The UK curriculum review: end of citizenship classes?
The Department of Education's curriculum review is out. It recommends separating the curriculum into three parts: national, basic and local. National curriculum subjects would be compulsory for all schools. Basic curriculum subjects would be recommended for schools but it's up to schools how (or if) they teach them. And the local curriculum is a space for schools to innovate.
It looks like citizenship classes, which have been a part of the national curriculum since 2002, could be shunted down to the basic curriculum. The report says:
Despite their importance in balanced educational provision, we are not entirely persuaded of claims that...citizenship has sufficient disciplinary coherence to be stated as discrete and separate National Curriculum ‘subjects’. We recommend that, while Citizenship is of enormous importance in a contemporary and future-oriented education...we are not persuaded that study of the issues and topics included in citizenship education constitutes a distinct ‘subject’ as such. We therefore recommend that it be reclassified as part of the Basic Curriculum.
This would mean that schools have a lot of discretion on how or if they teach citizenship. There have been complaints about citizenship classes before. An Ofsted investigation in 2006 found that a quarter of all English secondary schools offered inadequate classes in citizenship, with teachers working "far from their normal comfort zone". Ofsted decided that only a minority of schools taught citizenship "with enthusiasm".
David Blunkett, who was Home Secretary back in 2002 and who seems to be one of the champions of citizenship classes, has warned that the subject was struggling in the past and needed more supporters. Last week, he warned David Cameron in Prime Minister's Question Time that: “It would be perverse, in fact it would be absurd, to be requiring those coming from abroad to settle in Britain to learn about our democracy, to take citizenship courses, whilst withdrawing the teaching of citizenship and democracy to our own children in our own schools.”
The decline of citizenship classes is something of a blow for philosophy. The classes were intended to be part of an Aristotelian training of future citizens, as David Hargreaves put it in a Demos pamphlet in 1994:
Civic education is about the civic virtues and decent behaviour that adults wish to see in young people. But it is also more than this. Since Aristotle, it has been accepted as an inherently political concept that raises questions about the sort of society we live in, how it has come to take its present form, the strengths and weaknesses of current political structures, and how improvements might be made... Active citizens are as political as they are moral; moral sensibility derives in part from political understanding; political apathy spawns moral apathy.
Now, that Aristotelian vision of civic education seems to be fading.
What about Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL), the 'well-being' and 'emotional literacy' classes which at the moment is part of Personal, Social and Health Education? PSHE is itself under review, and it looks likely that SEAL could be quite slimmed down. The Coalition government is much less enthusiastic about it than New Labour was, and wants to make SEAL in general more evidence-based.
The report does provide some room for philosophy classes in the local curriculum. It says:
The local curriculum should also provide opportunities for schools to innovate and to develop particular curricular interests or specialisms insofar as they decide they are appropriate. For example, a specific focus might be developed for a school’s provision or for a phase of learning, either as separate elements e.g. ‘philosophy for children’ or integrated across the school curriculum, such as ‘thinking skills’.
That opens the door for schools to 'innovate', but doesn't totally welcome philosophy into the classroom.
It strikes me that these three subjects - citizenship, well-being, and philosophy - used to be one subject. They were all a part of ancient Greek philosophy. They all emerge from a Socratic and Aristotelian foundation. I think they should be brought back together. I also think they should be combined with Religious Education, which is an increasingly popular A-Level subject - and which incorporates ancient Greek philosophy and ethics. I don't think you can teach well-being without some discussion of the meaning of life - and whether or if there is a God. This is one of the fallacies of the 'science of well-being' which is behind SEAL: it leaves no room for moral reasoning about the end or goal of life.
I would like to see Religious Education changed into a new subject, called 'The Good Life' or 'Flourishing', which combines ideas and techniques from the science of well-being, with ethics, philosophy, and an examination of some of the practices and beliefs of religious traditions like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. Such a class would also look at the Good Society - and how our personal ethics of flourishing are tied to different conceptions of the state and of citizenship.