Coronavirus: 5 ways it’s changing Citizenship

Do you remember where you were at 8.30pm on 23rd March?  It was the night when the Prime Minister gave a TV address to the nation. He made an announcement that probably none of us thought we’d ever hear a British Prime Minister make. Certainly none of us will forget it: that there was from that moment an effective curfew, in place until further notice. Leaving our homes was to be done only for a few specific reasons. 

The phrase about pinching oneself to check that something isn’t a dream is rather overused. However, it certainly applied that evening. Since the start of the Coronavirus crisis it’s one that has often come to mind as more and more of the things that we’ve always taken for granted are challenged and changed in an instant.

None of us know for sure when, or how, pupils will begin to return to school, once the level of infections from this first wave of the virus has subsided. It might be this side of the summer, or in September. But whenever it happens, those pupils will have been out of school for a lengthy period of time. There will be pressure – perhaps from Ofsted, the Government, and others – for schools to focus on ‘the basics’, and to jettison anything that doesn’t fit this category. That’s understandable.  

However, it is also vitally important that space is made to help all pupils – both primary and secondary – explore and process the extraordinary events of the period that they have just lived through. Parents know, and are concerned about, the impact that these events have been having on them. I’m struck by the number of parents who have mentioned to me comments from their children expressing their concerns about their grandparents, or their fears about the future. Yet this is probably the tip of the iceberg, there is much that they may not have expressed for fear of upsetting their parents. When those children and young people return to school, as well as catching up on the basics there’s a need to give them some space to begin to make sense from it.

A key place for this to be done is through Citizenship education – a curriculum subject that was conceived to help create an informed and critical citizenry capable of navigating contemporary issues and playing an active role in shaping society. 

At Young Citizens, we believe equipping young people with the skills, values and confidence to make a positive difference to their communities (and the wider world) has never been more important than it is right now. One of the things that has struck me about good quality citizenship education is that it can help young people develop their sense of agency – being able to make a difference regardless of who or where they are. As well as being a positive force for good on a local community level, this also provides a grounding influence – reducing participants’ anxiety, and building their character through greater resilience. So what are the sorts of topics that need to be discussed, and how might they be introduced?

Well, one of the reasons why I believe we will always remember these days is because even when ‘normal’ returns, it won’t be the quite normal of the past in so many ways. Here are just five examples of how things may change for good, and how they are relevant to citizenship education.

1) Civil society is alive and well

Firstly – the way that the Covid-19 crisis has unleashed a groundswell of giving and social action: from the 750,000 who have signed up to volunteer for the NHS, to the people who gave more than £20m in donations to Captain Tom’s sponsored walk, to the school teachers who have used their 3-D printers to produce PPE equipment, and to the millions of us who have joined the #ClapForCarers display each Thursday evening. We’ve all, including young people, been challenged to think about how we can give to our communities when we’ve also had to keep our distance.

2) Globalisation is being re-evaluated

Covid-19 has shaken up the way the world works, although we’re not yet sure how the pieces will land. After decades of assuming globalisation is an unstoppable force, has it been stopped in its tracks or at least had its course altered? Many borders are closed, people have stopped travelling, governments and companies are re-thinking the wisdom of global supply chains which favour efficiency over resilience. Yet at the same time, Covid-19 requires global solutions and co-operation, and there’s been criticism of global institutions like the WHO and the UN and calls for reform of global governance.  

3) Social-cultural and technological changes

Our cultural life will – probably – not be quite the same once all this is over. Social distancing rules may well become the new normal; pubs, clubs, theatres, cinemas, sporting events will probably be the last to re-open. The greater time spent together in family units, and the increased online socialising, may be features that stay around. Education itself may never be quite the same again – remote learning, virtual classrooms, and home schooling have always been the reluctant fringes of education but they may stay in the mainstream.

4) Democracy and its citizens will need to adapt

Covid-19 has upended temporarily – and possibly permanently – our democratic institutions.  Parliament is meeting for the first time via Zoom. Local elections have been postponed until next year, and there’s talk about having all-postal (or even online) elections to avoid the need for polling stations. Many newspapers both national and local are threatened with closure because advertising has dried up as a result of Covid-19, yet people are hungry for news and journalists are vital in holding those in power to account. The risk of fake news and conspiracy theories is high. Our justice system has been upended, with jury trials currently suspended.

5) Citizens’ relationship with the state is in flux

And finally, decades-old assumptions about the relationship between the state and the individual have been thrown in the air as a result of Covid-19. There’s a renewed focus on the state providing a safety net for people through economic help and the support for the NHS and other public services has never been stronger. In addition, governments have taken to give themselves emergency powers to control all manner of aspects of our lives – that some may be reluctant to give back after the crisis. And Covid-19 has raised major issues about the trade-offs between civil liberties and security/surveillance. 

Once in a generation, an event happens which is so profound that it leads to sweeping changes across the way we live our lives, the way our communities and society are structured. Only in hindsight, with the benefit of history, can we be sure of exactly when those turning points happen. But it is a fair bet that one of those moments is now. 

Our young people are living through an event that will change the structure of the world they grow up in. As well as helping them make up for lost ground in those basics when they come back through those school gates, let’s also make time to help them make sense of, and feel empowered in, this new world.

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