Tom Bennett

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The New National Curriculum: Citizenship and Starship Troopers

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Do you want to know more? Usually not. 

Come on you sons of bitches. You want to live forever?

The strangest thing to survive the NC reboot is Citizenship. Unlovely, often unloved, it is the ugly duckling of the curricular zoo. Most subjects evolved organically via a natural selection, but Citizenship flopped out of the sterile womb of a laboratory in 1988, following the recommendations of the Crick report. It’s aims were strikingly different from its timetabled peers: it sought to actively encourage ‘that children should develop as successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society’.

As I have frequently observed, citizenship is one of the most overt methods by which a governments attempt to influence not just what children know and the skills they possess, but also what they value. Once again, the solution to complex societal problems (fractured neighbourhoods, dislocation of new communities, separation by class, age and culture) is attempted by a sticking plaster: teach them to be better citizens at school.

I am weary of senators attempting to fix the world through education, when an example of this ever actually working seems to be hard to find. The reason why education is so sexy to legislators is because children are the least resistant of constituents; disenfranchised from the electoral system, they can be moulded far more provocatively than any autonomous adult. It’s a train set of apparent opportunity, but as any leader will tell you, change on the ground is far more difficult to achieve. Changing society from Westminster, or even the HO of an exam board, is akin to playing snooker with lengths of rope. A lot happens between elbow and pocket.

We see another example of citizenship education in Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel Starship Troopers, which Paul Verhoeven translated into a choppy but subversive cinematic satire in 1997. Skimmed over in the movie, much of Heinlein’s novel takes place in the classroom. In the imagined future of the Terran Federation, democracy and citizenship take centre stage in education. In this world, the 20th century saw liberal democracies disintegrate due to entitlement without responsibility: “people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted… and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.” The franchise shrank from ‘everyone over 18, with a heart beat, more or less’ to citizens, a status that had to be earned through community service. This could take the form of military service, but also civil contribution. Non citizens still enjoyed many liberties and rights, but only citizens could vote, having earned it through participation.

The chapters where the protagonist Rico remembers his High School classes (called History and Moral Philosophy) are fascinating. Heinlein is often accused of fascism, glorifying war and promoting the status quo. But did the classrooms of Tom Brown’s Schooldays do anything less? Besides, you don’t prove anything with fiction, you illustrate it. I once sat through a joyless actor’s workshop paid for by the DfE on the Fast track training program, where they demonstrated leadership skills through the medium of Henry V. I questioned whether a story that was essentially, made up, could teach us anything about the real world, other than in an artistic sense. I was told, but this is Shakespeare.’ I’m not kidding.

I don’t set my shoulder against the content of Citizenship; as a politics/ philosophy graduate, I love many of the topics. But that doesn’t argue for their automatic inclusion in a compulsory curriculum. There are a million things that are potentially useful or interesting; why don’t we include them too? There was little justification for the creation of Citizenship, and there still isn’t. The trouble is, one now needs a reason to get rid of it, because by now there is a skeleton of bodies and tradition that now exists to defend it.

So, the aims of Citizenship are highly suspect; The outcomes are equally nebulous and unsubstantiated. Didn’t most of the kids in the London riots get Citizenship lessons? Boy, that turned out well. More scientifically perhaps, was the 2005 inquiry into CE by the House of Commons Education and Skills Selct Committee. They concluded ‘ It is too early to say with any degree of confidence whether citizenship education is producing the wide range of impacts originally hoped for.’ This, after 17 years of the bloody thing. How long would you like? TAKE ALL THE TIME YOU NEED BRO.

There was no need to invent Citizenship; no one was crying out for it. ‘Please,’ they begged, ‘A new topic, a bag of different subjects and things to teach.’ It was created in a test tube, and released into the world like GM wheat (which at least has the virtue of clear utility). I know a huge number of kids who think its a CBeebies qualification. Few teachers specialise in it, and therefore it often gets farmed out in many schools to the unqualified and unhappy rump of the teaching body, and only then because it was a compulsory part of the school offer.

More damningly, because Citizenship is usually a short course GCSE, it won’t count toward league tables, and many schools will drop it like it’s hot. They’ll evidence its delivery through other subjects, which is always an unsubtle way of suggesting that it isn’t really a subject at all, but a theme. I particularly like the odd jumble of aims: politics, participation, anti-racism, financial management….all it needs is cake baking and astronomy to really unify the theme.

Overt manipulation of the values of children is a job for parents more than schools, especially in the political sphere. If you want children to participate and engage more with political office then we need to ensure that political office isn’t seen as a concentric, circular trough of self-interest and promotion. If you want children to believe that they belong to a community, then everyone in the community needs to act as if it exists and matters, every parent, teacher and councillor. Let them see adults acting as role models of kindness, fortitude and humility, and watch as children learn to emulate these values. Insist upon sociable conduct, and patrol that insistence with sanctions and rewards. This is how characters are formed; in a long, slow, complicated process that resembles attrition far more than instruction. Or perhaps the growth of a tree.

If you want good citizens, it can’t be taught directly. Citizens, like adults, are raised, not examined. So why has it survived? Perhaps because, as I indicated, it’s easier to leave it bleeding in a ditch than to kill it off. Wouldn’t it be kinder to put it out of its misery?


1 Comment

  1. JoeN says:

    I was working in Hackney when this transparently crass attempt to create a Nu Labour youth movement was introduced and can remember trying gently to point out to people I was working with that “citizenship” was merely what happened between lessons in a good school.

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