“Constructing a Humanist Politics”


                                                      Issue No 30 Friday 03 April 2009





This week


·         Government Education Report Has Nothing To Say About Citizenship



News Stories

Highlighting  news stories important to the Civic Republican view, particularly those that are overlooked or little covered in the main media.





·         Government Education Report Has Nothing To Say About Citizenship


Since Shirley Williams (now Dame) made the radical move of abolishing the grammar schools in the seventies no government has been able to resist fiddling with the education system, changing the way our children are taught. So relentless has been the revising that there must be a significant disparity in the education received not just by people born to different generations but by people born in different decades. New Labour has been no slouch in its determination to leave its mark on our schools and it is not finished yet by a long way.

Schools Secretary Ed Balls last year asked the former Ofsted chief inspector, Sir Jim Rose, to conduct a full review of the primary curriculum (although the remit did not include examining testing in schools) and The Guardian has obtained a leaked version of his report. This was the subject of its lead story on Wednesday, 25th March 2009.

The publicity surrounding the leaking focused on the fact that the report said pupils should learn how to use Twitter and the Wikipedia, but really these elements were a very insignificant aspect. It is probably inevitable that Sir Jim’s report will have to include the latest faddist ideas on education, but what is of particular concern here to Civic Republicanism is the extent to which it attempts to engage children in the society of which they will one day be full members, the extent to which it is helps to equip them to be citizens with a full awareness of the responsibilities and rights that citizenship brings.

New Labour (and Tony Blair especially) has often talked about citizenship and the need to cultivate a positive attitude of good citizenship in young people. However, the emphasis that they have always put on this has been towards responsibilities more than rights. They seem to want to fashion people into a mould that they see as conducive to conduct that will promote and stimulate the New Labour view of society, much more than to enable people to positively participate in society.

New Labour’s concept of society is really no different from the society that Margaret Thatcher sought to engineer in her period in the eighties. It is characterised by the belief that the aspirations of people can be best expressed within a competitive environment where each person is directed primarily towards realising their own individual goals without reference to any sense of the common good. The notion of the “common good” insofar as it is seen to exist at all somehow comes out of the aggregate of all the conflicting interactions that take place. It is not in any sense predetermined as all faith rests on the idea that self-directed spontaneous interaction will automatically yield a desirable result. Under this view of society there is little room for any worked out view of what complete citizenship really entails. Citizenship simply means shutting up and playing by the rules.

It should then be of little surprise that the Rose report has virtually nothing so say about teaching people what it means to be a member of society. Its principle conclusion is that there should be six core areas that form the basis of the future curriculum

·         understanding English,

·         communication and languages,

·         mathematical understanding,

·         scientific and technological understanding,

·         human, social and environmental understanding,

·         understanding physical health and wellbeing, and understanding arts and design


It is, of course, regrettable that we seem to have lost the ability to communicate with simple unambiguous words and the Rose report is no exception. Why do we now have to teach our young “mathematical understanding” when in the past simple “mathematics” would have done? In fact, the word “understanding” is used to qualify all but one of the “core areas” – namely communication and languages, where apparently this mental activity is unnecessary. This sixth “core area” sounds like it is describing at least two, and possibly three, quite distinct areas. So why jumble them all into one? The fifth “human, social and environmental understanding” actually includes history, although from the terminology you would never have guessed it. If Sir Jim were being marked out of ten for clarity and concision, he would surely be sent to the bottom of the class.

Sir Jim published a flyer for consultation in December 2008. It started with some nice-sounding phrases – “a curriculum that will engage, challenge and inspire” - “provide all pupils with a broad and balanced entitlement to learning which encourages creativity and inspires in them …”etc. etc. When it got down to something more specific we learn that “Literacy includes speaking, listening, reading and writing”. Oh, really? So someone who cannot read or write a word is now partially literate. For understanding the meaning of straightforward English words, Sir Jim again goes to the bottom of the class.


The flyer ended with more nice sounding words saying personal development includes


  •   teamwork and conflict resolution,

  •   empathy and tolerance

  •   social and emotional skills

  •   respect for others and the environment

  •   self-respect and confidence


So what happened to citizenship in all of that? The flyer does, at least, define the Curriculum Aims as making “successful learners who enjoy learning, make progress and achieve confident individuals who are able to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives, responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society”. [The  word "citizens" is in there in case you missed it.] The full report has not yet been made public but the indications are that there will be not much more than that on the subject.


The whole direction of the report does seem to smack of “me” generation thinking, although most of us thought that that generation belonged firmly to the past. It is constructive to compare it with the sort of education children can expect in one of our neighbouring republics, the Republic of France.


French school children are issued with “Le Livre de Tous les Francais”, which, amongst other things, informs them about the family and the importance of parenting, the purpose of schooling,, why we have police, what private property means, what is the right of free speech, how we have freedom of work, how the state works, how the constitution works, how justice works, what public services do, and so on. None of these matters are seen by the Rose report as worthy of inclusion in his curriculum.


If the reports recommendations are followed, our children will grow up as now - with llittle awareness of how the society in which they live functions. As a consequence many will have little respect for it and the consequences of this are too evident to be spelt out.


Are French children any different? Well, in general, yes, they are. Are French adults any different as a result of learning about the government and society when they are young? Well, yes, they are. It is not just that they are able to talk intelligently about how the constitution works and how they have rights and obligations within it, it is also that they have no qualms about exercising their rights to the point of protesting in the streets if necessary – as famously they do.


By contrast in Britain because people have so little understanding of how governments and constitutions work the politicians can get away with murder. In Britain there is virtually no mature debate, for instance, about the constitution. This fact, of course, is of great advantage to maintaining the existing status quo with a constitutional monarchy. If people don’t understand how constitutions work then they will have no option but to accept what they have got.


A particular problem for Civic Republicans, created by this ignorance about constitutions is that many people equate republicanism with a simple anti-monarchism. The broader aspects of republicanism are unknown to many British people. And this in spite of the fact that this country has a long history of developing those aspects.


There does exist in Britain some discussion about rights, but this is seen as primarily a legal rather that constitutional matter, and so the view of rights is often rather narrow.


In his ignoring in this report any reference to how children should learn about how society is organised and how they should be a part of that society, Sir Jim Rose is not part of any conspiracy, he is just expressing an all-prevailing attitude that is fostered by the political system - a political system which prefers to create inertia to change so that the existing structures and interests can be preserved.


As long as the focus of children’s learning remains their personal development as atomised individuals with no sense of society and the bond that exist between all of us as members of that society, our children will be denied a full education. Our society will become more and more fragmented.


As the current education system is incapable of supplying a proper civil education, people will have to get this from elsewhere.


Fortunately the human spirit is such that the many people will do just that.



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……. …….until next week