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Bertelsmann Prize 2007 acceptance speech

The following is a transcript of the speech by Michael Maclay, Chairman of the Citizenship Foundation

"Chancellor Merkel, Frau Mohn, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.

"It is a great honour to accept this award on behalf of the Citizenship Foundation - our Staff, Trustees, volunteers, and above all the many thousands of young people with whom we work and have worked year by year. We’re very conscious of all the hard work and rigour the Bertelsmann Stiftung brought to examining the projects. We found it remarkable that you could give such care and attention to the four final candidates, never mind the fifteen projects you shortlisted, the sixty-eight you reviewed and the two hundred-odd on your initial long-list. As Tony Breslin, our Chief Executive observed, you did us a huge service with the hard-headed and knowledgable way in which you forced us to look at ourselves and review our own activities. So it is with a mix of both humility and pride that we receive the prize.

"But we’ll be no more likely than the Bertelsmann Stiftung to rest on our laurels, given the scale and urgency of the questions facing us in the wider realm of citizenship and social engagement. One of the difficulties in getting political, educational and corporate leaders to engage with questions of citizenship is the fact that the concept covers such a dizzying range of the problems facing us.

"If you look at the stories leading the news today in my country, the United Kingdom, you will see the following: gun-crime, led by the funeral today of a ten year old boy shot in all likelihood by a young man in his teens; knife-crime, following a rash of awful incidents this summer; low educational achievement and political proposals to remedy it; disillusion with politics on the part of young people; an initiative for Islamic schools to address what are British norms and values; and the question of whether the government is being held properly accountable to voters, on the question of a European constitutional treaty.

"Each of these issues has a context, and contains the potential for active involvement and participation, which is what citizenship education is all about. To take two examples, our Youth Act programme has been inspiring young people in North London to organise marches in their community against gun crime for the past three years, spreading awareness of the problem and ways of tackling it. And we are leading a new multi-agency project on diversity and dialogue, exploring just what “Britishness” means, in particular for minority communities.

"It’s therefore more than a little irritating that citizenship education should be attacked on the one hand for being too much apple pie and motherhood, and on the other for being pure political correctness. One minute it is government brainwashing, the next it’s too general to be rigorous. I should not dwell on the criticisms, because the intellectual battle is actually being won, and the international support and recognition of organisations like the Bertelsmann Stiftung only underlines this fact. But I would make the point that the range of complicated social problems it addresses does not always create a convenient format for policy-makers, head-teachers or corporate funders to tick the box. In meeting the needs and language of young people - their imagination and their idealism - it has to be innovative to succeed. It must be creative. It has to be ambitious, too. As Andy Thornton, Head of our Participation and Social Action Team has put it, we are not there to keep young people off the streets. We are aiming to give them the skills and the confidence to play a full part in society – to be society, to change society, not to be excluded from society.

"Now, the Stiftung told me I should say something about how we shall use the prize money. Well, we have very thorough-going criteria for our projects, and there is not a quick response as of now that would do justice to the privilege conferred on us. But I’ll answer the question the following way.

"We shall spend all of this money on new programmes in the areas highlighted by the Bertelsmann Stiftung in their citation as encouraging young people to participate actively and effectively in society. Critically, the funding will allow us to develop our capacity to reach more young people, more often, especially those too often cast aside as ‘too hard to reach’. But we aim to seek matching funds from other Foundations, organisations, government and international authorities to maximise our effort: so where we can build on the strengths of Giving Nation, Go-Givers and Youth Act, for instance by rolling out these programmes in different areas, we shall do that. And where the matching funds point in the direction of new if related activity, we’ll go for as much bang for the original buck there as we can.

"The Bertelsmann Stiftung has identified what they describe as a “British” approach which brings together government and the third sector in a quite novel way. We certainly welcome the way in which the Office of the Third Sector is promoting lively, autonomous civil society initiatives, where citizens themselves take responsibility, and government and civil society work together in creating robust communities.

"And I would underline the similar role which the private companies can play. At its best, the private sector is a strong and imaginative player in promoting civic engagement, bringing all its own talents and disciplines to bear. The last few years have been especially good for the private sector in our countries, despite a few wobbles recently in the stock market, and we warmly welcome the determination we see on the part of many major corporations and individuals to put something back into society – and that often means something special.

"Still, the politicians come first. In Britain, we were very glad when the new Labour government five years ago introduced citizenship education into the statutory secondary curriculum, after years of our campaigning for this. We are especially grateful to the present Prime Minister for his far-sightedness in establishing the original Giving Campaign from which the Giving Nation programme grew, and for his continuing strong commitment to the third sector and to volunteering. At the same time, we welcome the Conservative Party’s championing of the idea of social responsibility and the attention David Cameron has paid to the importance of understanding young people in their own terms. And we would also say how much we have benefitted from the Liberal Democrat tradition, most notably through the tireless commitment and vision of our Founding Chairman, now President, Andrew Phillips, who is with us today.

"So on that broad, British basis, I would like to challenge a number of players to work with us in making the most of the generosity of the Bertelsmann Stiftung.

"First, Chancellor Merkel, we shall seek to identify the German partners with whom we can work to pass on the experience we have, and learn from them too. And we shall appreciate your government’s help in this.

"Voluntary groups in the Land of Baden-Wurttemberg have produced an excellent guide for Young People, ‘Junge Seiten’, in the tradition of our Young Citizen’s Passport which we launched fourteen years ago. Perhaps there is work we can do with that State, where I had the huge pleasure of studying a generation or so ago. But we are keen to develop any serious collaborative venture that would make sense in Germany, and we are warmly encouraged by your words. We hope your officials at federal Level, and the new friends we are making at regional level, will be similarly enthusiastic.

"Second, I would issue a challenge to the European Commission in Brussels to match the Bertelsmann funding, perhaps on a wider cross-border project, if we can identify the right task. We have received modest funding from Brussels for Youth Act in the past, and fifteen years ago the Commission showed some courage in supporting our booklet and video set Maastricht Made Simple, where we made a point of spelling out the case against as well as the case for the Treaty. We would like to achieve a strategic relationship with the Commission that would go beyond a one-off collaboration to a continuing shared investigation of what European Citizenship means, and can mean, for young people across the continent.

"Thirdly, we seek corporate partners who will match the Bertelsmann prize money with a serious commitment to the right project or projects in this field. As I mentioned earlier, citizenship education and civic engagement are not the easiest areas, with attainable targets, to sum up briskly in the CSR section of an annual report. Our activities are at the same time too general and too specialised for many funders. Our motto, ‘Individuals engaging in Society’, suggests what the Germans would describe as ‘ein weites Feld’. But in that broad and rich field lie all the most critical questions for the employers of today and tomorrow. Skilled, financially and socially literate young citizens, confident and assertive, are the consumers, as well as the workers, of tomorrow.

"And finally I look back from Gutersloh to my own country and government – and it is a pleasure to see Sir Peter Torry, the British Ambassador, here. Many of our more innovative programmes, like Giving Nation and Youth Act, are unlikely to find corporate sponsorship in their initial phases. Last week we were told by an excellent and generous Foundation linked to one of our major national companies that one of our proposals was simply ‘too bold’ to be accepted by the Board. It was in one of the most sensitive and important public policy areas today. We hope that the government will be sufficiently impressed by our award here today that we can find a national project, in the area of civic engagement, on which maybe a coalition of government departments will pledge funding to match Bertelsmann’s very generous prize. We shall be sure to report back to you on our success with these challenges.

"The idea of effective and active citizenship, whether as a British citizen, a German citizen, a European citizen or a citizen of the world, must be something worth striving for. There is a huge amount of work to be done in making citizenship a badge of pride, given the range of challenges our citizens face at all of these levels. But with our new friends here, and our old friends in London, we at the Citizenship Foundation fully intend playing our part."

Michael Maclay, 6 September 2007

 

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