Wednesday, 27 October 2010

What kinds of citizen will the Big Society encourage?

I am currently involved in delivering an active citizenship learning programme for women. I participated in the course myself last year and am training to deliver it. The programme is based on the Take Part adult citizenship curriculum, and supports learners to explore their experiences of getting and being involved in community and public life. We begin the 12 days of learning with sessions on citizenship, rights and responsibilities and human rights.

Views on what ‘citizenship’ mean vary across the diverse group of women I am working with. I was interested to hear a participant express a feeling that it was a word we shouldn’t use because it was like being racist. Through discussion with others her feelings changed and she developed a new perspective on what citizenship means to others and to herself.

We use a great handout of a citizenship typology, drawn from work on citizenship education by Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne. It describes three ways that citizenship can be understood.

  • The personally responsible citizen, for whom citizenship education increases their awareness of their individual rights and responsibilities; the citizen as voter, and volunteer. The core assumptions of a personally responsible citizen are that to solve social problems and improve society, citizens must have good character, be honest, responsible and law abiding members of the community.
  • The participatory citizen, for whom citizenship education enhances their knowledge of participatory structures and rights; the citizen as an individual within a group(s), actively participating in existing structures, taking up opportunities for participation, including participation in the planning and delivery of services. The core assumptions of a participatory citizen are that to solve social problems and improve society, citizens must actively participate and take leadership positions within established systems and community structures.
  • The justice-oriented citizen, for whom citizenship education adds a high level of awareness of collective rights and a high level of collective political and social responsibility. This includes responsibilities to engage with issues of social justice and equality; the citizen and critical friend to those in power, participating within group(s), actively challenging unequal relations of power, promoting social solidarity and social justice, both locally and beyond, taking account of the global context. The core assumptions of a justice-oriented citizen are that to solve social problems and improve society, citizens must question, debate and change established systems and structures that reproduce patterns of injustice over time.
Some participants on our learning programme locate themselves as being more than one of these types in different parts of their life or at different times. However all of them feel they are or want to become critical citizens, tackling injustice and inequality.

As has been discussed by a panel considering the future of Community Development, The Big Society appears to be focusing on an increase of personally responsible citizens and participatory citizens. And the government are opening up new spaces for participatory citizens to take up opportunities for involvement in – by running schools, , taking over public services, getting more involved in the planning of services.

I agree with Anna Coote, who wrote in a New Economics Foundation publication that:

The Big Society idea is strong on empowerment but weak on equality. By equality, we mean everyone having an equal chance in life so that, regardless of background or circumstance, they can contribute to society, fulfil their potential and live a satisfying life. This matters for ethical and practical reasons. On ethical grounds, which are hardly controversial, no-one should be held back by circumstances beyond their control, or suffer unfair discrimination. On practical grounds, there is a growing body of evidence that more equal societies are better for everyone, not just the poor, with lower levels of crime and disorder, and better health and well-being. Societies with strong traditions of social solidarity and low levels of inequality are better able to cope with shared risks such as climate change. So equality matters a great deal and the implications for the “Big Society‟ are profound. It is weak on equality because it is weak on the structural links between economy and society. If the aim is to tackle poverty and inequality, as the Prime Minister maintains, then success depends on how economic as well as social resources are distributed between groups and communities, enabling them to do what, for whom and how.

Our Take Part Learning Programmein the Black Country is designed to develop critical, justice-oriented citizens. I firmly believe that our learners, and other passionate people like them will help to create a society that I want to be a part of.

My thanks to Jill Bedford and Sue Gorbing for the amazing work they have done to develop and deliver critical citizenship learning programmes and translate a vast array of theories to create an accessible and rich learning experience.