John Potter says citizenship gives education meaning and purpose – and students seem to agree.

We hear plenty about the need to ‘drive up standards’ – the relentless pursuit of children and young people through hoops that measure their capacity to jump through hoops when chased. We hear less about the need to raise up banners, guidons, pennons and standards to inspire our hearts, challenge our intentions and unite us in a common quest for justice, prosperity and civility.

Don’t get me wrong. My gripe against ‘the standards agenda’ is not that it is mistaken, but that it is misplaced. It turns means into ends. The aim of education should be to civilise us, not to turn us into performing seals. This is why citizenship and PSHE matter. They are the sharp-edged reminders of the larger purpose of education.

Taking up the standard for values in education

A speaker at a recent Institute for Global Ethics consultation on values education  asked us to consider the curriculum in response to the question, ‘What do we want a young person to be like at 14, 11 and 7?’ One participant responded with a provocative list of characteristics rooted in values of respect and integrity (see below for extracts).

Let us take up this challenge by raising a standard for values in education. Three actions are needed.

Put values on schools’ agendas

First: We must put values on the agenda at every level, including governing bodies, senior management and citizenship/PSHE teams. The case is simple. Values, not testing regimes, give meaning and purpose to learning and significance to the individual learner. This is the central message of Every Child Matters.

Evidence suggests that when linked to a set of personal and public values, learning and behaviour improve. The values agenda promotes attainment. A headteacher who is leading her comprehensive out of special measures told me that success depends as much on encouraging positive values among staff and students as on establishing robust expectations for academic performance.

 Recent evidence from the National Association of Independent Schools (www.nais.org) and the Institute for Global Ethics (www.globalethics.org) in the States underscores the link between standards and ethical development.

Pioneering practice in England points the same way. The Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory (www.ellionline.co.uk) approach to improving learning is based on qualities such as changing and learning, creativity, and resilience. Significantly, the emphasis is on the ‘learning relationship’ between teacher and pupil. These qualities are rich with questions of value. Likewise, Philosophy for Children (P4C) (http://sapere.org.uk/what-is-p4c) makes the link between philosophy and ethical inquiry.

What values education looks like

Second: We need to know what quality values education looks and feels like. The recent Impetus showcase of young people’s projects in the Museum of London provided vivid testimony to the power of values education. Impetus award winners demonstrated that they had promoted values education in their school, college or organisation by developing a project inspired by the values of the Human Rights Act.

 Young people from King James I Community Arts College (Bishop Auckland) made a video on domestic violence, visited the favelas in Rio de Janeiro and witnessed the effects of violent drug gangs on terrorised local communities. They subsequently won support from the whole school for the work of the Alleluia community, working with the victims of violence and oppression. Students from Polesworth School in Tamworth have developed a partnership with young people at Pampawie School in Ghana. A team of students from the Royal Docks School in London tackled the promoters of the Arms Fair at the Excel Centre near their school.  They produced a powerful video of their findings and conclusions. Each project showed how the participants had developed moral discernment alongside a richly-motivated approach to their learning.

Sharing experience

 Third: We need to share systematically what works, excites commitment and stimulates quality learning around the ideals of citizenship education across the whole school. There are plans to produce a set of materials from the Institute for Global Ethics consultation. If you would like to be kept in touch with this initiative, please email the author.

What do we want a young person to be like?

Locally and globally, an educated 19 year old will:

  • be a self-aware, interdependent learner
  • be creative and resourceful
  • understand education as citizenship
  • have the confidence and courage to put shared values into action
    value diversity, not just tolerate it
  • take informed responsibility for their own (and others’) sexual health and safety
  • understand and protect our planet and environment
  • understand international human rights in order to achieve the above.

Nationally, as citizenship in practice, an educated 19 year old will:

  • understand the benefits of, and be able to engage with, liberal democracy
  • be able to make distinctions between public (democratic) and private (free market) space
  • practice robust public discourse and free enquiry
  • be prepared to act as an ethical citizen before acting as an employee
  • contribute to a democratic and fair family life
  • have the ability to read visual and written power
  • understand the important space of artistic expression, ritual, and folklore
  • develop a sense of transcendence over the world of existence.

    By courtesy of Adam Short, Impetus (England) coordinator. Presented at the Institute for Global Ethics conference, 12–13 December, 2005.

    John Potter is a freelance consultant on citizenship education

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