How schools can teach children to be ‘good’ EU citizens

What kind of Europe will his future hold? Serge Klk/flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND

With the Greek financial crisis destabilising the Eurozone and near hysterical reporting of the migrant situation in Calais, young people, many of them newcomers to European politics, have a lot to get their heads around. In the UK, where voters will choose in a forthcoming referendum whether the country should leave the EU, children are facing a future where the UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe may be very different.

Their views on European issues are likely to be determined by the degree to which their parents, siblings and friends might discuss the news, if at all – and from what political perspective. In many households such matters may only receive fairly cursory attention, sometimes with no more than a passing reaction to headline news items and broadcast “sound-bites” that necessarily oversimplify complex issues and events.

The UK formal schooling system is often regarded as adopting a fairly insular approach, with a national curriculum geared towards British, largely English, history and a declining take-up of foreign languages. Contrast this with many other EU member states where bilingualism and multilingualism are often the norm rather than the exception.

Under such circumstances, those school teachers that do attempt to teach young people to be globally competent, are likely to be facing an uphill struggle. Ideas for some of these “global competencies” include open-mindedness, attentiveness to diversity and intercultural capability.

What kind of citizenship?

The concept of citizenship has entered the national curriculum, but is largely geared towards teaching children to be good national citizens, rather than global ones. There has been much debate surrounding what constitutes “Britishness” and British values, an issue now associated with countering the so-called radicalisation of young people.

However, when EU institutions discuss aspects of citizenship this is often couched in terms of rights, duties, responsibilities and a “sense of belonging”. It is this last aspect that is central to the capturing of young people’s “hearts and minds”, both in how they identify themselves and also their relationship with those in their local, regional and global communities. By highlighting the values promoted by the EU, teachers and parents would be helping to instil aspects of self-awareness and open-mindedness rather than distrust and rejection of diversity and multiculturalism.

From a British child’s perspective, regardless of their socio-economic position and upbringing, the world is likely to appear both divisive and competitive, particularly as social and economic equalities widen. The EU motto “United in Diversity” is therefore a difficult concept for British schoolteachers to explain to children, let alone enthuse them to embrace this sentiment.

Ways to build children’s awareness

However, several government and civil society initiatives are already attempting to build children’s awareness of community issues and how they may engage as “good” citizens – not just of Britain, but of a wider world. The Association for Citizenship Teachers provides resources on citizenship issues ranging from early years through to post-16. There are also networks of like-minded schools that are part of the Global Learning Programme, which includes development education organisations such as Think Global.

Open day at the European Parliament. Olivier Hoslet/EPA

Government-run programmes such as the National Citizen Service for 15 to 17-year-olds and the International Citizen Service for 18 to 25-year-olds offer opportunities for children and young adults to develop a sense of engagement and inclusiveness that is not necessarily restricted by national borders and preoccupations.

The ideas that we should teach children well so that they may “lead the way” in political life as they grow older has been a goal used by many. What that way, or ways, might be in a European context remains largely unscripted. There are useful pathways emerging in various EU members states – for example in Austria, where a competition was held recently for schools to demonstrate their sustainability and global responsibility.

Any attempts to teach children to be good EU citizens would do well to include discussion of their place in a wider world. There has also been a commitment to pursuing these goals via the Millennium Development Goals and their forthcoming successors, the Sustainable Development Goals.

Parents, teachers, mainstream media and social media will remain significant influencing factors for the majority of children, helping them to reinterpret and reconfigure their worldviews. Young people will always face challenges in understanding their sense of self, position in society and their ability to alter this. For those growing up in the 21st century, the future is perhaps more “unwritten” than ever before.

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