Youth Citizenship and Politics, Part 3: citizenship education, learning and research

By Rebecca Ridley, Postgraduate Research Student, Southampton Education School.

Citizenship Education remains but there is always a but…

The theme of Education for democracy at the workshop on March 15th was timely given the release of the new National Curriculum consultation draft earlier in the year. The Education Secretary Michael Gove had decided to keep citizenship education as a statutory (albeit slimmed-down) part of the National Curriculum. It was a ‘valuable subject’ he announced at the House of Commons on February 7th. But valuable for what reasons? Perhaps it is because the extra emphasis on community volunteering chimes well with the idea of the responsible and helpful Big Society citizen. Perhaps it is the new dimension on personal finance literacy that is fundamental to produce a next generation of financially self-reliant citizens who can ride out any economic storm. Or maybe it is because of the new emphasis on the ‘precious liberties’ that UK citizens enjoy so much.

This latter point was troublesome for the workshop panellists. Hugh Starkey was concerned with this stress on ‘precious liberties’ and the lack of emphasis on universal human rights. David Kerr raised the point that learning about the development and struggles for different kinds of rights and freedoms has not been included in the citizenship curriculum. Young people might therefore learn about rights and freedoms but they will not have to know how these were actively fought for (see the Citizenship Foundation’s National Curriculum implication for citizenship guide for more). He questioned the state of the evidence base for measuring the outcomes of citizenship education, particularly now Ofsted are no longer carrying out specific subject inspections and in the context of increasing free schools. He also queried how Gove’s overall strategy for a knowledge-based curriculum and its implications may affect citizenship learning, especially in terms of practice.

National Citizens Service: for your country, community, or for yourself?

Early this year Michael Gove’s asserted that youth policy is not a priority for central government. Despite this there have been two central initiatives targeted at young people. The first is the Youth Contract which aims to help the young unemployed find work through a variety of voluntary work experience placements and apprenticeships. The second is the National Citizens Service (NCS), a Big Society initiative and six week programme for 16 and 17-year-olds which involves a residential trip and a community-based social action project. With squinted eyes the NCS looks like an attractive learning opportunity for youth community engagement and bears much resemblance to the popular service learning initiatives in the USA. With open eyes, the picture looks a bit different.

Andrew Mycock presented a critical and thorough evaluation of NCS and the potential for fostering active citizenship through it. He questioned how the NCS links to other local authority programs and the citizenship education that young people receive through school. He argued – following claims by Conservative MP Nick Hurd that NCS is beneficial for the development of employment skills – that NCS is perhaps accentuating (too much) individual benefits. A NCS t-shirt with the text ‘I create my own future!’ was, he argued, likewise indicative of this. Andrew also pointed out that most of the participants were already active in their communities and that unfortunately there was a focus on the civil participation rather than political.

Research directions

So which direction should our research on citizenship learning take? David Kerr pointed to what he thought were some of the current issues and directions for citizenship education research in the UK. These included the impact of the recession on citizenship learning and practice, the approach schools were taking to citizenship education given the increasing number of free schools, and the citizenship learning experiences of young people through their transition years.

Helen Haste more broadly drew on both perspectives from the US and the UK.  She reminded us of the importance of context in terms of understanding young people’s political participation and pointed to the “Obama effect” in the US. She also called for a definition of civic engagement which realistically reflected what young people want to do and suggested that future research challenge the traditional left-right political scale, which she argued boxes issues into supposed and oversimplified ideologies. Drawing on the work of Soviet psychologist Vygotsky she introduced her triangular systemic model which encourages researchers to focus on the overlap between individual’s sense making, interpersonal dialogue, and social and cultural narratives.

The themes of the Holloway workshops inform my own research on youth active citizenship learning in the UK. One question I am keen to respond to is how austerity will impinge on this type of learning.  In the next few months I will be interviewing young people from across Southampton on their citizenship learning and how the shrinkage of their youth services has affected them. I am looking forward to hearing what they have to say.

Their campaign can be followed at:

2 thoughts on “Youth Citizenship and Politics, Part 3: citizenship education, learning and research

  1. Great post. Youth engagement is something the departmental society SUPA is very interested in at the minute and we are running a campaign around the issue.

    I’ve been involved in the SOS campaign in a personal capacity, so was very touched to see it’s being picked up on within the University 🙂

    Good luck with your work.

  2. Hi Megan, thanks for the reply. Maybe we have met as I was also working on the SOS campaign a bit too. I would be keen to come along to SUPA. If its ok please email me on to let me know the details. Thanks, Becca.

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