The need for a new civic education

One of the principal purposes of education is to enable young people to become informed and engaged citizens. At a basic level we need all school leavers to understand the value of their voting right (gained through the sacrifices of past generations), and how to participate effectively within a pluralistic system.

While comparatively lower levels of turnout among potential first-time and younger cohort voters is not a recent phenomenon (although corrected somewhat in the 2017 General Election), the risks arising from such wholesale civic abstention seem ever more acute in our rapidly mutating political culture.  This is an urgent issue for the education system, but not merely because of the duty incumbent on schools to promote pluralistic values.  If we accept that the future of democracy depends on an informed electorate, capable of formulating reasoned argument, and evaluating political claims, then there is significant work to be done by schools.

But there is a more profound and urgent challenge for schools. Over the last two and a half decades schools have worked hard to embed values of respect and truthfulness at the centre of behavioural codes, and as core threads in PSHE education.  But the tone and character of aspects of recent political debate – and the way it is amplified through some traditional and social media channels – undermines the good work of schools in promoting the values needed by the next generations of citizens.

The coarsening of rhetoric, the rise of identity politics, the echo-chamber effect of social media, the proliferation of extremist rhetoric and conspiracy theories online, the rush to take offence, the appropriation of outrage, and the as yet only partially understood role of harvested data in the shaping of opinion and the targeting of individual voters, present powerful challenges to our understanding of the world around us.  How should schools make sense of these phenomena when articulating the positive value of a pluralistic political system, and an open society where the individual is empowered to express comment, opinion and much else besides?

Of course much great work is already being done, whether within the curriculum, by groups working to promote young people’s voices such as youth parliaments, and also by elected representatives visiting schools, or welcoming pupils to centres of national, devolved and local government. It is difficult to put a value on such opportunities, and pupils relish the opportunity to question and challenge elected representatives.

The question of how best to educate young people about politics and government is not a new one, but it has certainly become more urgent. While many thousands benefit from courses such as A Level Politics or Modern Studies, a far greater number miss out on such opportunities.  The current state of political culture raises the question of how we can ensure that pupils in all schools are empowered with the skills and knowledge required to exercise their citizenship and participate in civilised debate.

A key challenge for the education system is to equip future generations of voters and citizens with an informed and critical understanding of institutions, processes, actors and influencers.

All young people should leave school with a basic understanding of the following, although this list is far from exclusive:

  • The core functions of Parliament, Central Government, Local Government, the Civil Service and non-Departmental Agencies
  • The roles of political parties, think-tanks and pressure groups
  • How laws are made
  • The rights and responsibilities that accompany freedom of expression (as understood within the law)
  • The core principles of journalistic ethics, such as the distinctions between fact and opinion

In addition we also need to equip young people with the skills of citizenship including:

  • critical evaluation of news sources and social media
  • debating and the construction of reasoned argument
  • mediation and non-coercive solutions to conflict
  • the capacity to appreciate opposing perspectives
  • the ability to admit one’s own errors and forgive the actions of others

Politics and its reporting have changed significantly in the age of social media and big data.  Schools needs to catch up and renew their provision of civic education.  The long-term goal is surely a healthier political culture, with future cohorts of citizens from all backgrounds more confident to engage in informed debate, and to express their opinions, both at the ballot box and via other forms of peaceful participation.








Every school pupil should visit the First World War Battlefields

As the centenary of the First World War enters its final months, the imperative of remembrance has never been more urgent. It is nearly a decade since the death of Harry Patch, the last British soldier to have served on the Western Front, and soon there will be no living person with any recollection of the years 1914-1918.

Few conflicts in History have been subject to more intensive interpretative layering – the process began with the outbreak of war itself, as Foreign ministries rushed to prove their innocence and the guilt of their enemies.  The battlefields of First World War historiography have been subject to waves of attack and counterattack, revision and counter-revision.  While many fine syntheses have been produced, how long will these stand the test of time (and historiographical assault) given that so many key debates around cause, course and consequence remain unresolved ?

Over the last decade leading historians including Sir Christopher Clark (Sleepwalkers), Prof Margaret Macmillan (The War That Ended Peace) and Prof David Reynolds  (The Long Shadow) have returned to the big questions around why this war broke out, why it ended the way it did, and how we frame it in our understanding with a century of hindsight. Television documentaries have helped to wrap military archaeology into the broader understanding of the First World War, notably Fergal Keane’s The First World War From Above (BBC 1, 2010) and Peter Barton’s The Somme, Secret Tunnel Wars (BBC Four, 2013).

Poperinghe view
Poperinghe, Flanders

One reason for this enduring fascination with the First World War can be located in the  sense of national ownership of this conflict, whether in the private and familial sphere, or publicly through the annual commemoration focused on The Cenotaph, and repeated at countless local memorials.  The poppy has become one of the most successfully established symbols of national remembrance.

A second reason lies in the enduring consequences of the War – to be found variously in the contested geopolitical contours of the Middle East, in the USA’s internal discourse over the nature (and dollar cost) of its global role, in the ongoing exceptionalism of Russia’s political culture, and in Britain’s own awkward sense of its relationship to its continental neighbours.

A third reason lies in the widespread instrumentalization of the First World War, whether as a ready-to-use parable of governmental and diplomatic system-failure (both in its origins and its termination), or as a crisis of European imperialism, or as an accelerator of national social and economic change, or as a catalyst for post-colonial identity.  The First World War often seems to be the off-the-peg analogy of choice for many international relations scholars.

As a History teacher I have always enjoyed teaching the First World War because of the balance between the macro and the micro – the potential to shift focus from grand concepts such as the Wilsonian world view to the detail captured in a soldier’s letter to his parents.  As The First World War recedes further into the past, will its historicisation in school teaching continue to respond to, and be shaped by, contested and changing national narratives of  identity and sacrifice?

Over the fifteen years that I have taught this topic the high tide of satirical disdain for British generalship began to ebb, as the welcome revisionism of scholars such as Prof Gary Sheffield began to feed into the popular understanding of the war.  I suspect that for many years to come the First World War will be susceptible to entanglement with contested narratives and proxy debates.  On one Battlefields Trip some years ago I tried to explain to my South of England pupils the iconography of Ulster Tower on The Somme, and how this might have resonated for them far more powerfully, and in different ways, had they been visiting from a school from one or other of the two cultural and political traditions in Northern Ireland.

Given that the First World War has done much to shape the present world, the story of its origins and course should be taught and studied in schools. Admittedly, the origins can be heavy going, due to the bewildering interplay of regional ethnic politics, great power diplomacy, infra-governmental chaos, the nexus of military and industrial power, and the growing clamour of the popular press. But difficulty should not be shied away from, and indeed the very complexity of the War’s origins serves to remind us that causation is seldom a simple chain of intention, action and outcome.

The great battles of the War should be studied –  including First Marne, The Somme, Verdun, Third Ypres, The Kaiser’s 1918 Offensive, and the allied victories around Amiens in the final months of the war.  It is here that we can blend the general’s-eye-view of battle with the experiences of individual soldiers, caught brilliantly in volumes such as Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices of the Great War (Ebury, 2002) and in a host of online collections, building on BBC Television’s ground-breaking Great War Interviews from the 1960s.

Poppies Hawthorne Crater
Poppies, near Hawthorn Ridge Crater, The Somme

Although its intrinsic worth as a historical topic is absolutely undeniable, the First World War also has immense value in helping us to understand the relationship between the individual, the family, the locality and the broader context of historical events.  The  work of The National Archives, The Imperial War Museum and The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (among other bodies) enables us to locate the  individual serviceman’s story within the enfolding membranes of family, town, regiment, army and national war effort.  We should see these bodies as repositories of a cultural capital of equal richness to our principal national museums and galleries.

Where the First World War can exert a special power over the imagination is in its specificity of time and place.  While soldiers from the combatant nations, and their colonies and dominions, gave their lives across several continents, the Western Front remains a unique locus of sacrifice, because of the sheer concentration of destruction on the battlefields of France and Belgium across the years 1914-1918.  So many of the political ideas and movements (cultural as well as ideological) of the twentieth century, from the laudable to the abhorrent, were conceived amid these broken landscapes.

There is, I would contend, an onus on schools to continue to emphasise the singularity of the First World War. But this cannot be done solely from resources found within the classroom.  Pilgrimage is a notion that sits uneasily in a more secular age. However, there is already a century of tradition of visiting the battlefields of the First World War – it began even before the guns were silenced, and is captured perhaps most poignantly in Sir John Lavery’s 1919 painting The Cemetery, Etaples hanging in the Imperial War Museum, London.  More prosaically, the Michelin Guides were updated within months of the end of the war, advising visitors to locations such as Verdun to bring a packed lunch, for want of local catering.

Lavery Etaples
The Cemetery, Etaples by Sir John Lavery (1919) copyright Imperial War Museum, London

I first visited the Western Front early in my teaching career and it has affected me more profoundly than I could have expected.  I have returned several times, and I do not think that I can stay away.  Conversations with pupils in several schools over the years have led me to believe that they too have been affected. However, I believe that this response extends beyond the understandable pathos felt by young people when confronted with rows of headstones bearing the names and details of soldiers who were often not much older than themselves when their lives were lost.  Exposure to these locations changes the way that we understand the human experience of war.  One of the simplest but most affecting features of Tynecot Cemetery is the automatic triggering of a soldier’s name being read aloud as you walk towards the Visitors’ Centre.  A similar pivoting between the bigger picture and the individual experience is done with the same powerful effect at the excellent In Flanders Fields Museum in the rebuilt Ypres Cloth Hall.

Visiting the Western Front helps us to anchor and fix our understanding of individual suffering and loss within the totality of the whole. Finding the location where a soldier from your school or home town is buried can be a moment that brings silence to a group. When one pupil’s hand goes up, others will gather at the headstone. Walking the line of an infantry advance from a start point to a small cemetery marking (as they often did) the limit of that unit’s progress, helps us civilians at least to visualise a scene of sacrifice, even though we may never recreate the emotions and thoughts in the mind of a soldier.

History is one of the Humanities, and one of its key preoccupations is the individual experience of civilisation at both its highest and lowest points. We owe it to the hundreds of thousands of soldiers of all nations lying in the cemeteries of France and Belgium to honour their sacrifice.  Furthermore, the young people of this country have a right to see where the soldiers from their cities, towns and villages from across the United Kingdom gave their lives in this epoch-changing clash of arms.

The Thiepval Memorial  (horizon) seen from Munich Trench Cemetery, The Somme

The monuments of  the Western Front also give us important lessons about the global character of the 1914-1918 war. The cemeteries tell us a story of diversity that is recognisable in 21st century Britain and continental Europe.  One need only visit the French cemeteries and memorials at Saint-Charles-Potyze (Ypres, Belgium) and Vimy Ridge (France, Pas-de-Calais) to appreciate the significance of the African contribution to the fighting on the Western Front. And, of course, the Entente imperial powers relied heavily on soldiers from many nations and religious affiliations, across the theatres of conflict.

The First World War has played a unique part in shaping Britain’s understanding of its past and present.  For this reason, every secondary school pupil in Britain should visit the 1914-1918 battlefields of France and Belgium, even if only for a single day, and participate in the unique nightly Last Post service at The Menin Gate.  Each pupil visit to the First World War Battlefields threads a filament of compassion and understanding between the past and present.


Poperinghe Cemetery








York ISSP Masterclasses 2018 – a personal reflection

Over three Saturday afternoons in February and March I had the pleasure of working with a group of year 9 and 10 pupils from schools across York as part of the York ISSP annual masterclasses.  To be allowed to teach on this programme was a real honour … but also a daunting challenge. Like pulling on the jersey of a top team, you know that eyes will be on you, and expectations will (rightly) be high.

Teaching is always a privilege – but the opportunity to teach a group comprising pupils from several schools, including from St Peter’s, where I work – carries a special responsibility.

This sense of trepidation was amplified by the reality that I am still a newcomer to York, and that I was being trusted to work under the York ISSP name – a hallmark of the highest quality in the world of school-to-school collaboration.  For twelve years the school leaders, teachers and coordinators of the York ISSP, and generations of pupils, have worked tremendously hard to build this wonderful partnership.  As the first session approached, impostor syndrome started to kick in quite strongly, as the discipline I chose to work in was one about which I am passionate, but definitely an amateur.

Our brief for this year’s Masterclass was to explore the question “What is truth?” through a our chosen subject area.  I opted for “The Truth in What We See” and decided to approach it through The History of Art.

I divided up the question of whether truth can be found in art through three key questions:

-Can we trust our eyes ?

-What truths can we find in portrait and landscape art?

-Can art tell moral and political truths ?

In order to frame these questions, we began by looking at four distinct perspectives on the relationship between art and truth – those of Plato, Vasari, Kant and Picasso.

thinkers 4

Below are a small sample of the many images that we used to explore notions of truth in art – through asking questions across a broad range of themes, which we related to these four thinkers and artists.

We explored the differing use of perspective in two famous depictions of The Crucifixion, that of Masaccio’s Trinity (1427) and Salvador Dali’s The Christ of St John (1951).



What truths are artists wanting us to understand in their self-portraits? We looked at several self-portraits, including those of Albrecht Dürer aged 28  (1500) and of Frida Kahlo aged c.33 (1940).

Durer and Kahlo


We looked at what truths artists may be seeking to convey when portraying others. I can’t resist juxtaposing two of the world’s finest portraits, Diego Velázquez’s Pope Innocent X (1650) and John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1892). (I hope that one day the respective homes of these masterpieces will make this happen in reality !)


Velazquez and Sargent


We also looked at how artists seek to convey moral and political truths, through a three-way comparison of Francisco Goya’s 3 May 1808 (below, right), with Edouard Manet’s The Execution of Emperor Maximilan (1868-9) and (left, below)  Street Fight (1927) by Otto Dix, itself destroyed during the closing months of the Second World War.

Manet, Goya and Dix

It was a huge privilege spending three afternoons looking at amazing art with a group of young people willing to commit their free time to working with content that had demanding and provoking themes.  If you are a teacher, and are ever in the position to work on such a programme, it is a wonderful experience, where the hard work is rewarded many times over by the insights and contributions from the pupil group.

There are many great school-to-school partnerships around the country, of all shapes and sizes, and organised along a variety of models.  If you are a Head and in an area where there isn’t a partnership, why not make that phone call to your neighbouring Heads ?