If knowledge is power then democracy needs common knowledge

Tomorrow we launch the latest research into the impact of citizenship education.

It looks at the understanding and behaviour of those who were the first to receive Citizenship from age 11. It was taken after they had been able to vote for the first time, at the General Election of 2010.

The launch will be in the House of Commons and all MPs and Lords are invited.

It comes at a timely point after the Curriculum Review published on 20th Decemebr 2011 recommended a change in the status of citizenship education.

The Review created two new categories within the statutory curriculum: both intended to free up teachers’ discretion around their subject delivery. They move the choice of course content into the hands of teachers within each school.

The top tier of content-defined curriculum will still be called the ‘National Curriculum’, and the next two, more localised tiers will be the Basic Curriculum and the Local Curriculum. So Citizenship remains in the statutory curriculum, but is in the latter two categories.

The government will prescribe the content of the National Curriculum (not the Basic or Local) under its traditional Programmes of Study which define what all students should know. This time the skills that students should develop will not be included as educational outcomes. The revised curriculum is conceived around knowledge.

The distinction is never that simple of course.

For example: knowledge for citizenship would be different to knowledge about citizenship. Knowledge about the conclusions that our society has drawn from history would be different to knowledge about things that have happened. Knowledge relating to human geography is very different from countries and climates…

It is an unenviable task to sort all that out and I would happily credit Michael Gove with having both the intellect and dynamism to take on that battle: more than most Education Secretaries of our time.

We have a fundamental gripe though.

We think that there really is an omission here. It has come in deciding that Citizenship has no core knowledge that every member of the next generation needs to have: what the Review has called ‘socially valuable’ or ‘powerful knowledge’. Knowledge that unlocks doors and perspective for other knowledge and that facilitates development of the intellect, of understanding and of capabilities. Basically for citizenship: contextualising knowledge you won’t get anywhere else.

The research backs this up – not necessarily by showing how refined the most civically active can become – but by illustrating how far on the outside some can be left.

Every morning I walk past one of the anti-capitalism camps in the City of London, and at night I often tune into TV shows talking about the limits of capitalism. This weekend’s BBC News featured an article about the Occupy movement being invited to talk to citizenship classes in a school near where I live. These are live issues relating to the need to transform the system in a country that is rapidly choosing neither capitalism nor socialism.

What will it choose and how will we choose?

Young people need fundamental knowledge here. They have to grasp how two ecosystems work. The two that they are being handed as a debt burden from the previous generation. Two very complex and intertwined ecosystems. The first is the global economy and the second is the global climate.

But the choices that they will face will not be technical. They will be social. Everyday life-choices that will see some join the next equivalent of the English Defence League and others downgrade their lifestyle or demand restraint on others’ freedoms. Choices that will set citizen against citizen and demand of us a refined capability to manage the argument in a potentially more divided nation.

It is hard to believe that such life choices should not be part of education. No offence to History, but surely more important than Geronimo and the colonisation of the American West (illustrative though they may be).

We’re not holding out for Citizenship as the only subject that one could possibly use to teach such issues – but to say that it isn’t something everyone in the next generation needn’t have a grasp of, and isn’t fundamentally powerful knowledge… well, no offence to RE: but it beggars belief.

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

About Andy Thornton

Andy Thornton has been our Chief Executive since September 2010. He joined us in 2005, after three years at the Giving Campaign where he initiated their youth programme, Giving Nation. Giving Nation and the primary school version Go Givers are now both Citizenship Foundation programmes supporting young people’s informed engagement with charities and community action while at school.

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