Citizenship Education and the National Curriculum Review: a disappointment or a chink of light?

Tuesday 20th December 2011

Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education has dispatched an interesting Christmas card to all interested in the next iteration of the National Curriculum, the first report from the National Curriculum Review Expert Panel.

Conspiracy theorists will note that their report has arrived just after most schools have closed for Christmas but this is probably the Expert Panel struggling with as many deadlines as the rest of us and having a few ‘fall over’ into the holiday period. The panel is made up of a small but formidable membership of long established and highly respected educationalists, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

My initial reading of this first report from the group, and from the specific perspective of somebody with a long-standing professional and personal interest in Citizenship Education and the wider social curriculum is that it is better than it might have been for those devoted to this area of teaching and learning. For those unfamiliar with the area, Citizenship became a statutory (or “Foundation”) subject of what was then, if I recall correctly, the third substantive version of the National Curriculum in 2002. This followed a landmark report commissioned by David Blunkett and produced by the late Professor Sir Bernard Crick, Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools, published in 1998. This position was maintained when version 4 of the curriculum arrived five years later in 2007.

Prior to 2002 – and from the early 1990s – Citizenship had been conferred the status of a non-statutory “Cross-curricular Theme”, along with four or five other areas of learning including Careers Education and Guidance and Economic and Industrial Understanding. However, in a subject dominated timetable, the reality proved to be that, in many schools, this cross-curricular status meant that these themes were ‘everywhere’ but ‘nowhere’ – as teachers and leadership teams attended, understandably, to their subject and other statutory responsibilities. I know – I was a Cross-Curricular Theme Coordinator in a North London secondary school at the time.

In the next version of the National Curriculum, this initial report proposes that Citizenship will lose it statutory subject status. Why then am I optimistic? Two reasons: first, in that Citizenship remains a ‘statutory’ requirement if not a ‘compulsory’ subject – perhaps, in this new age, it can manage to be “more than a cross-curricular theme” albeit less than a “subject”; second, the excellent subject-based and subject-inspired practice developed in many “Citizenship-rich” schools will not disappear because of this change. The Citizenship Education community can take pride in this; the watermark is considerably higher than it was in 2002 and, working with teachers on the ground, they have done much to ensure that this is the case.

Either way, the Expert Panel seems to be winning the debate (with Mr Gove and his traditionally inclined schools’ minister, Nick Gibb) for a broad statutory curriculum – albeit with fewer statutory ‘subjects’ – as against a narrower model in which the four statutory subjects are the only compulsory element, with schools doing ‘what they want’ with the rest of the available time.

This is a significant shift and one for campaigns such as Democratic Life (the inter-organisational campaign originally established by the Citizenship Foundation and the Association for Citizenship Teaching a couple of years ago to advance the case for retaining and strengthening Citizenship in the National Curriculum) to build on in the new year, especially given that implementation is now pushed back to the eve of the next election in September 2014.

This extended timescale is significant too: there is a record of initiating curriculum reforms at the start of new governments and pushing their outcome back to the closing phases before an up-coming election (Tomlinson is the most recent example of this), something that always favours (encouragingly in this case) the status quo or, at least, and more worryingly, the ‘traditional’ position. Either way, I see a chink of light, and I think that the Expert Panel do too.

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Lessons From Lockdown
For too long, changes to the education system have been driven by political considerations, short -term difficulties and even, at times, nostalgia. Lessons From Lockdown sets out why this piecemeal approach to reform needs stop and provides an invaluable contribution to the debate that now must take place.
Rosemary Bennet
Former Education Editor, The Times