Citizenship education prepares us for the future

Citizenship education – at it’s best – prepares young people to take part in society as engaged and informed citizens. It looks to the future and asks young people: ‘what do you want the world to look like?’ and ‘what are you going to do about it?’

Though it’s only been statutory for a few years, citizenship education is already under threat. There are some people suggesting that the best place to learn about what it means to be a British citizen is in a history class, by celebrating what has been achieved in the past, and not in citizenship education, with its emphasis on the present and future action.

What’s going on here? Is trusting young people to critically examine the legal, political and economic institutions that govern society and empowering them to engage with these institutions just too threatening a proposition for some adults? Or is history really the best place to learn about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship? Does it have to be an ‘either or’ choice between history and citizenship education?

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

10 thoughts on “Citizenship education prepares us for the future

  1. Interesting to view the argument as whether it’s about what has happened in the past vs what can be achieved in the future.

    Personally I’d argue it’s neither – it’s about the right now – where and how do you fit in to society, how does it impact you and how can you impact upon it? Obviously in supporting that there’s value in looking to the past, and it’s necessary to prepare for the future particularly with awareness of increased responsibilities.

    I don’t agree with the notion that forcing historical facts down young peoples throats will somehow lead to them embracing a shared culture and being happy citizens – unfortunately it sounds likely this will become the approach of a Tory government though, so will be interesting to see how this argument evolves in the near future….

  2. Thanks Mas.

    I probably was being a bit simplistic by focusing on the future so much in this post, because I do agree with you that citizenship education is about the now as well.

    Why do you think that there are people calling for history to take the place of citizenship? I wonder if it’s because the prospect of empowering young people as citizens is just too frightening for many ‘establishment’ figures.

  3. The trouble with a lot of the people who call for a greater emphasis on history, is that they are usually calling for the “Our Island Story” version of history, which doesn’t really give people a lot of help in interpreting where we are today. It’s history as social control – a rosy reading of our onward march towards benign supremacy until (at some point, always conveniently just beyond living memory) we “lost the plot” and our society “went to the dogs” and we somehow need to get back to the way we were in the days of Empire and everything will be OK.

    Personally, I’m embarrassed by how badly I did in the citizenship test we impose on new migrants, so we should start there, with current institutions and social issues, rather than expecting young people to derive their moral framework from a dubious reading of history.

  4. Thanks Drewski.

    I think you are referring to the Conservative’s latest statements on the importance of history, made by the Shadow Secretary for Children, Schools and Families, Michael Gove MP, at the Conservative Party conference this year.

    In that speech, Gove said: ‘There is no better way of building a modern, inclusive, patriotism than by teaching all British citizens to take pride in this country’s historic achievements. Which is why the next Conservative Government will ensure the curriculum teaches the proper narrative of British History – so that every Briton can take pride in this nation’. You can read the speech in full here:

    I was deliberately being provocative about history – I actually love the subject. What I don’t love is the assumption that history is enough to prepare young people for taking part in society as citizens.

  5. History is key to citizenship as a form or real engagement. I think it’s important to understand why our institutions are what they – not simply what they are – if you are gong to be able to be engaged.

    The why is often found in history.

  6. The ‘why’ that Nick Booth mentions may be found in history, but it isn’t the end of the discussion. The sort of “island story” that can be found as a subtext to some of these Conservative descriptions of history is a very limiting form of narrative. The progressivist nature of the “how we became the nation we are today” sort of history means that the bits that don’t fit inevitably get chopped off. It neglects the many mistakes made in history, as though being here today was a deliberate plan rather than a series of events that could have happened very differently. While a true understanding of history and historiography is important in shaping our understanding of now, the way we intend to build on that has to be part of a wider debate. The one is no substitute for the other.

  7. I see crucial links between History and Citizenship and clever cross curricular teaching can surely enliven both subjects. This became clear to me upon hearing an incredibly compelling case for the European Union, made by a world war veteran who knew exactly what an un-united Europe could mean.

    Something else these subjects have in common is politics. History has always been particularly prone to reinterpretation by governments in order to meet their own agenda- Michael Gove talks about the ‘proper narrative of British History’. Most people don’t want to see politicians tikering with children’s understanding of the past – and I think we should be equally worried when Citizenship comes into question.

    I wonder, how can we stop our children’s right to learn about the past, present and future becoming the subject of political whim?

  8. @Molly – I think people are calling for it in part because it’s familiar (the subject I mean not the actual history bit!).

    The previous comment by Stas hits the nail on the head for me in so far as ensuring cross curricular links between the subjects.

    @Drewski – I too failed miserably in the citizenship test – I don’t feel in anyway embarrassed though because the questions were absurd! I agree with the points you make in your first paragraph though.

    I’m not sure I agree with Nick that history is the ‘key’ to real engagement. Certainly knowledge of the past can put you at an advantage but I’d agree with Mollys broad point that there is so much more to active citizenship than that and I’ve worked with many very active citizens who were able to be active without much understanding of institutional history – indeed I’d argue much more of citizenship education needs to look beyond institutions and focus on the small things that make communities strong.

  9. Nick – I really couldn’t agree more in regards to the important role history can/should play in informing citizenship. However, I do think that only looking to the past can’t encourage the same kind of empowerment and action that citizenship education can.

    Polly & Stas – Thanks for your comments. Unfortunately the curriculum seems like it’s always going to be the plaything of politicians and history and citizenship are, to my mind, especially prone to political meddling. Stas’ question – how do we stop a child’s right to learn about the past, present and future becoming the subject of political whim – is one I really wish I knew the answer to! At the Citizenship Foundation we feel like it’s time to start restating the case for citizenship in a passionate and enthusiastic way to make sure everyone knows what’s at stake – watch this space.

    Mas – I’m glad you pointed out that I’d neglected the community aspect of citizenship in my earlier posts! You’re very right – it’s often the small actions that individuals take in their communities that best builds a sense of belonging and embeds participation. History lessons aren’t generally designed to provide opportunities for community action – I worry that if citizenship is scrapped we’ll lose the dedicated curriculum time that introduces young people to participation.

  10. I am currently writing an essay for my Citizenship PGCE programme on national identity and cultural diversity.

    It is interesting to see what everyone thinks about the Conservative proposals. Is national identity best taught through history or citizenship? I think somewhere between the two.

    History is important because shared narratives are an important part of our national identity. But we shouldn’t be reluctant to teach british identity through history just in case we teach the ‘island story narrative’.

    British history is british history for good or ill, I personally would like to see more history in our citizenship education but presented in a way where pupils make their own assumptions. Contray to what Molly said, I do not think it is a reluctance to empower pupils against the establishment but more a desire to emphasise our national narratives that have been somewhat neglected.

    In any case, in any country where indigenous pupils have a negative perception of their own identity (ajegbo report)something is surely amiss?

    As with all things it is a balance. Mas is right, forcing history down peoples’ throats won’t necessarily create a shared understanding. But force it down throats is something that should be done. We are all free to reject it and come to new understandings of what that history means to us today.

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