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9 July, 2015

Prevent Duty on schools: citizenship classes are key, says Government

The new duty on schools to tackle radicalisation came into force last week. In its guidance for school leaders, the Department for Education recommends citizenship classes as a place to do this. It also encourages schools to explore controversial issues in class.

A classroom, pupils facing away from the camera
The UK Department for Education recommends citizenship lessons in schools for exploring controversial issues and promoting cohesion.

'Citizenship helps to provide pupils with the knowledge, skills and understanding to prepare them to play a full and active part in society,' says the Prevent Duty guidance for schools and childcare providers.

'It should equip pupils to explore political and social issues critically, to weigh evidence, to debate, and to make reasoned arguments.'

'In Citizenship,' the guidance continues, 'pupils learn about democracy, government and how laws are made and upheld.

'Pupils are also taught about the diverse national, regional, religious and ethnic identities in the United Kingdom and the need for mutual respect and understanding.'

Citizenship is a statutory subject on the national curriculum for secondary schools. But while many schools (academies and free schools) are exempt from the national curriculum, they are not exempt from the Prevent Duty.

The reference to citizenship is significant, because - as far as we are aware - it is the first time since the new citizenship curriculum was published that the Government has actually encouraged schools to use it.

Also, importantly, the guidance takes pains to reassure us that this new duty on schools 'is not intended to stop pupils debating controversial issues', which is fundamental to good citizenship education.

'On the contrary,' it says, 'schools should provide a safe space in which children, young people and staff can understand the risks associated with terrorism and develop the knowledge and skills to be able to challenge extremist arguments.'

We welcome the clarity of these statements, because a number of teachers and organisations, including the National Union of Teachers, are worried that the Prevent Duty will scare schools into stifling debate.

It is understandable that some teachers are wary of exploring controversial issues, such as extremism, in class. But there are resources to help them do so with confidence.

Recently, we published Talking about values in the classroom, which introduces teachers to a method of working that develops students' skills of thinking and talking about moral issues.

And, a few years ago, we produced guidance for schools on dealing with the British National Party and other radical groups and, earlier, on teaching controversial issues. Although some of the references are of their time, the general principles still hold.

We are heartened by the tone of the Prevent Duty guidance; people are waking up to the fact that citizenship classes do have an important place in the lives of young people, and that exploring controversial issues from an early age is critical to promoting the strong, cohesive and pluralist society that most of us want.

We hope the Government will now encourage school leaders to get the support and resources they need to put citizenship education - and, indeed, the citizenship curriculum - back at the heart of their schools.

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