It’s International Day of Democracy, so let’s teach everyone to milk goats

Today is International Day of Democracy. All over the world, bigwigs are discussing why public participation in democracy matters. It would seem reckless, would it not, to encourage public participation without also offering us every possible opportunity to appreciate what we’re getting involved in?

Goat photo by Natesh Ramasamy [Flickr; CC BY 2.0])

‘A goat is like Parliament or the justice system: unpredictable, more complex than one might expect and close enough to kick you.’ (Image by Natesh Ramasamy [Flickr; CC BY 2.0])

When I was little, I milked a goat. It was on a farm where visitors were encouraged to try it out for themselves. The farmer told me how to work the udders and where to aim. But he didn’t tell me the stupid creature would move without warning and kick the bucket of milk all over the floor; nor that the onlookers would laugh at me for it. But it didn’t matter: I was in a safe environment and no-one was going to cry over the spilt milk. And if I’d a sudden impulse to go into full-scale goats-milk production – why, I’d have had some invaluable experience behind me.

I’m not saying democracy is like a goat, that would be silly. No, democracy is more like the bucket of milk: attempt to fill it without understanding how the goat works and practising first, and the whole thing could come crashing down around your ears (or, in this case, ankles). (The goat, of course, is more like Parliament or the justice system: unpredictable, more complex than one might expect, and close enough to kick you – or lick you, for that matter.)

Suppose I had not visited that farm but that I had dived headfirst into the global milk supply business. Would it have been enough for me to spend a little time at a desk in front of a blackboard (this was the nineteen seventies), looking at diagrams and naming parts? I suspect not; I suspect my enterprise would have been very short-lived.

And while a healthy global goats-milk market is great and all, I reckon a healthy society is probably greater. So I’m a bit bothered that the UK Government has stripped the new key-stage 3 and 4 citizenship curriculum of any meaningful practice (it’s now mainly about learning facts rather than preparing young people for practical civic engagement).

And the GCSE! Before, a good chunk of its assessment was of practical application, outside in the community, away from the artificial conditions of the examination hall. But the new citizenship GCSE, for teaching from next year, has none of that. Zero. The whole thing will be assessed through a written examination of what the students can remember – or of what they think the assessor wants to hear.

Of course, there’s an argument that the last thing we want to do is give people a glimpse of reality and tell them they have now enough experience to change it; that, actually, we should leave such important stuff to the professionals and out of the school classroom. We wouldn’t attempt open heart surgery from an interactive tutorial on the internet (I hope), we would take the patient to a hospital; so why is it a good idea to encourage young people to meddle in civic life after just a little exposure to it?

Because, unlike surgeons, no young person in the UK chooses to be a citizen – they are one whether they (or we) like it or not – so a little practice is a lot better than none at all.

And because our political leaders want us to take more responsibility in these days of austerity. It would seem somewhat unfair of them to expect us to do what we’ve never done before without a certain amount of training.

So why does the Government fail consistently to promote its citizenship curriculum? Citizenship is the one place in the mandatory school landscape where issues such as British values and extremism – topics the Government is keen for schools to address – already have a natural home.

And, when run well, it’s a safe and nurturing home – one where the occupants are enabled to develop their critical thinking and explore issues from all sides – and not a reactionary one where issues are like eggshells and views become polarised: or, worse, uniformly ignorant.

Yet its status in schools has been undermined in recent years by the absence of government endorsement, even now that schools are expected to tackle the thorny, societal issues of British values and extremism.

(If you want further proof of our Government’s lack of interest in its citizenship curriculum, you need look no further than the current excitement around human rights. ‘Human rights’ is there already, firmly and squarely in the citizenship curriculum (the citizenship curriculum, I might add, that was written and prescribed by this very Government), yet the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, seems to have forgotten that and ploughed ahead with her own pet programme of human rights lessons.)

So, on this International Day of Democracy, let’s raise a cheer for citizenship education. Because it deserves it. And because at least we have it; without it, we would be even further from belonging to a citenzry that feels part of the process.

Remember, if you want people to milk goats successfully themselves, you must first teach them how to do it.

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

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