Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Professor David Conway, Civitas

  1.  Citizenship was introduced into the National Curriculum from a dual concern about growing levels of political apathy and incivility among the young. The hope was, by promoting inside and outside the classroom the procedural values associated with modern liberal democracy such as tolerance and respect, plus encouraging schoolchildren to participate in extra-curricula voluntary activity in their local communities, the seeds of civility and political engagement could be sown.

  2.  Arguably, the approach has not lived up to promise. Polls reveal the subject is highly unpopular with both students and the staff called on to teach it many of whom are often unsure of what to teach as part of it. Both resent the time taken for it from other more mainstream subjects. Meanwhile, so far as the students of it are concerned, arguably all too many of the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

  3.  One major reason citizenship education has proved less effective than initially hoped for is that more than mere familiarity with the procedural values of liberal democracy like respect and tolerance are needed to achieve more than mere-lip service to them.

  4.  For these values to become genuinely embraced and internalised by today's schoolchildren, as has increasingly lately started to become recognised, there is need for them to share with each other and with their fellow citizens a common inclusive identity that goes beyond their mere notional shared adherence to such abstract meta-values as tolerance and respect or human rights. They need to share values and beliefs that will inform and engage their hearts and imaginations as well as intellects, where the shared beliefs and values are liberal tolerant ones that make adherence to liberal practices and values a lived natural reality.

  To date, those concerned about rising levels of political apathy and incivility among the young, not to mention about the extreme alienation of some, have been handicapped in their attempt to address these concerns by fear that any attempt to teach children more than these meta-values must necessarily privilege the culture and traditions of some one group, typically the majority, at the expense of those who belong to the country's minorities.

  5.  This fear is misguided on two counts. First, as has become apparent from objections levelled against liberal democracy by its latter-day enemies, even seeking to inculcate the meta-values associated with it involves a commitment to some political values in preference to others that are capable of contestation. This remains so, no matter how much an attempt may have been made to sever the democracy from any particular political culture in which it has been historically rooted. Second, human beings, especially young ones, need more to sustain their loyalties and to engage their hearts and imaginations than mere abstractions. They need stories in which these values come to life in narrative accounts of the lives and doings of those who have fought for these values. Such stories have always been and remain the time-honoured pedagogic medium through which such values have been instilled and loyalties aroused—especially those that are to become the common property of the people.

  6.  There is no better set of (essentially true) stories available by means of which to inculcate in young British citizens a set of common liberal and tolerant values and attachments, no matter how ethnically diverse their familial backgrounds or how recent their roots here might be, than those provided by the history of this country and by the way in which it has pioneered liberal and tolerant political institutions, as well as reached out to all parts of the world to intertwine the destines of their manifold inhabitants with those of its own. Doubtless, much has occurred within and in the name of this country in which its inhabitants have little cause to take pride, but that is far outweighed by much that has occurred within it and in its name in which they can and should take pride, and enough of the latter to make law-abiding patriots of all educated citizens.

  7.  The exceptional serviceability of British narrative history as a subject through which to effect citizenship education has long been recognised by British educationists as far back as John Locke. It was a commonplace among educators until changing educational fashions and a misplaced fear that privileging our island story would unfairly disadvantage or demean comparative newcomers led to its displacement by forms of history teaching not nearly as well able to achieve this end.

  8.  If politicians and educationists wants social cohesion, political literacy and civility from today's young citizens, then there is no option but to provide forms of education which will induce them to identify with each other and their compatriots, notwithstanding their ethnic or religious diversity.

  9.  The values of tolerance and civility are not unique to this country, although this country did much to pioneer their dissemination into the fabric of a nation, so simply teaching about them in the abstract will not necessarily create social cohesion or lead to political engagement. Teaching them about how this country led the world in the political institutionalisation of these values would give all pupils something to be proud of—namely their being British, as well as explain how the political institutions of their country in which these cherished values became embodied came into being and were sculpted over the centuries to enshrine these values and to make the country the tolerant and liberal nation it has become.

  10.  There is absolutely no inconsistency, nor should there be, between teaching all British schoolchildren about their island's story as their common patrimony and allowing them to retain and continue to celebrate whatever distinct identities their home background supplies them with and about which they too can also all receive instruction in school. Part of the unique character and charm of this country has been its unique ability to accommodate diversity and yet fully to integrate its diverse citizens. It will only be continue to be able to do so while it retains the self-understanding about how and why it has been able to that alone knowledge of its history provides.

  11.  That is why the teaching of British narrative history continues to remain by far the best form of citizenship education and why, without history lying at the core of the citizenship curriculum, all attempts to foster it are destined to fail in their objective.

  12.  It was to foster precisely such a form of historical understanding in British schoolchildren that, last year, Civitas republished Our Island Story by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall, half a century after changing educational fashions had caused it to fall out of print. Civitas republished the book to make free copies available to all schools. The book was republished to much acclaim among popular British historians like Lady Antonia Fraser, Andrew Roberts, and David Starkey who recognised its pedagogic value and lamented how its narrative approach had become eclipsed.

  This coming school year 2006-07 Civitas is sponsoring a prize essay competition for children in years six and seven entitled "Our Island Stories: How this Country has Changed in the Last Century". The competition asks children to describe some way in which the country has changed during the hundred years since the point in time at the death of Queen Victoria at which Marshall's book ended. In so doing, Civitas seeks to elicit the kind of common interest in and identification with this island's story that it believes should be the true object of a citizenship education fit for the purpose of cultivating loyal, law-abiding, politically well-informed and engaged citizens of the pluralistic liberal democratic society to which they all have the privilege to belong.

May 2006

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