John Potter explores a government proposal for citizenship education.

I think I’d describe myself as an optimist, if by an optimist you mean someone who believes that willing something to happen will make it happen. For years I’ve argued that if the people who have an interest in citizenship education got their act together, there’d be no stopping us!

Some years back an enthusiastic teacher from Lewisham set up some remarkable community projects for her school. ‘The trouble is,’ she confided, ‘I’m employed to be a teacher not a community development worker. On my own I just don’t have time to make all the contacts necessary to achieve all that I want to.’ Quite. Precisely. Teachers cannot unaided set up community action programmes across the length and breadth of their catchment areas.

There are, of course, several things that can be done about this. Your school, like Deptford Green Community School, could raise money to employ a development worker to pioneer fresh approaches to the community and the curriculum. Raising the money was the tricky part. The school managed to extract funds from Excellence in Cities and corporate sponsorship to get enough cash to bankroll their initiative. You could, alternatively, get together with a ‘college’ of other schools and jointly employ an outreach worker. Or again, you could look to national and local government to give a hand. Extended Schools and Community Colleges can be well placed to marshal serious support for their community programmes.

There is now some potentially good news on its way. The government is actively encouraging a more cooperative and strategic approach to citizenship education across the board. Last year the Home Office initiative Together We Can (see box) brought together 12 government departments in support of active citizenship, community development and civic participation.


At the same time, the principles of active learning in the community were systematically extended to informal adult education through the Active Learning-Active Citizenship (ALAC) programme. ALAC’s goals were threefold and promoted:

  • Active citizens: people with the motivation, skills and confidence to speak up for their communities and say what improvements are needed.
  • Strengthened communities: community groups with the capability and resources to bring people together to work out shared solutions.
  • Partnership with public bodies: public bodies willing and able to work as partners with local people.

Seven pioneering projects (hubs) across the country were established in which community groups tackled local issues of their own choosing. The IMPACT! project in the Black Country, for instance, involved four organisations to promote women’s leadership potential, participation and involvement in their home area.

The Together We Can team has grouped these and other community activities under four heads: citizenship and democracy, health and sustainability, regeneration and cohesion and safety and justice. These categories help identify the engagement of relevant government departments and agencies as well as offering a basis for developing policy and conducting research.

The value of active citizenship

At the recent (16 May) Together We Can celebration Professor Marjorie Mayo from Goldsmiths College presented her evaluation report on ALAC’s achievements. In summary, active citizenship of this kind:

  • enhances the individual’s development, confidence and capacity to reflect and take action alone and as part of a team or group
  • strengthens local communities and promotes social cohesion
  • subtly transforms the political process by empowering communities to take greater charge of the issues that affect their lives and communities.

The experience of schools and colleges where active citizenship has been a live and lively option has been similar. Children and young people have grown in confidence, competence and credibility. School councils are becoming places where young people not only participate but undertake research and make recommendations that are taken up by the SMT and governors.

Three of the ALAC hubs worked closely with young people as well as with adults. In Manchester young refugees were engaged in an audit of the issues and challenges faced by new immigrants. In Lincoln young people challenged local authorities about policy and practice through dialogue that gave all participants, young and older, insight into each other’s concerns, needs and intentions. In London the Civic Forum is working to involve young people in the training courses on civic engagement.

Keep pushing!

Two obvious points come from all this hard work by so many people.

First, there is immense value in linking education for citizenship among young people in schools, colleges and youth organisations with adult programmes such as Active Learning-Active Citizenship. The ALAC National Network (ANN) has been set up to shape the future of the programme. The group, while focusing mainly on work with adults, appreciates the need to build links with young people. Updates will be available on the Together We Can website.

Second, while much has been done to bring together 12 government departments and a variety of community organisations, it is not yet clear that the politicians will provide the necessary long-term strategic support and resources to make these good ideas happen.

It is now up to us optimists to keep pressing strongly for the practical and financial support needed to turn an important vision into practical reality across the country.

Together We Can

Common goals for citizens and public bodies working together:
1. ensure children and young people have their say
2. strengthen our democracy
3. revitalise neighbourhoods
4. increase community cohesion and race equality
5. build safer communities
6. reduce re-offending and raise confidence in the criminal justice system
7. improve our health and well-being
8. secure our future.