Citizenship education: confronting inequalities (part 1)

by Gary Walsh

I recently attended the #NECE2019 conference – a yearly event organised by the NECE network (Networking European Citizenship Education). It took place at University of Strathclyde from 24-27 October. Live streamed recordings and other conference materials are available on the NECE website.

I decided to write a summary of the key points I took from the presentations and seminars I attended. It is not possible to cover everything from such a rich and diverse event here. I have split the summary into three separate blogs covering all three days, based on a thread of live tweets I shared during the conference. These posts will hopefully be of interest to anybody who is keen to learn some more about the role of education in relation to citizenship, democracy, social justice and inequalities.

Darren McGarvey, author of Poverty Safari, kicked off the conference. His refreshing style was irreverent, honest, brutal at times, and perhaps a wee bit ‘ranty’. He spoke about his life and the views he has developed as a result of his background and his new-found fame: two massive parts of his life that clearly come into conflict. His background is one that includes poverty, drugs, violence, prison and hip-hop. He contrasted middle-class and working-class lives and attitudes, addressing individual and collective approaches to empowerment, saying that both approaches are needed. He spoke about the need for people to cross-pollinate, creating solidarity across social divisions, to walk alongside people without being scared or put off by how they dress or speak. He challenged the myth of social mobility and addressed the role of education in the achievement of social justice.

Next, Professor Anja Neundorf drew on her research looking at citizenship education and levels of democracy across Europe. She said that ‘inequality of voices leads to inequality of policy output’ and that people from socially deprived backgrounds tend not to be heard or represented in politics. This creates a feedback loop, leading to apathy, resentment and ultimately more inequality of voices. She claimed that people become active in politics due to knowledge and motivation, so civic education can compensate for lack of parental socialisation into political engagement. Her key messages were that we need to break the cycle of schools perpetuating inequality; she recommended compulsory civic education and quality teacher education in this area; and challenged attendees to consider how technology can be used to promote civic education and democracy throughout life.

Prof Anja Neundorf at NECE 2019 conference, University of Strathclyde, 24 October 2019

After listening to Darren, Anja and other inputs from the first day of the event, a key issue in my mind was about the education system itself recreating inequalities in various ways. This contrasted with the title of the conference, ‘citizenship education: confronting inequalities’. In addition to confronting inequalities it seems vital to me that the education system confronts itself. This can be uncomfortable territory. It involves recognising that education for social justice can sometimes involve being ‘in and against the state’, prepared to recognise the dilemma of acting as an instrument of state policy while also retaining a critical view of the very system in which we work. Getting our own house in order in relation to social justice and democracy might be the most effective strategy that we can pursue, despite being asked by policy makers to sort out society’s problems.

With that in mind, below are four ways the education system can ‘confront itself’, which I offer here by way of conclusion to part 1 of this blog series:

  • Representation: Working to achieve democratic, inclusive, equitable representation of voices from all sections of society. This means confronting educational myths of social mobility, ‘bad behaviour’ and ‘hard to reach’ parents.
  • Recognition and Respect: Recognising the aspirations, frustrations, struggles, lives, cultures, abilities and strengths of working-class families.
  • Redistribution of rights and resources. Recognising the urgent need to become human rights defenders. Meeting the radical challenge of justice-oriented citizenship (I ran a session on this at the conference – more about this soon)
  • Hope: Remaining hopeful while doggedly pursuing the challenges above. To put it another way: seeking to grow roses in concrete.

Click here to read part 2.

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