Being more civic

Giving young people a basic understanding of politics and democracy is surely as important as any other activity in school — but civic education has a tumultuous history in Ireland, and is rarely taken seriously. Lenny Antonelli reports

Village magazine, September 2010

(Note: this is my edit of the article, not Village's)

Young people in Ireland are more politically aware than those in at least 30 other countries, according to new international research. The International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS) surveyed 140,000 students across 38 countries, and found that more Irish students intend to vote in future than the international average too.

But its initial findings have been largely ignored. The OECD’s conclusion in January that the mediocre standard of maths and science among Irish pupils stunts our economy generated headlines, but there’s been little focus on how the quality of our civic education effects the nation’s political and social health.

The ICCS findings provide a cautious thumbs up, but we’re still far from boasting an education system that ensures every student is politically engaged. “It's encouraging but it shouldn't be a cause for any complacency,” says Gerry Jeffers of the education department at NUI Maynooth.

There may even be quite subtle reasons for Ireland’s high placing, such our good literacy rate or similarities between topics in the survey and the Civic, Social and Political Education (CSPE) curriculum, explains Jude Cosgrove of the Educational Research Centre (ERC), which ran the ICCS survey in Ireland. The full ICCS report will be released in late September, and in November the ERC will publish a detailed national report [Update: now released, see].

Promoting “active participation” may be one of CSPE’s main goals, but the ICCS survey — given to 3,400 second year students in Ireland — found students here have fairly average levels of involvement in civic activities outside school.

Sixty per cent of CSPE’s marks go towards a student’s report on their action project — some activity that involves civic engagement — but ‘soft’ projects are common. Teacher and campaigner Mark Conroy says many teachers invite the same guest speaker in year after year to discuss an uncontroversial issue, with students only given menial tasks such as finding the speaker’s phone number or welcoming him to the school. “It's meaningless. The students are certainly no better off in terms of civic attitudes at the end of it. If they did a project that had a component of proper community action, they'd learn something.”

“Civic and political education is a very pedestrian affair in Irish education,” he says. “It, to all intents and purposes, is an information source, rather than a call to arms. It does not have as its purpose the function of creating genuinely politically-conscious individuals.” No qualification in politics or sociology is needed to teach CSPE, and Conroy believes this hinders the subject. “The first thing I think that is needed is teachers who are genuinely fired up by the issues that should be raised in a CSPE class. All too often it is seen as a subject that fills up the gaps in a teacher's timetable.”

But important progress has still been made. Ireland is one of just 19 countries in the ICCS study that has a dedicated civics subject, while Gerry Jeffers says the fact 60% of CSPE’s marks are awarded for civic action — no matter how modest —  is a big step forward. And while some schools let the subject rot, it thrives in others where principals and teachers take it seriously. But Jeffers says the subject needs more than 40 minutes a week to flourish.

One CSPE student I spoke — my 15 year old sister — said she has no absolutely no interest in politics, but that CSPE nonetheless taught her the basics about voting and government. But she also said the subject is considered easy, and that many of the exam questions just require common sense.

Internationally there’s strong evidence that good civic education leads to greater participation and political awareness, but the subject has a turbulent history in Ireland. The Church of Ireland sought its introduction at the birth of Irish state but the Catholic Church objected, fearing it would encroach on religious education. In 1967 civics was introduced as an unexamined subject. The syllabus focused on the “accumulation of facts about public organisations”, and the importance of patriotism, morality and obeying the law. Civics and religion were often taught as one subject.

By the early 1970s the subject was dying. The Curriculumand Examinations Board (CEB)developed a new social and political studies syllabus in the 1980s, but it faced opposition — during the 1987 election the group Family Solidarity claimed the CEB was subversive and anti-Catholic. Fine Gael lost the election and the subject lay dormant until education minister Mary O'Rourke introduced a CSPE pilot project in 1993. In 1997, it became a Junior Cert subject.

Six years later Garret Fitzgerald criticised the lack of political education at senior cycle, arguing that, “when students are reaching the stage at which they would begin to have questions to ask and would want to probe and challenge, their interest is damped down by removing them from contact with political, social and civic issues”. The government proposed the introduction of a senior cycle civics subject in 2006, and the NCCA published a draft syllabus last year.

It’s an impressive document, emphasising human rights and democratic learning. And students will take it seriously — it’s designed as a full-time subject and the draft syllabus is rich in political philosophy, referring to Marx and Locke, to Plato and Hobbes.

But it’s future is uncertain. In response to a query I submitted asking when the subject would be introduced, the Department of Education said that no date had been set, and that its introduction would “ be considered in the context of the overall priorities and resources available in the system” when the syllabus is finalised.

And what about primary schools? There, civics is principally taught through Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE), and primary school teacher and Labour Party councillor Dermot Looney says the political elements focus mainly on the roles of different government positions and institutions. But he says that "it's not so important to learn about institutions of democracy but about democracy itself.” SPHE is typically taught for just half an hour per week as a standalone subject, and Looney believes it should get more time — at the expense of religious education, he suggests, which is allotted two and a half hours weekly.

Civic education is about more than just teaching the subject though. It’s about the entire school — after all, how can students be expected to become active democrats if they’re taught under an authoritarian school system?

“There are some who are happy to have education run in an authoritarian way,” Michael D Higgins said in 1992. “Theirs is a most unusual view: to be content to have education function as an autocratic, undemocratic institutional structure within a formal democracy.”

The ICCS study is less kind to Ireland on this front —  just 38% of students say they have taken part in decision-making at school. Student councils are a lot more common than a decade ago, but NUIM’s Gerry Jeffers stresses they’re just one example of student participation. “Student councils can contribute a lot but they have to be supported by a whole lot of other things,” he says. “How the school is run, how the teachers relate to the students — how much students rights are genuinely respected is the big issue.”

He says transition year offers vital lessons for making schools more democratic — the more relaxed atmosphere and reduced exam pressure means teachers have more time to listen to students. “Classes become much more democratic, more participative,” he says.

Mark Conroy believes that for civic education to flourish we must look outside schools, to cultivating a wider culture of dissent in society. “Our state was founded because of dissent and genuine political engagement, but since then each government has been a very conservative one, and none have encouraged dissent and civic engagement, or at least not in any meaningful way,” he says.

He says the media has “major responsibilities” in fostering dissent. It’s two sides of the same coin:  while the media must help create such a culture, students also need a curriculum that teaches them how to critically analyse endless messages from the media, politicians and special interests.

They need a curriculum that gets them asking questions. “The whole notion of power isn’t on the curriculum,” Jude Cosgrove says of CSPE. “I’m thinking the concept would be — why do some people have more power than others? How is power mediated, how is it perpetuated? Are there any working examples of power struggles that have resulted in new power structures? If you look at the curriculum a lot of it is sort of fact-based, kids maybe aren't maybe being taught to question… Why are some people in society less well off than others? Is that just? How could that be improved?”