From Riots to Rights: Citizenship Education is Part of the Solution for a 'Broken Society'

07/09/2011 00:02 BST | Updated 06/11/2011 10:12 GMT

In contrast to a response to the riots that says 'we must empower teachers to be more disciplinarian, this country is losing its moral fibre' we should use human rights to illustrate the power of liberation and order, rather than simply applying order until liberated from the school gates

In response to the recent riots, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke wrote of a "feral underclass" who required "robust punishment", echoing elements of his colleague, the education secretary Michael Gove last week, who spoke about the need to discipline an "underclass" and to ensure teachers had absolute authority.

It is entirely predictable that politicians have rushed to such arguments given the climate of panic that the riots left in their wake, but staunchly asserting that what is needed is tighter control within the school gates, does not address the conduct of children when they are out of school.

To make a meaningful and lasting impact on children, which endures beyond the time when they are being controlled through discipline or the threat of retribution, we must consider what we are equipping them with in the classroom and what it is we intend them to depart with.

David Cameron has spoken of the "twisting and misrepresenting of human rights that has undermined personal responsibility." So the last thing you would expect would be the removal of the one statutory National Curriculum subject which teaches school children about the link between rights and responsibilities.

A subject that arms children with knowledge about what they can expect from their society and government and what is expected of them. After the events we have witnessed one might suppose that the government would ensure that such a subject was being taught consistently well and placed at the heart of the curriculum. Instead that subject, Citizenship, is at risk of being dropped from the curriculum altogether.

Citizenship ensures that young people learn about our democratic, political, legal and economic systems - all of which are vitally important in helping young people to understand their role in society.

There is a false dichotomy being put about, which suggests that rights and responsibilities are some sort of either/or pay off. They are not. Indeed, it is vital that the two coexist. Children need to be taught about the rights of others, every bit as much as their own rights. That so many of the basic entitlements of others were trampled under foot during the riots, is testament to the fact that we need to up our game in informing people about both duty and due. As well as the co-dependence of the two.

Of course, Citizenship education has to be taught well, by trained specialist teachers, who can support their students to make the connection between human rights and everyday life so that they become useful tools which they take with them into all aspects of their lives, as intrinsically necessary as language and clothing. Teaching children about rights is not an abstract opt-in theory, but among the founding values of what it means to be human and to participate in the world around you.

It is vital that we introduce all young people to the rights contained within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, such as 'the right to feel safe and secure' as well as 'the right to participate in decisions affecting one's life'. Learning about these rights, which are at once individual and shared amongst the collective, is the first vital step in fostering a sense of community in which every member plays a part and to which we all belong.

It is equally vital that students learn that human rights do not include the right to an i-pod or the latest trainers. That there is no right to take. Indeed, the current Citizenship curriculum introduces the concept of balancing rights - enabling young people to understand that whilst human rights are universal, in a society that values justice an individual's rights have to be balanced against the rights of others in the community: it is legitimate to limit your right to participate in society if your doing so infringes the right of others to live in safety.

In the context of the recent riots, Citizenship lessons are the ideal, and indeed the only, place where teachers are able to conduct discussions of the cause and the consequences of recent events. It will be decades before they make it onto the history curriculum. Without an overt and clear place to foreground these matters within the school timetable, they will end up being enforced through behavioural codes in a way that inevitably perpetuates the perceived exclusion of those who behave less well.

In contrast to a response to the riots that says 'we must empower teachers to be more disciplinarian, this country is losing its moral fibre' we should use human rights to illustrate the power of liberation and order, rather than simply applying order until liberated from the school gates.

It is vital that Citizenship be retained as a statutory subject - an entitlement for all pupils and students - in the current curriculum review. The loss of the subject would be not only a tragedy for school children in England, but it would also be an entirely self-contradictory and self-defeating move from a government which aspires to lead and mend society.

About Democratic Life

Democratic Life is a coalition of organisations and individuals in the UK seeking to strengthen and extend young people's entitlement to high-quality Citizenship education in England. Members include: Amnesty International UK, The Citizenship Foundation, The Association of Citizenship Teaching, The Hansard Society, The Institute for Global Ethics UK Trust, Involver, The United Nations Association and The Law Society.