Helping children to learn about active citizenship

The American Federation of Teachers website includes a feature on civics education in the USA which opens with the eye-catching statistic that only one in four Americans can name the three branches of government. If knowledge is an indicator of engagement, as surely it is, this is one small sign — albeit a rather jaw-dropping one — that political disengagement is on the increase. In a recent blog we highlighted the importance of citizenship education: “At a time when trust in the political process is low across large parts of the world, citizenship education — political literacy — is more important than ever so that young people can take their place as active, informed and responsible citizens.”

According to an excellent House of Commons briefing paper [see the link below], people might usefully be defined as politically disengaged “if they do not know, value or participate in the democratic process”. It goes on to list indicators of political disengagement: these relate to people’s attitudes, levels of political activity, electoral registration, voting and willingness to stand for election.

But what should citizenship education look like? How do we help children and young people to become politically literate? In the blog Political literacy needs to be more than just a curriculum add-on we identified five aims of a citizenship curriculum:

  • help children to understand how society, and particularly the political process in their country, functions
  • show children how to get involved and become active participants in their community and/or civil society more generally, and encourage them to do so
  • promote a culture of shared values based on tolerance, mutual respect and non-violence
  • teach children about their rights and their responsibilities
  • ensure that children are aware of the power, role and importance of the media and develop their ability to assess the accuracy and reliability of the information they consume

Much of the heavy lifting in terms of detailed factual knowledge will be covered in a child’s teenage years, but lots of useful and important citizenship groundwork can be done with younger children. In particular, we can help children to learn about working with others, making choices as part of a group and taking on responsibility. The AFT article referred to earlier includes the observation that “[s]tate civics curricula are heavy on knowledge but light on building skills and agency for civic engagement” and points to an apparent correlation between youth civic engagement and the quality of state civics courses.

Active citizenship is all about engagement and participation. On this website we regularly blog about opportunities for families to get involved in making a difference, to themselves, their communities and the world around them. Evidence suggests that active participation — doing something positive, however small — is good for our mental health and wellbeing and helps to dispel the fatalistic notion that individuals are powerless in the face of the great problems and challenges that confront us.

This 2013 article on the Guardian website looks at approaches to teaching citizenship in primary schools (ie children under the age of 11), making, as it says, “terms such as democracy, diversity and participation relevant to young people’s lives”.

It shouldn’t be surprising that if you give children responsibility they rise to the challenge.

It’s never too early to start teaching citizenship.

Comments quoted in the Guardian article, Teaching citizenship in primary schools: a how-to guide

The UK government’s citizenship programme for England [see the link below], published in 2015, is an interesting document (though, it should be noted, non-statutory for children below the age of 11). There are specific strands covering:

  • Developing confidence and responsibility and making the most of their abilities
  • Preparing to play an active role as citizens
  • Developing good relationships and respecting the differences between people

LBL adopts a life-based approach rather than a narrowly subject-based one. Learning is organised around nine life themes. Two of the nine LBL life themes are Relationships and Community, which sit within a broader category called Society. The strands in the government’s programme listed above illustrate both the importance of and the overlap between the Relationships and Community themes: crucial to human life and living is the ability to relate to — and interact positively with — others, be it family, friends, neighbours, work colleagues or wider society.

The LBL Relationships theme focuses on children learning about the variety and diversity of relationships, developing their relationship-building skills and exploring shared values such as honesty, respect, politeness and tolerance. Meanwhile, using the theme of Community as a way of framing learning in history, geography and citizenship helps to deepen children’s understanding of, and strengthens their commitment to, society.

It therefore seems somewhat bizarre that, for a subject like citizenship that is so rooted in the idea of community and society, the UK government’s programme also shoehorns in content relating to personal health and hygiene. It feels like a somewhat arbitrary decision, another illustration perhaps of how key elements of learning about life are in danger of being overlooked or ignored in a subject-based approach.

The most useful parts of the government document are the sections called ‘Breadth of opportunities’, which give examples of activities that will help children to become active citizens. There is much here that will be of interest to home-schoolers as well as to teachers and school leaders.

Here is what it lists for key stage 2 (children aged from about 7 to 11):

  • take responsibility (for example, for planning and looking after the school environment; for the needs of others, such as by acting as a peer supporter, as a befriender, or as a playground mediator for younger pupils; for looking after animals properly; for identifying safe, healthy and sustainable means of travel when planning their journey to school);
  • feel positive about themselves (for example, by producing personal diaries, profiles and portfolios of achievements; by having opportunities to show what they can do and how much responsibility they can take)
  • participate (for example, in the school’s decision-making process, relating it to democratic structures and processes such as councils, parliaments, government and voting)
  • make real choices and decisions (for example, about issues affecting their health and wellbeing such as smoking; on the use of scarce resources; how to spend money, including pocket money and contributions to charities)
  • meet and talk with people (for example, people who contribute to society through environmental pressure groups or international aid organisations; people who work in the school and the neighbourhood, such as religious leaders, community police officers)
  • develop relationships through work and play (for example, taking part in activities with groups that have particular needs, such as children with special needs and the elderly; communicating with children in other countries by satellite, email or letters)
  • consider social and moral dilemmas that they come across in life (for example, encouraging respect and understanding between different races and dealing with harassment)
  • find information and advice (for example, through helplines; by understanding about welfare systems in society)
  • prepare for change (for example, transferring to secondary school)

When it comes to learning about a country’s political system and processes, clearly there will be differences depending on where you live. The websites of your country’s key political institutions, such as its parliament, are a useful starting-point and may well have a section devoted to learning.

Again, depending on your country’s political culture, there may well be organisations promoting political engagement, such as Shout Out UK, a youth-based organisation that was originally created to campaign for better political education in schools. However, it is likely that such organisations will be focused primarily or exclusively on young adults.

One theme that is universal is human rights. The organisation Amnesty International UK has a section on their website devoted to educational resources. Although their ‘Resources by theme’ page isn’t particularly helpful regarding age-appropriate material, Amnesty has produced booklets on human rights specifically aimed at ages 3–5 and primary school. There is also a link to a simplified version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

House of Commons Library report on political disengagement
Citizenship programme of study for England, key stages 1 and 2
Benefits of LBL

The image at the head of the article is from the PBS for Parents website. It can be found on their Let’s Vote page, which features great resources for helping young children to learn about elections.

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