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How to teach young people about citizenship

Brendan Martin

A few years ago, when I was a parent-governor at the inner London state comprehensive school which my daughters attended, I found myself embroiled in a controversy about how the students should dress.

We had recently lost the headteacher whose success at the school had opened a new career path for him, and his replacement didn’t like the fact that we did not require the children to wear a uniform.

He believed that discipline would be better served if they were required to do so, and that academic improvements would follow from this. So he proposed that we should impose a uniform on them.

I was reminded of this episode the other day when I attended the launch of a new Vision for a Childfair State, which has been produced as part of a process initiated and supported by Children England but led by a group of 23 Young Leaders the charity assembled.

The Young Leaders, then aged between 13 and 21, were chosen in 2019. Children England supported them right through the pandemic with research facilities and other resources, including an adult Sounding Board, on which I had the privilege and pleasure to serve.

Their report summarises their research, sets out a vision and makes recommendations across five categories of public services – housing, social security, neighbourhoods, schools and NHS — expressed as branches of a metaphorical welfare tree.

Some details of their research took me aback, and none more so than the very high level of reported poor mental health among the young people they interviewed, which, of course, contrasts all too clearly with the very low level of support for dealing with it.

But what impressed me most about the report is how it not only articulates a bold vision but also, building on their research, offers practicable and realistic policy proposals to realise it.

Among its proposals for ‘Building a ChildFair school culture’ is the proposal that it should be a requirement to “involve students in the design of all policies, including behaviour, and to use a rights-based approach”.

Which brings me back to that argument – I can’t call it debate or discussion, as there really wasn’t one before a majority of the governors supported the new head’s plan – about the introduction of school uniform.

I am instinctively resistant to uniformity in general, but when we were considering the proposal on the board of governors back then I did not voice that bias even as I admit it might have motivated the dissenting position I adopted.

My argument was that the headteacher’s proposal gave us a great opportunity to involve the whole school community in an evidence-informed discussion about a range of inter-related topics of relevance to the children’s education and wellbeing.

So I did a little research about the international experience of introducing, maintaining or abandoning school uniform and circulated a brief summary of results (which showed no pattern of correlation, let along causation, with behavioural or academic results).

I did not expect my brief study to determine the outcome, but I did think it important to require anyone with a proposal, from headteacher to Year 7 pupil, to submit to the discipline of a deliberative process in which all affected by it are able to articulate their view, hear those of others and consider consequences.

It seemed to me that doing that would provide a far more valuable education in citizenship and collective decision-making than description of abstract concepts alone could do.

Some might object that to give children too much say is to ask them to take responsibility beyond the competence of their age, and that this endangers them. But I am not suggesting that children should have the final say on all matters that affect them – indeed, I worry about the effects of parental regimes in which legitimate and necessary boundaries of authority are insufficiently clear.

What I am suggesting, like the Young Leaders in their report, is that policies should be contested in deliberate processes without which adults cannot exercise their citizenship and children are deprived of vital opportunities to learn about theirs.

And I defy anyone to read the Vision for a Childfair State and not conclude that the route to better policy for young people is to enable and support the agency of young people themselves.

The next step with their fine report is to take it into the corridors of power. Let the Young Leaders make their case, and let older leaders engage with them in a dialogue through which all could learn.

The results might not be the realisation of every proposal the Young Leaders make – but that is precisely the point. It is the deliberation itself, the listening to each other and finding a shared way forward, that will produce a Childfair State fit for the future.