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Primary Education News
News Teaching citizenship in primary schools: a how-to guide
Teaching complex citizenship issues at primary level can be challenging. Nick Morrison explores how to broach the subject and integrate it into school life – as well as the curriculum
It's easy to see why citizenship is often portrayed as something of a Cinderella subject in primary schools. Not only is it non-statutory – leaving it fighting for space in an already overcrowded curriculum – but explaining complex and potentially controversial concepts to young children can be a daunting prospect.
Despite this, good practice examples prove that there's a way to provide effective citizenship teaching and make terms such as democracy, diversity and participation relevant to young people's lives.
A cross-curricular approach allows citizenship to be incorporated into other lessons as and when it arises, says Latham. It often fits in with literacy when developing speaking and listening skills, but it can also work with history or RE. This provides a forum for children to talk about events they've seen in the news or have heard being discussed. "Context is really important," adds Latham. "You're setting it within something they have brought into school or an issue that has come up."
At Shireland Hall, for example, children raising money for disaster relief provided a spur to discuss international development. The school council subsequently voted to adopt the cause as their charity for the year. Forums, such as school councils, are also an effective way of teaching children about democracy and participation.
"It's all about making sure children have a voice and enabling them to see that they can make a difference," adds Latham. "They see that their decisions can be acted upon, but also sometimes that they won't be. They learn that you can't have everything."
Giving children first-hand experience of concepts, such as democracy, has also proved an effective tool at Nishkam Primary, a multi-faith free school in Birmingham. "We try to involve children in the small levels of decision-making that affects their immediate lives," says Brin Mahon, chairman of governors.
Alongside learning about rights, the school also emphasises children's responsibilities. For example, the pupils voted to have an unmanned tuck shop, paying into an honesty box, in the knowledge that if the sums did not add up it could be withdrawn. So far it has not made a loss. The pupils also decided on a system of rotating reading partners, rather than the most able always being chosen to help the least able.
"It shouldn't be surprising that if you give children responsibility they rise to the challenge," says Mahon. "I don't think schools do enough of that."
It's never too early to start teaching citizenship, says Hayley Cameron, assistant head at Avenue Primary in Sutton, south London, where nursery pupils take part in a charity 'toddle waddle' every year.
"Some children don't have all the things we have – that's how we broach the subject," says Cameron. "You don't want to give them too much information, but it's giving them a basic understanding that you can then build on."
For older children, the school runs regular debates and takes part in the Go-Givers programme, run by the Citizenship Foundation, to promote concerned citizenship. As at Shireland Hall and George Betts, Avenue's teachers use issues in the news or raised in school by pupils as a springboard for discussions.
In the past, Avenue Primary ran discrete citizenship lessons, but this proved an unsatisfactory arrangement. "We realised we were dealing with citizenship all the time," says Cameron. "If something happens you don't want to wait until next Friday before you talk about it." Far from short-changing the subject, she believes it shows the children how citizenship permeates into all areas of life.
Sometimes this means confronting controversial topics, but Cameron insists it's important not to duck these conversations. "You have to be sensitive, but if things are happening, children come in with their own ideas and preconceptions so you can't avoid it," she says.
Some schools may struggle to provide effective citizenship teaching. Denise Howe, primary representative on the council of the Association for Citizenship Teaching, says citizenship often gets incorporated into PSHE, particularly with younger children where teachers may feel more confident talking about personal issues.
She estimates that around four in 10 primary schools have dedicated PSHE sessions, although for some this will be a class council meeting, while for others it can be an afterthought. "It can get lumped in with assemblies or RE, or there might be a day of global citizenship," Howe says. "That's fine as an adjunct, but it might mean you're only doing citizenship one day a year."
Good citizenship teaching gives children a voice and creates a climate in the school where pupils can talk about issues, Howe adds. She believes pupils should be encouraged to play an active role in the life of both the school and their community, including taking part in campaigns. "With the pressures on the curriculum, that can be hard for teachers," she says. "It's easier to resort to worksheets, but that's not active citizenship."
Citizenship frequently has an international dimension at Adel Primary in Leeds. Adel is twinned with schools around the world through the British Council, providing a host of opportunities to discuss citizenship issues, says year 1 teacher and international co-ordinator, Sarah Stead.
Work with a partner school in South Africa, for example, included a project on protest songs and enabled pupils to look at diversity, cultural differences and social justice. Adel pupils also hosted children from the South African school on an exchange visit.
"It's that kind of first-hand experience, rather than teaching in a vacuum, that makes it relevant to the children," says Stead. "When South Africans who had been involved in the struggle against apartheid came across, it really brought it home to the children."
Adel has also taken part in an anti-racism initiative set up in memory of Stephen Lawrence and a Europe-wide healthy lifestyle programme. It has an active fair trade group and next term will be involved in another European project, this time on the environment, recycling and sustainability.
"Our children are going to be part of a global society and one of the most important things schools can do is help them understand that society," Stead says. "It makes an incredible difference. This is what we should be teaching our children because this is what is important."