, what is it for?