Blog: Promoting active citizenship in schools
Published: 1 May 2018
As an Assistant Headteacher, I’m aware that nurturing democracy must start at an early age, especially at a time when the bastions of a free society are under attack. In an age of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, healthy political discourse depends on our students being able to read critically and opine accordingly.
That’s why I was delighted to be awarded a Churchill Fellowship last year to study how schools can best prepare students for citizenship by inculcating a greater awareness of national identity and civic engagement. I spent five weeks in total in Israel and the USA researching this.
Encouraging political participation
I brought home from my travels two big lessons. Firstly, students can be given the inclination and skillset to politically participate. The young people I work with have an incredible sense of justice and can – and do – talk critically and reflectively on every school policy that affects them.
In the schools that I visited in both the USA and Israel, the curriculum is deliberately arranged to channel that innate sense of justice into positive political participation. In Israel, students cannot graduate from school without having completed a civic engagement project. Across the US, states often mandate an American history class, or one in the state’s local history.
In Washington DC, I came across the Mikva Challenge, which trains students to identify problems and relevant change-makers (ranging from local mayors to CEOs) and teaches them how to lobby effectively so that they can execute social change.
Making it compulsory for students to engage in their communities, or to study the diverse origins of those communities, teaches them that a free society can only survive if cultivated by the careful assemblage of facts, and by open – if occasionally discordant – dialogue.
Making social mobility possible
My second big lesson is that education has a huge role to play in narrowing social inequality. A recent UK government report suggested that just 4% of doctors, 6% of barristers and 11% of journalists working in Britain today hail from working-class backgrounds. Yet if we are to ensure young people buy into British society, we need to make sure that our society looks like somewhere they all can prosper, unencumbered by the inequitable circumstances of birth.
The Technoda Institute in Israel is located in Hadera, an area with considerable socio-economic deprivation. It teaches children, from both Arab and Jewish communities, using immersive, hands-on experiences, including an astronomy tower and an A&E suite comprising state-of-the-art medical technology. These excellent facilities help to dismantle the barriers that divide communities and those that separate disadvantaged students from access to scientific and technological industries.
First published in The Year 2017, reproduced with permission of St Catherine's College, Oxford