Citizenship, youth work and democratic renewal

Picture: McGill student vote mob 2011 by Adam Scatti. Retrieved from Flickr and reproduced unfer a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence.

Citizenship, youth work and democratic renewal. Tony Jeffs examines current and historic concerns with citizenship within British youth work and the direction of government policy. He argues that informal educators must be wary of pseudo-democracy and work to cultivate small pockets of genuine deliberate democracy wherein citizenship survives and from which it will range forth.

Contents: introduction · what is the problem? · creating new citizens · citizenship revived · youth work, democracy and citizenship · further reading and bibliography · links · how to cite this article

According to a youth worker at a recent UK conference “in the 1970s we had enfranchisement; 1980s participation; 1990s empowerment; and now citizenship”. Citizenship was, he continued, just another ‘spray-on word’. Such cynicism is understandable. Many ‘citizenship’ initiatives are re-packaging exercises. An example here is the Home Office, DfEE and Cabinet Office launch of their £130 million ‘Next Steps Towards a New Era of Active Citizenship’ in England – a pot-pourri of grants to projects trumpeted days before the election to gift MPs photo opportunities at, for example community centres and toy libraries.

Such exercises breed cynicism. However it is mistaken to dismiss interest in ‘citizenship’ as a fad. First, because it relates to justifiable concerns linked to a growing democratic deficit (the absence of democratic accountability and control), a fear that control is being transferred from democratically accountable bodies to un-elected corporations and agencies (Klein, 2000; 2001; Monbiot, 2000; Frank, 2000). Second, and not unconnected, are deep-seated worries that popular engagement with politics and civil society is dwindling. Third, fostering citizenship and democracy has consistently been an objective for much youth and community work. Our colleague rightly dismissed transparent attempts by politicians to purloin this issue, but would be mistaken if his indignation meant he discarded this historic raison d’etre for intervention. Are concerns regarding the first two well founded?

Citizenship – what is the problem?

First, what is ‘democratic deficit’? Murray and Corbett (1999) writing on Fife Council’s Citizenship Commission, launched 1996 to ‘enhance local democracy’, remind us elected local authorities recently lost control of FE, careers guidance, water and sewage. Transfers to private companies, centrally appointed quangos and Whitehall quickened post-1979. However such relocations of control from local government to the centre have been occurring for a century. Pre-1914 jurisdiction over services with a daily impact on our lives overwhelmingly resided in Town Halls. Then gradually it moved to Whitehall or Edinburgh. Now, as ‘a compliant state, is willing to assist in its own redundancy’ (Monbiot, 2000: 9) control is reassigned to multi-nationals with headquarters located heavens knows where. As Monbiot’s account of the financial and political irregularities surrounding the Skye road bridge project shows a local community may now find it virtually impossible to unearth who controls an essential service.

Local authorities once provided health care, social housing, roads, income maintenance, planning, education (including most higher level institutions), police and social services plus, in many areas, gas, electricity, water, sewage and public transport. Linkages between members’ quality of life and the calibre of these services were so transparent community workers and youth workers commonly sought to stimulate political involvement amongst those they worked with. Clubs, centres and settlements ran citizenship classes, mock parliaments and debating clubs, and many workers felt pressed to engage in local politics. At Toynbee Hall, for example, they were expected to serve on school boards and similar bodies. Attlee seamlessly moved from boys’ club work into local government, Parliament and eventually Downing Street; whilst Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence was simultaneously treasurer of the Suffragettes and a girls’ club organiser. Settlement and girls’ club workers were notably conspicuous in the suffrage movement. Seeing clubs as settings for the promotion of political and social awareness, yet aware that community and club work, unaccompanied by civic engagement, would never secure substantive reform (Vicinus, 1985). For such workers ‘democratic deficit’ embraced a denial of suffrage; negligible working class representation at every level; and the political ascendancy of employers and landowners. This deficit is no new challenge for community educators, but it constantly acquires new guises. Each generation of workers must therefore comprehend afresh its contours and respond accordingly.

Declining political engagement is not exclusively a ‘youth problem’. Calibrated in terms of voter turnout, party membership and diminished interest in public affairs it applies to all. Yet it is widely interpreted as a youth problem because an inter-cohort shift is occurring with each new generation revealing a dwindling enthusiasm. This ‘downward spiral’ means even if the next cohort of electors (and those who follow) acquire an unparalleled passion for voting the decline would continue for decades. As fewer in each preceding cohort vote not until our hyper-political generation reach 40plus would an improvement materialise. Current generational mismatch is substantial. Amongst Scottish electors, for example, in the 1997 general election 60 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds voted, amongst the 60 to 64 grouping 90 (Scottish Election Survey quoted Paterson et al, 2001). This fissure expanded in the 2001 general election when approximately a quarter of 18 year olds bothered. 40 per cent didn’t even register to vote against eight per cent overall (Pirie and Worcester, 2000: 29). Post June 2001 commentators cited the participation rate as the lowest since 1918. What pundits overlooked was in 1918 the country experienced an influenza epidemic that claimed more victims than the War; over 800,000 registered voters died in the War; and many thousands were serving overseas, in military hospitals, prisoner-of-war camps or barracks waiting de-mob. Declining voter turnout is not confined to national elections. Locally it is worse. In some districts single figure turnouts are recorded and overall the percentage is half that for general or assembly elections. In community council elections a figure of 5 per cent is now considered ‘exceptionally good’ (Vestri, 1999:7). Worse – not just electors are scarce, most community councillors are returned unopposed.

Plummeting party membership in Britain corresponds to declining voter participation. Membership is now so low parties won’t publish figures. In 1952, with a smaller population, Labour had over 1 million; double current membership of both main parties (Rawnsley, 2000). The average age of Conservative members now exceeds 61, Labour 47 (Wilkinson and Mulgan, 1995). Yet in 1967 the Young Conservatives (founded 1906) justifiably claimed they were the largest political youth organisation in the ‘free world’, with over 120,000 members in 1,600 branches (Scott, 1967). Labour never matched this but its Young Socialists had 630 branches (Underhill, 1967), the Young Liberals over 400 (Raw, 1967). Neither of the two main parties now sustains a viable youth wing.

Besides a willingness to vote or join a party there are other indicators of political commitment. Especially for most young people, who are unable to vote nor encouraged, via youth and student sections, to join mainstream parties. Alternatives predominately involve engagement with what Manley (1992) terms lateral democracy. This, contrasts with vertical democracy – voting and holding elected office – encompassing wider political and social activities. Notably by opting to learn about and discuss politics; join and support social movements; and volunteer to help individuals and groups. Kerr et al (2001) similarly identify conventional citizenship and social movement citizenship. Where vertical democracy is weak or non-existent, for example China, Manley suggests the lateral variant may by way of compensation be stronger. Conversely where vertical democracy is strong the obverse may occur. This may be so where elections, if allowed, are a sham however evidence this self-righting model applies in ‘mature’ democracies is thin. Putman (1993: 2000) demonstrates vertical and lateral democratic structures are mutually dependent, where one is weak, likewise the other. Kerr et al (2001) certainly found little enthusiasm for either amongst young people in Britain.

Examination of the three commonly cited elements of lateral democracy and civic engagement offer those hoping these compensate for low participation in mainstream politics no comfort. First, few young people debate and discuss political issues. One UK study found 51 per cent of young people categorically had ‘no interest in politics’; far more so than over 25s (Pirie and Worcester, 2000:12; Harrison and Deicke, 2001). Buckingham (2000) reported British and American young people overwhelmingly avoided broadsheet newspapers and TV News finding it difficult to ‘connect’ with politics. Many communicated lamentable ignorance. For example, 88 per cent couldn’t discuss proportional representation, a third hadn’t heard of it (Pirie and Worcester, 2000:19). The evidence confirms Wilkinson’s assessment – ‘an entire generation has opted out of party politics’ (1996: 242).

Second, few engage in civic activities. ‘Citizenship is not a spectator sport’ (Putman, 2000: 265), where opportunities for personal contact and engagement abound – clubs, shared social activities and political activism – it thrives. Putman’s research, in America and Italy, found individualism and isolation are growing, especially amongst the young. In America, the age gap betwixt old and young relating to political activity, as in Europe (Mair, 2001), is replicated regarding civic engagement.

This Putman reports a ‘greying’:

In the early 1970s people sixty and over provided 12 per cent of all officers and committee members of local organizations, 20 per cent of all community volunteers, and 24 per cent of the attendance at club meetings. By the mid-1990s these figures had risen to 20 per cent, 35 per cent, and 38 per cent respectively. Even though the seniors’ share in the adult population barely budged during these two decades, their contribution to community life almost doubled. (ibid: 256)

British research conveys a similar message. Young people now spend more time alone and on watching television than in school or with parents (Steele and Brown, 1995; Jeffs and Smith, 2001). They may have greater control over aspects of their life picking ‘n mixing lifestyles, but choices are often more illusory than real (Furlong and Cartmel, 1997: Miles, 2000). For individualism is acquired at the expense of communal experiences. Civic disengagement is happening here. Only 15 per cent of young people perceive ‘volunteering’ a responsibility; similarly underrated are challenging the law when you believe it wrong (18 per cent) and being active in the community (24 per cent). Pirie and Worcester conclude ‘activism is out’ (2000: 21) – conformity the prevailing orthodoxy. Some offer alternative scenarios. Roker and Player (1997) suggest disengagement from formal politics does not equate with detachment from wider democratic processes. They claim young people were not alienated, disaffected or selfish citing support for social movements linked to environment and ‘rights issues’ (Gaskin, Vlaeminke and Fenton, 1997). This overlooks that they may also indulge in rhetoric favouring sentiment over action:

  • 71 per cent thought helping the elderly was important but 12 per cent claimed to be involved;
  • 66 per cent thought helping the handicapped was important but 7 per cent were involved;
  • 58 per cent thought conserving the countryside to be important but 6 per cent claimed to be involved. (Edwards and Fogelman, 1991: 32)

Irrespective of the gloss applied interest in mainstream politics is waning and they are not prioritising alternative forms of civic engagement. Increasingly they simply will or cannot find time ‘to read newspapers, follow national politics, or get involved in crusades’ (Brooks, 2001).

Creating new citizens

Concerns over young peoples’ political commitment have cultivated a flurry of activity. Responses are neither original nor radical, predictably because as such concerns are enduring. What changes are explanations and the desired ends. To understand why citizenship has again become a potent motif within youth work and where the policies may lead it helps to consider earlier links between citizenship education and youth work.

Athenians, concerned to sustain their fragile democracy, stressed the need to prepare young people for citizenship. Aristotle in his reflections on education contends young people must develop qualities of character that nourish and sustain democratic life. Therefore education should be ‘one and the same for all’ (1932, Politics viii, 1, 3), that children should be trained to be good persons and good citizens. For Aristotle this meant education is too important to be left to the whims of parents or private enterprise.

Athenians courageously sustained against enormous odds a democracy where ‘power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people’ (Pericles quoted Thucydides, 1972: 145). Pericles believed this was because of their knowledge of the political system, participation in its life and the convention of public discussion before action:

Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics – this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all. We Athenians, in our own persons, take our decisions on policy or submit them to proper discussion: for we do not think that there is an incompatibility between words and deeds; the worst thing is to rush into action before the consequences have been properly debated. (ibid: 147)

Therefore Pericles held a democracy must craft citizens who:

  • have knowledge of the life of the state;
  • understand that the secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom is the ‘brave hearts’ of those willing to defend freedom from its enemies whatever the cost;
  • are ‘wise men who understand their duty and good men, self-disciplined in its performance’.

Even after its defeat those fighting tyranny and oppression looked for 2000 years to Athens for a model of what democracy and citizenship might be. American and French revolutionaries rightly paid homage to its ideas, writers, architecture and philosophers. Early adult educators and club workers often sought to share their enthusiasm for studying Greek philosophy. Sixty plus years ago no ex-student of a grammar or public school, or university, lacked a grounding in Greek or Roman history. Many from such backgrounds worked in boys and girls’ clubs, settlements, adult education and community centres. Their practice borrowed from this knowledge, notably the tradition of civic republicanism, wherein citizenship was a status and an activity – a way of living. Striving to foster learning, democracy and independence amongst those they worked with, whilst avoiding the stigma of charity pervading most welfare practice, they translated the Athenian tradition into the concept of membership. Entered into freely, it conferred benefits and rights alongside obligations embodied in a commitment to contribute time and energy for the good of all and engage in decision-making processes. Although these workers organised instruction in civics or lectures on citizenship (Meacham, 1987) they primarily taught ‘democracy’ as a lived experience. Albeit one nurtured within the oasis of clubs, associations or centres located in a society that disenfranchised most of their members. For Toynbee, who during the late nineteenth century was an influential spokesperson for this movement to build democracy from the bottom up, it entailed

The education of each member of the community as regards the relation in which he stands to other individual citizens and to the community as a whole. We have abandoned the attempt to realise citizenship by separating ourselves from society. We will never abandon the belief that it is yet to be won amid the stress and confusion of the ordinary world in which we move. (quoted Mansbridge, 1917: 95)

In 1871 France initiated the first modern example of national citizenship education following military humiliation and seven decades of constitutional upheaval. Education civique was a comprehensive curriculum for all pupils designed to foster patriotism and teach all their responsibilities as citizens (Russell, 1950). It attracted worldwide attention. In Britain the arrival of the new century coincided with widespread industrial unrest accompanied by school strikes serious enough to warrant an official enquiry. Sadler its chair subsequently organised publication of a 900page report on moral and civic education (1908). A listing of the report’s sponsors, who include many key figures within youth and community organisations, runs to 30pages. The roll call reflects both the breadth of support for citizenship education and the depth of concern regarding the political life of the working class. These hoped Britain, which added civics to the Code (national curriculum) in 1895, would introduce a detailed syllabus and daily instruction akin to the French model. They failed. The Scotch Education Department expected civics to be taught and Williams found it was ‘in one form or another common in the schools’ (1908: 464). The Report observed schools organising mock elections, visits to Council and other meetings, inviting guest speakers and supporting charities via sales of work, concerts, dramatic performances and sewing parties. Citizenship teaching was not universally popular. In Wales it apparently stirred a ‘tendency to deprecate what is not Welsh’; and celebrating Empire Day aroused widespread opposition from a public antagonistic to ‘jingoism’ (Hughes, 1908: 418).

Pressure to extend citizenship education continued, heightened during the 1930s by fears of totalitarianism and abandonment of the National Code (Batho, 1990). War stimulated the desired growth. Unlike 1914 the government feared alone patriotism would not motivate a conscript army or sustain the Home Front. A political education programme extolling the virtues of democracy, written by leading academics the British Way and Purpose, was introduced for troops. Youth organisations were expected to prepare members ‘for their full participation in the life of the nation’ (Board of Education, 1940: 6). They responded enthusiastically (Gosden, 1976). Fostering democracy and citizenship via activities and formal inputs; and the traditional route of involving members in decision-making. One member recalls how their:

club, if it had ever been that, ceased to be merely a means of keeping boys off the street. It offered to the young a unique experience in full democratic self-government. In the world outside the club walls, our elders were intent upon great affairs, on ensuring the survival of the world. We were intent upon an experiment in democracy that mirrored the values for which they were supposed to be fighting. We were not completely aware of it in that form, but inside our little enclave we exercised a responsibility as grave to us as any that fell to Churchill. (Bunt, 1990: 24-5)

During the 1940s ‘citizenship’ and political education initiatives multiplied coinciding with heightened political activity – voter turnout peaked; party and youth wing membership soared; trade union affiliation exceeded previous levels. Not only mainstream parties flourished. The Communist Party, with two MPs in 1945, threatened Labour hegemony in parts of London, Wales and Scotland. Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties thrived. Youth organisations worked to develop programmes similar to those now emerging but whereas ours seek to ignite interest, theirs often sought to dampen it. Channel it into ‘acceptable’ arenas and isolate the politically active from their members.

In Britain LEA sponsored Youth Councils led the way. England and Wales had 237 by 1950 (Bristol University, 1951). Most were Junior Parliaments and debating chambers; or committees organising and managing activities. Some, like Swansea Youth Council, combined both. Advising the LEA and organising events such as visits, drama festivals, youth weeks, public lectures and ‘residentials’. It also hosted debates for example – ‘retention of married women in local authority employment’ (against), ‘abolishing the death penalty’ (against); ‘sex education in schools’ (for); and ‘legalising gambling’ (against). Some attracted 300 participants (Jones, 1951). Members of the councils represented local clubs, uniformed groups, secondary schools, churches and, sometimes, University and College student unions. Political youth organisations were banned, resulting in ‘political infiltration’ leading to the closure of some councils. Those serving large catchment areas and ‘parliaments’ fared least well. Few survived beyond the mid-1950s.

Decline coincided with waning political activity and LEA investment. The Albemarle Committee (Ministry of Education, 1960) established to revive the youth service neither advocated their resuscitation nor unduly bothered itself with political engagement or literacy. Delinquency dominated their agenda. Student unrest focussed the minds of the Fairbairn-Milson Committee (DES, 1969) upon participation (Holmes, 2001). However as Bunt’s account of the NAYC (National Association of Youth Clubs) in the 1970s shows agencies generally embargoed ‘politics’ and were content to follow an Education Minister’s instructions – to concentrate on providing clubs ‘where young people could mix socially and play games’ (quoted Bunt, 1990: 90). Some youth workers tried to sustain political education but moves to short-term competitive funding, time limited contracts, youth work curricula and targeting of resources on ‘troublesome youth’ effectively sidelined it. Some judged political education risky. Others were simply uninterested and ignored it. An tactic made easier by the narrowing client base that meant fewer practitioners encountered those ‘educated articulate’ young people eager to debate political and social issues.

Schools were actively discouraged from offering ‘political education’ (Jeffs, 1988). Government’s goal was to eradicate political activism in schools, colleges and youth clubs. Sociology, philosophy and politics graduates were excluded from PGCE courses. The1986 Education Act (Clause 45) established guidelines, requiring teachers ‘where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils … they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views’. The 1986 Local Government Act (Clause 28) prevented discussion of sexual politics. Finally the1988 Education Act (Clause 44a) forbade ‘pursuit of partisan political activities by any of those registered pupils at the school’. Predictably the National Curriculum debarred politics, ‘citizenship’ and ‘modern history’.

Politicians craving politically quiescent youth post 1968 largely achieved their goal. Piven and Cloward (1988) show this to be a well honed objective, citing numerous examples of policies, like the Poll Tax, designed to deter the potentially oppositional from voting. During the 1980s advocates of political education in schools were despondent (Reid, 1985). Yet within a decade the pendulum was swinging in the opposite direction. Both the Hansard and Politics Societies were campaigning for political education. A Commission on Citizenship with powerful backers materialized, followed by an Institute for Citizenship Studies and a Foundation for Citizenship. Swiftly citizenship became a big issue (Alton, 2001).

Citizenship revived

British debates regarding citizenship have long been dominated by Marshall’s taxonomy (1950). Like the Athenian position it argues citizenship as bestowed on full members of community embodies rights and duties. Marshall, incorporated the thinking of writers such as Toynbee and T. H. Green, concluding that citizenship was fluid and encompassed – civil rights, developed in the eighteenth; political rights, in the nineteenth; and social rights, in the twentieth century. Civil rights Marshall characterized as comprising rights protecting ‘individual freedom – liberty of the person, freedom of speech, thought and faith, the right to own property and to conclude valid contracts, and the right to justice’. Political citizenship embodied ‘the right to participate in the exercise of political power, as a member of a body invested with political authority or as an elector of the members of such a body’. Finally the social rights incorporated an assortment of rights relating to economic security, equal access to education and the capacity to live ‘according to the standards prevailing in society’ (ibid: 10-11).

Although challenged by theorists pressing for a conceptualisation taking full account of globalisation (see Jordan, 2001) Marshall’s construct remains dominant within youth and social policy. Uncritically adopted by the authors of the Report of the Commission on Citizenship (1990) and the Crick Report on Citizenship Education in English and Welsh schools (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, 1998) it justifies welfare intervention as essential for the acquisition of citizenship. Sociologists of youth now frequently employ Marshall’s model; ‘citizenship’ becoming the desired ¢¢destination’ for young people in transition and view those denied, say, education or legal rights as at risk of exclusion from full citizenship’ (Coles, 2000:13; Coles, 1995; Jones and Wallace, 1992; Jones, 1996; Hall, Coffey and Williamson, 2000). Its a persuasive argument exploited, often effectively, by those seeking youth work funding.

Youth work has clambered aboard the citizenship bandwagon. Parallels with earlier campaigns are not unwarranted. Then fears that an enfranchised working class might be indifferent to their duties, or worse become so activated they succumbed to radical influences that argued democratisation should embrace economic equality, led Conservatives and Liberals to promote citizenship education. Once again many are judged actual, or potentially, sub-standard citizens. The fear is these will opt out denying legitimacy to the political system. Or become outsiders within – an underclass consuming taxes but indifferent, even antagonistic, to those who pay for and the state that distributes services. Respectable opinion now believes poor and young alike must receive citizenship training. The poor via funding mechanisms for example community programmes tying monies to involvement; by forcing the unemployed, claimants and offenders to become ‘volunteers’. The young via training provided by schools and youth organisations. The difference between contemporary and earlier variants is that ours focuses on stimulating political activity. Before aims were contradictory – to encourage some, discourage others.

The White Paper Excellence in Schools re-launched citizenship education. Henceforth schools must teach pupils the nature of democracy and the duties, responsibilities and rights of citizens (DES, 1997). Subsequently an Advisory Group on Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy identified three principal dimensions for the compulsory curriculum:

  • participation in democracy;
  • the responsibilities and rights of a citizen;
  • the value of community activity.

Then the government set about preparing an education civique; a curriculum replete with attainment targets for September 2002 launch. MPs, teachers or young people were not invited to debate or influence content – citizenship has clear boundaries.

Other developments linked citizenship education to increasing social inclusion and lifelong learning leaving local government and the youth service no alternative but to acquire ‘citizenship’ programmes. In 1997 an influential study group argued ‘the first tenet of a youth policy is to give greater civic involvement to young people’. They also advocated youth councils to ‘bring young people into the political process, allow priorities to be drawn based on their experience and admit their ideas and their vitality’ (NYA, 1997: 54-5).

In Scotland ‘Connect Youth’ (launched 1995) helped establish a network of youth forums and councils (Milburn, 2000; Matthews et al, 1999). In 2000 the Consultative Council for the Curriculum (3-18) was instructed to prepare a national statement on education for citizenship and a Youth Summit was held comprising nine linked conferences where Scottish Executive Ministers and MSPs consulted with 1,000 young people on wide-ranging issues. Also varied programmes have surfaced promoting young peoples’ participation in public decision-making (Dorrian, Tisdall and Hamilton, 2001); Community Learning Scotland published Building an Active Democracy; and the Scottish Parliament established a Renewing Democracy Working Group. Likewise in Wales and England (Willow, 1997: Treseder and Crowley, 2001; Wade, Lawton and Stevenson, 2001). Wales has been especially active establishing ‘shadow’ youth councils to encourage engagement in community life and democratic processes; and to advise local authorities on issues concerning young people and offer a platform for expression of their views. Plans are being made for an electoral register of those aged 13 to 18 and providing independent budgets (Kealy, 1998). Nationally the first UK Youth Parliament met early 2001 with 215 MYPs. Numerous politicians attended the launch of a body the organisers promised would be a-political – ‘solely issue based’.

Immense effort has been invested to kindle involvement in youth councils, forums and participative projects. Setting aside bogus claims regarding young peoples’ participation in developing the Connexions Service evidence points to a primacy of high motives and good faith. With workers seizing a chance to extend young peoples’ influence and enhance services. However we must distinguish between motives of most workers and young people and the manipulation of the citizenship agenda by politicians who coordinated the emasculation of parliament and local government; blocked an elected second chamber; closed down democratic debate in their parties; placed unacceptable constraints upon citizens’ rights to demonstrate and protest; fail to tolerate dissenting youth wings in their parties; reconstruct local government to deny elected councillors information and influence over policy; and sponsor unelected quangos employing more people and spending more money than elected local councils. Satraps who for thirty years have sacrificed democratic control on the free market altar, selling democracy to the highest bidder, yet now sermonize on citizenship and participation. Understandably scepticism is rife.

Youth work, democracy and citizenship

Previous large-scale citizenship programmes hardly inspire optimism. Russell concludes education civique achieved little because it failed to acknowledge the ‘big difference between knowing and doing’ (1950: 79). In America, where civics teaching and ‘crediting’ student’s civic engagement have a longer history, research indicating a positive impact on political behaviour ‘is scarce and generally inconclusive’ (Jennings and Langton, 1974: 205). Indeed voter participation there is already below ours. Why expect anything else? 200 years of compulsory Religious Education has not halted, indeed may have hastened, disenchantment with religion. Dewey (1916: 411) described as ‘sentimental magic’ the belief you can teach morality or democracy in schools. For ‘democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, a conjoint communicated experience’ (1916: 87). Therefore, in schools where compulsory attendance is enforced by courts, identity cards, uniforms, truancy patrols, CCTV, locked doors and escape-proof fences; and the curriculum is non-negotiable for students any hopes of creating ‘modes of associated living’ are for-doomed (Jeffs, 2001: 1997). Rather school structures encourage teachers and administrators to behave in ways ‘that express contempt for the values of a free society’ (Strike, 1982: 147).

A programme teaching pupils basic facts about political and legal systems; why they should obey the police, parents and teachers and be nicer to each other (approximately what the citizenship curriculum aspires to) may partially deliver. But schools are unlikely to furnish more. Pressure from exams, testing and league tables allow scant space for dialogue. Teachers are spending ever more time cramming and ‘telling pupils facts and ideas or giving directions’ (Galton et al, 1999: 67) Treating them as receptacles not learners, objects to be fed a script and denied the voice dialogue offers (Mroz et al, 2000: Duffield et al, 2000). Davies and Kirkpatrick’s (2000) study of British, Danish, Dutch and German schools highlights how far ours lag behind in offering students creative roles in determining their education. A citizenship curriculum will not cure this weakness. For pupils to relate to democracy, and mature into full citizens, they must experience it in their daily lives. Make-believe participation, will only generate scepticism. The Scottish Executive strategy to improve discipline in schools typifies this dissonance. First telling schools to enforce dress codes (uniforms and no nose rings, etc) it brazenly informs teachers, officials and pupils they must select the design (Scott, 2001: 9). In a democracy ‘the people must have the final say’ (Dahl, 1989: 113). For schools to become nascent democracies the choice is not what colour socks but whether to even have uniforms. Democratic school councils are incompatible with our highly centralised, managerialist, authoritarian, out-put driven system. Therefore we (as a society) must chose between leaving schools as they are, meaning civic disengagement and involvement will continue in free fall, or contemplate root and branch reforms. That will entail investigating alternative democratic models including many operating successfully elsewhere (Apple and Beane, 1999); contemplate ending compulsion; and evaluating the merits of home-based and other forms of non-school education (Adcock, 2000: Fortune-Wood, 2000).

Patrick and Schuller (1999: 84) are probably right, citizenship cannot be learnt in the formal sector. Therein lies the importance of youth and community work committed to association. Clubs and centres are places where individuals can apply ‘principles and maxims which have for their reason of existence the common good’ (Mill, 1977: 412). Settings where dialogue, conversation and what Samuel Johnson called ‘good talk’ can flourish. For most people it is still, as Mary Follett found, ‘in the small group … where we shall find the inner meaning of democracy, its heart and core’ (1924: 225-6). Only by creating opportunities for groups to prosper will we overcome what, her seminal work, called ‘civic apathy’ (1918). Yet if ‘citizenship’ and democracy are offered by youth and community workers it must be by those passionately committed to such ideas for they cannot make others ‘what they themselves are not’ (Mill quoted Garforth, 1980:114). For democratic governance is government by discussion. At all times deliberative, demanding the engagement of autonomous, argumentative, tough-minded citizens. Consequently education of the type required to prepare people for a liberal democracy is never ‘painless’. Nor as writers from Aristotle onwards have warned can it be left to the mercies of those whose desired ends are profit or military aggrandisement. For genuine democracy requires people with attributes such as scepticism, critical intelligence and tough-minded independence, that are infrequently desired by employers. Democracy is largely excluded from all the major institutions that shape our lives – work, schools, health services, even parliament where MPs are whipped into subservience. Therefore most of us only encounter genuine democracy in autonomous organisations, clubs and associations, where profit or ‘servitude’ are not the prime objectives; settings where strong leadership is mistrusted and dialogue nurtured. Little has changed since Cole wrote that

The real democracy that does exist in Great Britain … is to be found for the most part not in Parliament or in institutions of local government, but in small groups, formal and informal, in which men and women join together out of decent fellowship or for the pursuit of a common social purpose – societies, clubs, churches, and not least, informal neighbourhood groups. It is in these groups and in the capacity to form them swiftly under pressure of immediate needs, that the real spirit of democracy resides. (1941: 162)

Meaningful citizenship requires power. Without it citizenship education reverts to play and the more intelligent and principled participants will soon tire of involvement. That is the problem youth workers encounter when sponsoring forums, councils and consultations. The first two entail activity but lack power being primarily designed to give legitimacy to a local government system acutely aware of its own vulnerability. The latter flatters participants whilst confirming their marginalisation. Participants ultimately transfer knowledge to managers for negligible reward. Users still remain users, the existing power arrangements change not one iota. A study of young peoples participation in the decision-making process of Scottish organisations found this was undertaken predominately via focus groups, activity sessions, individual interviews, the arts, internet, indeed everything but direct democracy. (Dorrian, Tisdall and Hamilton, 2001). Methods developed to produce managerial efficiency that Peter Mandelson, an avid supporter of such approaches, recognises will cumulatively hasten the demise of ‘the era of pure representative democracy ’ (quoted in Cohen, 1999). The hand-picked focus group subverts, never fortifies, democracy – transforming citizens into customers and users.

Youth workers must be wary of pseudo-democracy; of non-political youth parliaments and consultations. Traditionally they have been committed to offering members opportunities for exercising genuine democracy and learning by making real choices. Practice has not always kept pace with principles but democratic ideals have under-written so much youth work. In clubs, centres and projects genuine democracy should be the goal. Places where a community engages ‘in the task of educating itself’ (Brew, 1943: 67). Small but vibrant democracies dedicated to the cultivation of knowledge, skills and virtues essential for the life of citizenship. They should not be seduced into offering a sanitised version, manufactured for easy consumption.

White, Bruce and Ritchie (2001) suggest the solution to young people’s ennui lies in:

  • making politics more interesting;
  • making politics easier to understand and more accessible;
  • making politicians more responsive to the needs and concerns of young people;
  • finding new opportunities and routes for young people to enter the political process.

Superficially attractive these like so many others insult young people. Each implies they are unfitted for the ‘real thing’ that rather than being challenged and granted adult ‘citizenship’ they must given an emasculated version. As educators our response must be to head in the opposite direction. The challenge is to extend democracy, not to adulterate it. How? First, by dramatically lowering the voting age thereby giving young people authentic rights (Franklin, 1986). To further reduce age discrimination by involving them at an earlier age in decision-making processes on the same basis as everyone else. Second, we must seek to extend citizenship way beyond the present narrow remit. Citizenship is ultimately valued for the role it plays. To make citizenship important to young people (and populace as a whole) we must broaden the remit of democracy. That means clawing back jurisdiction over services we have lost control of and securing direct democratic control over far more aspects of our lives. Citizenship rights are intrinsically based upon equity. Market rewards are habitually unequal. Extending democracy and accountability are therefore essential pre-requisites for any successful struggle for a more equitable distribution of life chances. Deliberative democracy in the club, community or nation state demands more from young people and the rest of us. As educators we must make that clear, it will require them to grow up earlier, which must surely be our aim? But unless collectively we are willing to extend citizenship, to make that extra effort, then the new technologies and unfettered markets will erode freedom and extend servitude. Youth work cannot do more than contribute to the struggle to extend citizenship and democracy, but as in the past it should do so rather than hinder the progress.

Women only received the vote on the same basis as men in Britain in 1929, blacks were only fully enfranchised in the United States in the 1960s and in the largest country on the planet thousands, possibly millions, may someday lay down their lives to secure greater democracy. This should remind us that democracy and citizenship have been built on sacrifice and suffering – literally on countless dead bodies. As Grayling reminds us for ‘centuries ordinary people struggled against absolute monarchs, rich aristocrats, princely bishops, colonisers, landowners and industrial magnates for a say in running their own lives. They did it on barricades, in demonstrations charged by sabre-wielding mounted cavalry, in sit-ins crushed by tanks. These people are dis-honoured by stay-at-homes on polling day’ (2001:12). Informal educators need to drive that message home. Young people are entitled as human beings to be treated with a basic respect, but their ideas and opinions are only entitled to respect to the extent they have been seriously thought through, are based on facts rather prejudice. As educators we have a duty to constantly challenge and question the ideas and behaviour of young and old alike. Making courageous citizens White reminds us ‘is no milk and water task’ (1989: 98). Too much youth work still flatters rather than challenges, is intellectually and culturally wanting. Too many workers are fearful of giving offence, frightened of being mocked for being ‘a boff’, and most comfortable when talking football, feelings or soaps. That is a tragedy for their duty is to help all, not merely the privileged, acquire the education appropriate to a free citizen. To cultivate small pockets of genuine deliberate democracy wherein citizenship survives and from which it will range forth.


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Acknowledgement: Picture: McGill student vote mob 2011 by Adam Scatti. Retrieved from Flickr and reproduced unfer a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence.

How to cite this article: Jeffs, Tony (2005) ‘Citizenship, youth work and democratic renewal’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education,

© Tony Jeffs 2005