Citizenship education: what's gone wrong

18 May 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 18 May 2022

Pic: Unsplash

What sort of young people do we want emerging from our schools?

Is it good enough that they should do well in exams, or do we also want them to become informed citizens, ready to contribute to society?

In 2007 citizenship education was introduced to the curriculum. It was designed to enable young people to “participate positively in society ... influence democratic processes … [and] make informed and responsible decisions as local and global citizens throughout their lives”.

The idea was that it would help develop a more peaceful, tolerant and socially cohesive society after decades, even centuries of past conflict.

Yet 15 years after citizenship education became a statutory curriculum requirement little is known about it, there is limited understanding of its purpose and teachers tend to neglect the more contentious “local” dimensions. A recent survey of 16 year-olds in Northern Ireland found that 24% had not had any “classes or assemblies, done projects or had class discussions” on the “NI conflict”.

Citizenship education forms the subject of the the latest Ulster University UNESCO Centre Transforming Education Briefing Paper “Citizenship education in Northern Ireland - An opportunity not yet realised”.

It concludes: “It would seem, therefore, that Citizenship education is in a poor state of health and, as division between the two main communities continues to permeate everyday life in Northern Ireland, this deficit in school learning related to the “NI conflict” leaves potentially partisan narratives unchallenged and wider society unchanged.”

This seems remarkable given that, also per the report, “In countries emerging from conflict, the school curriculum is considered an important channel through which transformative learning can occur as students explore their different experiences of conflict and transition to a more peaceful society.”

In Northern Ireland schools’ first acquired statutory responsibilities towards promoting community in 1989 - whilst conflict still raged. Yet the Education for Mutual Understanding initiative that followed failed to live up to expectations and was accused of skirting around the conflict and related issues.

The peace process that culminated in the 1990s was seen as an opportunity for reform. Reformers saw that citizenship education provided an opportunity for all young people, regardless of which type of school they attend, to develop a deeper understanding of how the past has influenced society today and how they can play their part. And it could be introduced without dismantling Northern Ireland’s sectarian system first.

Thus the Northern Ireland Curriculum (NIC), introduced in all post-primary schools from September 2007,  reflected the vision of a ‘shared future’ for Northern Ireland where education can help create a “culture of tolerance”

It aimed “to empower young people to achieve their potential and to make informed and responsible decisions throughout their lives” as “an individual, as a contributor to society, and as a contributor to the economy and the environment”.

There were significant changes ‘traditional’ subjects such as History in the expectation that, by the end of their compulsory study of History at the age of 14, all pupils will have learned about “the long and short term causes and consequences of the partition of Ireland and how it has influenced Northern Ireland today…”

But per the report: “Arguably, the most radical curriculum change was the introduction of Citizenship education which brought Northern Ireland into line with wider educational trends and aimed to help young people to explore the causes and consequences of division and differences shaping the future of Northern Ireland”

The new subject was given the title Local and Global Citizenship and aimed to address the new ‘local’ realities of Northern Ireland as a society emerging from conflict, as well as meet the ‘global’ challenges of living in the 21st century and developing the identity of young people as “cosmopolitan citizens”.

Crucially it is open-ended. Thus it is not about teaching students what to do and think but how to. This is challenging for teachers – how to help students to respond constructively when they come cross perspectives which challenge deeply-held value.

Therefore special training was required. This was introduced at a cost of £25 million and every post-primary school was offered seven days training for up to five teachers over three years. Teaching and learning materials were also supplied.

However school leaders were given the autonomy to decide how Citizenship would be provided for within the curriculum at their school. As a result of this flexibility, it has been taught in a range of ways across different schools – some treat it as a stand-alone subject with dedicated timetable space  but the majority of schools offer a modular approach.

The net result has been that whilst the topic has been introduced into the curriculum it is not deeply embedded and in many cases not valued either.

This is a pity because there are plenty of topics in many subjects that would benefit from exploration. Abortion, same sex marriage for example in Religious Studies and evolution and creationism in Science. The idea is not to “convert” anyone to any particular view, but to encourage young people to share their views and to expose them to the views of others.

The same applies to conflict-related issues  for example,  sectarianism, cultural identities, parading, unresolved legacy issues and commemorations.

Yet the teaching of controversial issues has proved very challenging consequently Local aspects of Citizenship have tended to be neglected in favour of global one. A recent survey of citizenship-related topics explored in school shows the most time - 77% - was given to learning about “global poverty”.

In contrast the tendency of teachers to  avoid controversial issues in the classroom means that learning opportunities “to discuss and make sense of ‘the past’ are limited”.

This is understandable given pressures outside the classroom in a divided society where much of what we know and think about the conflict is established long before we even go to school.

All this is exacerbated by the segregation of housing, communities and the education system.

By 2015 it was being reported that “… one-third of citizenship lessons … in post-primary schools were considered not to be effective”.

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