Democracy and democratic schooling

Student teacher perspectives in England and South Africa

In recent years there has been a substantial increase in the amount of published evidence on pupils’ views of schooling. These studies have found that learners are quite critical of authoritarian aspects of schooling. For example, in a survey of 15,000 British pupils carried out by The Guardian newspaper in 2001 some key findings were that the pupils felt that schools were not happy places, that pupils' views were not listened to, that they weren’t treated and respected as individuals and that schools were rigid and inflexible institutions (Burke and Grosvenor, 2003). Another study, in Ireland, found that:

“in general children defined their relationships with their teachers in terms of control and regulation … School was experienced as something that was done to them and over which they exercised little control … The children’s talk was replete with examples of adult power. They remarked on the absence of consultation with them over curricular, pedagogical and evaluative practices in school … In Foucault’s terms the children were being constructed as the other, their subordinate status derived from their location within an adult discourse as unformed and in need of intervention and control.”
(Devine, 2003: 138-40)

Devine also comments that "As adults, teachers are imbued with the authority to exercise control over the time and space of children’s school lives …". This corresponds to an analysis of the evidence of the authoritarian experience of pupils in schools internationally (Harber, 2004: Ch.2). We were interested to know how potential teachers felt about this political role of schooling, and how did they see the role of schooling in relation to democracy, inequality and citizenship? South Africa, because it is a newly democratic country with its own international significance, provides an interesting comparison with a more established democracy such as England. However, while there is some published literature on the views of student teachers in relation to democracy, inequality and citizenship generally, some of which is reviewed below, we could find very little on student teachers’ views of the role of schooling in relation to these political issues.

Students teachers' views of democracy, citizenship and inequality

When a sample of 138 English student teachers were asked What does being a citizen mean to you?, the vast majority answered in general or vague terms of either ‘Being a member of society’ or ‘Being a member of the community’. Only minorities of 14% and under responded in terms of rights and responsibilities, respect for others or democracy (Lawson and Edmonds, 2002). Another study by Wilkins (1999, 2001) found that a representative sample of 418 student teachers that used both questionnaires and interviews saw ‘citizenship’ both in vague ways and as associated with negative, middle class values and behaviours, a finding supported in research by Arnot et al (1997). In the study by Wilkins there was also a high degree of political disengagement and cynicism, with younger students generally seeing little opportunity to play a part in society and a tendency to see politics as irrelevant to their daily lives. The study also looked at attitudes towards race. The majority of students were fundamentally predisposed towards a society based on mutual respect and tolerance. They saw racism as ‘here to stay’ but had confidence that simply living in a multiracial society would slowly decrease racism.

"A notable feature of this study is the small but significant minority of respondents (between 5 and 10%) who express negative or hostile views towards ethnic minorities and the notion of a pluralistic, multicultural society."  (1999:222)

This is of particular concern given that the far-right British National Party are targeting pupils and are putting forward candidates for school governing bodies. 23 teachers stood as BNP candidates in the June 2004 local elections and, as the article that reported this said, "not to mention the unknown others who may be sympathisers" (Crace, 2004).

In regard to schooling, a group of students training to be primary teachers that were provided with a course on human rights noted that, while they were generally positive about their experience, it was the first time in their education that such an opportunity had been provided, and they were critical of British schools for not providing this sort of education (Osler and Starkey, 1996: Ch.8). One of the student teachers interviewed by Wilkins was sceptical about the introduction of citizenship into English schools because of the implicitly authoritarian nature of existing formal education,

"… the trouble is, it's not really the way things are going these days, is it: I mean, the National Curriculum’s all about assessment, nice, safely packaged parcels of knowledge … you can’t really teach citizenship like that, and I think that means it's going to be squeezed out." (Wilkins, 1999:227)

Since this survey was carried out the government has introduced education for democratic citizenship as a compulsory subject in all secondary schools, but the above quotation remains a telling point about the nature of the wider English education system. The potential incompatibility between notions of citizenship education and the existing structures of schooling in England is discussed in some detail in Harber (2002). However, while there might be some slight indication that student teachers are critical of schooling in a similar fashion to pupils, and that their own schooling has not provided them with a particularly full or developed understanding of democratic citizenship or form of racial inequality, we do not seem to have a very good idea of how English students regard schooling politically based on their own schooling and experience on teaching practice.

In South Africa, where democracy has only existed for a decade, there is evidence among the general population of only lukewarm support for democracy and that such support is contingent on the delivery of socio-economic goods more than support for that procedural issues such as regular elections, free speech and competition between parties (Mattes 2002). In the light of this and the authoritarian tradition of apartheid, there is strong government support for greater education for democracy, both in schools and in teacher education (Harber, 2001; Carter, Harber and Serf, 2003). Unlike the introduction of a new subject based on the Crick Report in England, this is aimed at wholesale system reform based on democratic principles. We have some evidence of the slowly changing nature of teacher education, continuing support amongst teachers and teacher education students for corporal punishment, the persistence of traditional methods among teachers and the persistence of racism in schools through a lack of planned intervention (Harber, 1998, 2001; Samuel and Pillay, 2002) but, as in England, we have little information of the attitudes of student teachers to schooling itself in terms of its political role in either promoting democratic citizenship or the opposite.

In order to explore the extent to which teacher education contributed to education for democracy interviews were held with initial teacher education students at two university education departments in England and two in South Africa. Students from one of the English universities were all training to be History/Citizenship/Geography teachers in secondary schools, while those at the second university were also training be secondary teachers, but in the subjects of Design and Technology, English, Business Studies, Maths and modern foreign languages. The South African students were all training to be either primary or secondary teachers and also covered a wide range of school subjects. All were interviewed in small groups ranging from 3-5 between May and August 2003. All together 20 students were interviewed in England (10 at each institution) and 18 in South Africa (8 at one institution and 10 at the other). The group of 38 students contained male and female students from a variety of English ethnic backgrounds (White, Afro-Caribbean, Asian) while the South African students were, to use South African terminology and categories, from black African, Indian and White backgrounds – there were no coloured students. While the students therefore came from a wide variety of backgrounds, they were self-selecting and cannot be said to reliably ‘represent’ initial teacher education students in both countries. However, the aim of the research was not to make statistically reliable generalisations but to gain indicative, in-depth insight into, and understanding of, the attitudes and experiences of the students. The semi-structured group interviews therefore used open-ended questions in order to stimulate discussion, as well as individual answers, and to allow for the interviewers to probe answers further.

Student teacher attitudes to citizenship and democracy

Initially, the students were asked if they felt that they were citizens and what they understood it meant to be a good citizen, though answers to the two questions tended to overlap with each other. The students at the English universities accepted that citizenship was difficult to define precisely but did feel that they were citizens. One student responded that:

“It doesn’t matter where I live in Britain, I’ve lived in three of four cities now, I always feel part of the community … I feel that my rights are protected through our democratic system … I suppose I’ve just been brought up to feel that I have rights and that I can assert those rights through the systems that we have in this country.”

However, there was some sense from the same student that this was not completely straightforward,

“I do see myself as a British citizen but primarily I’m a black woman, so there’s a bit of conflict there …”

An Asian student teacher also reflected on his cultural background in stating,

“I still think that with racism I’m quite comfortable with who I am and where I am from. In my first (school) placement I had a lot of disrespected black children from desolate areas … but I wanted to become a teacher because I wanted to challenge stereotypes.”

Another student saw citizenship in terms of the role model she had to portray to pupils:

"I think that children really do need to see that somebody's stable, balanced, doesn't have a specific view but doesn't tolerate prejudice."

In terms of the good citizen, one student responded that there are stereotypes of the ‘good citizen’ as somebody who doesn’t drop litter and recycles everything and these would be the response of primary school children to the question (and interestingly of primary school teachers as well – see Davies, Gregory and Riley, 1999). However, the students had their own views. For example,

“Someone who makes a considered decision based on facts. Questions are the key … you question everything. It’s being critical as well, evaluating information and making informed judgements.”

Besides skills, students also identified traits or dispositions,

“I think the most important factor is respect, people respecting others, how they want to be treated, sense of community’ and another added ‘I think its about tolerance … a good citizen is someone who respects diversity, respects peoples’ point of view and respects choice.”

When asked if this had anything to do with relationships with the state, the student said, “No, I wouldn’t even consider that to be honest.” However, another student did describe himself as a citizen in that “I get to vote in election, I have a say” and another stressed the view that “I feel I have choice and I can take part in something, be involved in something or I can choose not to.”

Another defined the good citizen as being “an active citizen … a willingness to get involved and not to stand back … one willing to take a stance on something they believe in … (as) so many people aren’t these days, so many people are disaffected and not interested.”

Some mistrust of the fairness of the legal system was expressed and one history and citizenship student raised some doubt about calling the new subject in schools ‘citizenship’ and the reasons why this had happened – mainly to avoid accusations that its too left wing and biased: “You’d have the likes of the Daily Mail going ‘hmmm’.” (The use of the title ‘citizenship’, rather than say political education, in English schools is further discussed in Harber, 2002.)

The South African students saw the good citizen as someone who was aware of current events and who was active and took some responsibility for their society,

“I think a good citizen is somebody who is responsible and takes responsibility … we have to be aware (and) we have to take some responsibility for taking decisions in society with respect to paying taxes, respect for the environment … all sorts of issues.”

There was also the view that being a good citizen meant developing the potential of others,

“So as a citizen of a country I think one needs to do things in a way that gives others opportunities to develop.”

Given the past and present of South Africa, there was also a considerable emphasis on good citizenship as non-violence and mutual respect.

The students were then asked whether they thought their country was democratic, were their human rights protected and what were the major forms of discrimination. There was support for the idea that Britain is basically democratic but acknowledgement both of the subjectivity involved in judging democracy and that there are still shortcomings in Britain’s democracy. One student said,

“I’d love to think that it is, my safe kind of feeling that you live in a democratic country but I think that its much more difficult when you actually want to make a change, when you disagree with something. I’ve come to think in the last few months that I’m not sure to what extent the country actually is democratic.”

Others however felt that democracy was a façade that covered up much that wasn’t actually very democratic, particularly in the way the government was perceived to have ignored public opinion over the Iraq war. However, compared with other countries, it was still reasonably democratic. The students seem to be suggesting that while the bottom line is that Britain is a democracy, there is still much that could be done to make it a fuller and deeper democracy (Carr and Hartnett, 1996: Ch.2).

Two students discussed their role in British democracy:

“I don’t think I have much influence on events in this world really, I would like to think I have, but not really.”

“We should all have (influence), but we’re only one tiny piece of the jigsaw. How do you make that difference?”

The students felt that their human rights were more protected than in other countries but that there were occasions when this was not the case – the miners’ strike was mentioned and restrictions of people's right to protest when the Chinese Head of State visited. Access to information was identified as one area where there were restrictions to human rights. Also, one student felt that the threat of terrorism was being used to undermine human rights,

“It’s basically giving anybody a free hand without a trial to just go and say, “You look like a terrorist! Come on, we’ll have you in prison”, so basically that legislation could actually be used against anybody …”

One mature student complained strongly that her human rights were being abused because of the heavy handed way in which the state was holding her responsible for her teenage daughter playing truant from school. (In the United Kingdom parents can now be jailed if their children play truant from school). Others felt European human rights legislation had done a lot for Britain and that this would not have happened if the country had been left to its own devices.

In terms of discrimination, the English students identified minority groups and specified black, Asian, asylum seekers, refugees, working class and gay people as subject to discrimination. For example,

“I think there’s still a class thing … a lot of snobbery still around in everyday things. In shops you go to, whether you get a store card, whether you can get credit, in your post code or where you live, lots of things.”

“… the police force are supposed to be very equal opportunities, pro-gay people and lots of different things but I know people in the police force who are too scared to come out because … OK, their policies might say ‘it’s OK in this job’, but their colleagues on a day-to-day basis would make their lives hell.”

“I think the whole asylum thing indicates … you don’t have to go very far beneath the surface of society in certain in this country to tap racism, but it was much more obvious thirty or forty years ago.”

Another agreed that over the longer term matters had improved,

“I personally think that it is getting better, society is changing, and it will filter down but at the moment there is still a long way to go for a lot of things but it also helps when the government changes their legislation because (it then) starts to filter down.”

One student said that she did not think there was any “big, major discrimination” in the sense of institutionalised discrimination and that levels varied from one context to the next but the students acknowledged that they heard intolerant attitudes, for example among family and friends, though these were often expressed in a more covert and less blatant manner. One student commented that, “It’s only quite recently that I’ve actually had the confidence to challenge it, and even then it’s hard.”

The South African students thought there was something of a gap between the theory of the highly democratic constitution, “I think on paper South Africa must be one of the most democratic countries on earth”, and practice. There was a feeling among white students that in the labour market affirmative action was more prevalent than equal opportunities and this meant that jobs were now often being allocated on the basis of skin colour and gender rather than qualification and aptitude – one described it as “reverse apartheid”. However, another student strongly agreed with affirmative action for the historically disadvantaged because of the way it was being operationalised,

“… I tend to agree with affirmative action, the government have had quotas on what percentage of the jobs on the job market will be filled by x race or y race, which I do agree with and the reason is … that having set the dates it would be stopped and the government has complete control over when it is actually going to come to an end and when a balance has been reached.”

They also thought that if democracy in South Africa was to work then there needed to be more education for democracy, people needed to learn more about democracy than they presently understood. One student argued that,

“Democracy only means to them calling in at the polling station and slipping in a vote but as soon as they see that nothing is changing that affects them personally then they start not seeing what democracy is.”

Extreme levels of social and economic inequality in South Africa were also seen as a major challenge for democracy and human rights,

“I think that the protection of your human rights is directly related to your financial and social condition. So if you are of a well to do, wealthy background and you have enough money to afford it, then your rights are protected and you probably could enforce your rights being protected. But if you are living in a squatter camp with no running water and facilities whatsoever then you wouldn’t have your rights protected.”

This extreme inequality also led to another threat to democracy – violent crime. However, it was also felt that gradually the races were beginning to mix more with each other socially, particularly among the young,

“The younger generation, as they come up, and they haven’t got a history, there’s no history there … whereas before would a white child invite black or Indian children to their birthday parties? This never happened before.”

Student teachers’ attitudes to ‘democratic’ schooling

The students were then asked about schooling – did they think schooling in their respective countries was democratic? The British students were not convinced that it was. One student said, “From what I’ve seen of schools they can be quite authoritarian” and went on to explain in this in the context of the Iraq war when the senior management of the school he was at issued guidelines that teachers should try to get pupils off the subject. Another student related how all the teachers in his placement school were provided with the answers to a series of questions that the pupils might have asked about the Iraq war.

“We were thinking, ‘Well, what’s this for exactly?’ We can give that kind of response, we don’t need someone to tell us what we should say in these situations.”

However, a third student responded that at his school it was discussed in assembly and a balanced information pack was produced.

In terms of the day to day running of the school they didn’t generally think that pupils in the state sector had much say and that the National Curriculum contributed to this restriction. One, for example, said,

“Although ideally it would be nice to have children more involved, I think a lot of teachers would, having taught the topic for several years, suddenly have to design brand new resources because the pupils wanted to learn something different. I think it would take a lot to persuade some of the teachers to give children more of a voice.”

The students’ perceived lack of democracy in English schools was seen as reflecting the relationship between the DfES/government and individual schools.

“When you actually start to look at it, it is fed from the top down now isn’t it? If you’re looking at the idea of bringing in the National Curriculum and this is what you are going to teach and this is the literacy hour and this is how it is going to be delivered for whatever good motives they have, it is just reinforcing the fact it is very autocratic and actually politicising the whole system … because you have a new government in then they have completely changed how the education system works.”

And once such a tone is set, it pervades processes within individual schools,

"Even something as simple as a staff meeting … if you have all the members of staff and if you have any grievances that you give to the Head … the two schools that I have been at, they listen my grievance and they give you a printed out copy of their answer … ‘This is what the school does: Full stop: Next?’ And if it's supposed to be democratic then I am assuming that they will take on board what your opinion is, think about it and consider it and then say, This is what we are going to do about it.’ Give you a personal response rather than just “No, No, No.”’

There was acknowledgement that school councils were becoming more common but two students had experienced school councils and felt that they did not seem to deal with ‘larger’ or ‘serious’ issues.

One student, commenting on the school councils she had seen operating, summed up with,

“A lot of schools pay lip service.”

There was a view that pupils feel that they can now comment more on what goes on in school, including teaching methods, but there was also concern that this was relatively superficial and, while it was acknowledged that individual teachers can make a difference, fundamentally,

“There is still quite an authoritarian model which dates from Victorian times … you’re socialising children to understand their role in society, to respond to authority, know they’ve got to work … I’m not sure that anything that I see will substantially change that. I’m not sure how schools would feel about making substantial changes because so much of what education is, certainly from my experience, is about controlling pupils …”

While another added,

“… but I think schools as a whole, this system as a whole, doesn’t encourage free thinking. I don’t think that’s is what they’re there for. They’re there to produce good, quiet workers …”

To which another student added, “… doesn’t the education system that we’ve got at the moment … just mirror the democracy that we’ve got as a whole?”

Other students presented insights into their perceptions of the links between the world of work, freedom of thought and education.

“We talk a lot about getting people to read, but are we really getting them to think about the messages they read? We say we want a literate society, but I get the impression that we don’t want them to know too much to upset the apple cart.”

“The government doesn’t want us to know about it (democracy) because if we have no knowledge then they can carry on and do what they really want. They appear to be democratic because they give us the vote, but in realistic terms they don’t want us to have too much knowledge of how it all works and what’s going on in the world and in society because it’s dangerous for them.”

Several students commented on the nature of the curriculum provided for pupils and the possible outcomes. For example,

“They are less likely to be freethinkers. They get commanded to learn certain things. OK you need to learn certain things, but they do not have any choice over what they learn, so you just feed them all this stuff and they just learn it. They come out at the end, if they have absorbed everything you’ve given them … they can regurgitate it, but they can not come out being able to think for themselves.”

The South African students thought that overall there had been a shift towards more democracy in schools, even though examples were provided of schools that had retained their authoritarian traditions and schools where there was no order at all, authoritarian or democratic. Teacher professionalism is a serious issue in South Africa and this impacts on the culture of teaching and learning so that some schools might best be characterised as ‘laissez-faire’ (Harber, 2001: Ch.4). The students cited examples of teacher drunkenness, absenteeism and male teachers having sexual relationships with pupils. As one put it, “… at the end of the day the school can only function if the teachers are willing to teach and the pupils are willing to learn.” However, the students noted that some state schools had become a lot more democratic as there were student councils in all schools by law and students were represented on school governing bodies. This had led to a situation where, as one student put it, pupils are,

“… not afraid to stand up in the class and voice their opinion, which is amazing … they have a really strong voice, their opinions count and they carry a lot of weight.”

The students noted how learners volunteered to be on various sub-committees such as discipline, art and culture, promoting the school and how there was now a more relaxed atmosphere in schools. However, others had been doing teaching practice in schools that were still quite authoritarian or where teachers dominated the supposedly democratic school structures and pupil input was restricted to minor, social matters. Also, the more democratic, outcomes-based curriculum that was introduced in the late 1990s had also been interpreted in a variety of ways by existing teachers. One student said that he had been on a teaching practice with a woman who knew all about the new outcomes-based approach but stuck to her old ways of teaching, whereas on another teaching practice,

“I went to a school with a black man who was completely dynamic and had completely radical ways of teaching and he was demonstrating a completely new way of teaching.”

The students quoted a couple of examples of schools where children are explicitly taught about their rights, including free phone lines if they are being abused.

Their own schooling had definitely been authoritarian – “It was us and them and it was just sort of horrible … walking in rows and sitting at ancient desks” as one put it or “… obviously we weren’t encouraged to think about what was going on in the country” as another put it.

The students were then asked whether schooling promoted racial and gender equality. There was a strong feeling among the British students that teaching that most anti-racism in schools wasn’t done in an overt way – “I wouldn’t say actively, but its there … It’s not like in the form period the teacher stands up and reads out ‘You can’t be racist.’” One example given was when teachers challenge racist comments in the corridors and playgrounds. (Though, interestingly the students said that they had not been told either by their tutors or their school what to do if they heard a pupil making a racist comment.) Some of the students gave some examples of seeing some teaching on racism but argued that as it was a ‘volcanic’ issue it would need to be handled by somebody who really knew what they were doing. One student had been to a meeting of PHSE (Personal, Health and Social Education) teachers where there was a lot of worry about teaching race because they were frightened of what the pupils might come out with and she felt that older teachers would find it very difficult to handle in the classroom as they weren’t used to this type of teaching. One had taught ‘race’ themselves on a teaching practice,

“I’ve actually taught part of citizenship about racism, but I did it in a way where I didn’t actually mention race whatsoever. I did it indirectly so it wouldn’t give any child an opportunity to make nasty comments.”

However, whilst the students were aware that racism was not tolerated, few expressed confidence in how schools responded or how they themselves would respond if called upon to do so.

“I have observed things from a distance, but it wasn’t my position to say anything because of the position I was in. But I don’t think from what I saw issues were really tackled properly.”

“It is quite a difficult situation, kids playing in the playground and you overhear something. You think they’re playing and I am supposed to be off duty, but do you let them play or do you tackle them with the issue? The chances are that they will be rude to you and they will label you with the same brush and I think that issues like that need to be tackled on a more formal basis like in a lesson a citizenship lesson.”

However, at least one student did not see citizenship education as the means by which such issues will be addressed in the long term,

“In the last school as far as they were concerned citizenship was the latest government buzzword and it will be here today and gone tomorrow.”

The students felt that schooling had done a lot over the last 15 years or so in terms of more equal curriculum provision but that as a topic gender tended to be handled indirectly through subjects like History and English. None had ever seen the topic of masculinity directly addressed in schools.

The South African students noted that access to schooling had changed after apartheid but that high fee levels meant that some schools were still predominantly white and there was also mention of the slowness in developing whole school policies to encourage integration as opposed to desegregation some nine years after the end of apartheid. As one student put it, “the faces have changed but the culture hasn’t changed.” Few had seen or heard anything explicitly anti-racist or anti-sexist. One student noted that at the school in which she did her teaching practice was only just developing its diversity statement and another student said,

“They certainly don’t have any programmes in place in these schools to integrate kids. And like I say I’ve been there a year and a half and I haven’t seen any efforts to integrate or to promote dialogue and discussion. It’s just kind of, let’s be colour blind and get on with it.”

One student was in a predominantly white school where they bussed black pupils in from a township school for shared activities – the receiving pupils looked at the township pupils ‘as though they were aliens’ and the incoming pupils were intimidated and frightened to speak. Another student thought that teaching ‘forced’ anti-racism in the classroom might cause offence,

“… but I would think that some people might take offence or might not take it the right way if all of a sudden I would get into a class, some sort of lesson with me teaching how not to be a racist.”

As with the British students, some had come across the teaching of gender issues, such as inequality in the labour market, in the subject called Life Orientation which is the South African equivalent of PHSE, but none had seen masculinity tackled directly as a topic. Sexual harassment and violence is a major issue in South African schools (Human Rights Watch, 2001) as is HIV/AIDS but there was little evidence from these students that this was being tackled in a coherent and widespread manner.

The British students were also asked if they thought that schooling combats homophobia. None had ever seen any teaching on the topic of homosexuality, indeed it was strongly felt that schools tended to avoid it altogether. One said,

“I don’t think it’s tackled at all and I think that is incredibly worrying because children are left to come to their own decisions, quite often those are from their parents or the media, and I think that’s really dangerous, personally.”

Another added,

“I don’t think things have changed significantly, however many years ago I was at school… twenty odd years. I don’t think we have made much progress on the racism front or the sexism front or the way people deal with homosexual people. School kids are very cruel towards minority groups.”

Students also expressed concerns about how homosexuality is treated by both teachers and pupils in school.

“You can’t come out in school if you are a teacher or a pupil that thinks they are gay … it would be death to admit that in school. There is one kid I can think of that I have taught that the kids think might be gay and he has been bullied.”

The situation is unlikely to improve if the concerns about dealing with such controversial issues in class expressed by this student are correct,

“… racism and homosexuality in particular … you are not only laying yourself open to a lot of difficulties within the classroom but then those children go home and say ‘Guess what we have done today at school, Mom?' and she is absolutely disgusted that anybody should suggest that homosexuality is OK and you are then faced with that. Now you know you shouldn’t really be put again in that awkward situation without having had some training.”

The South African students similarly argued that homosexuality and homophobia weren’t tackled in schools either; though discrimination on the basis of sexuality is specifically rejected in the constitution while similar prejudices existed amongst South African pupils.

There is considerable evidence internationally that, despite the dominant global discourse on access to schooling and the positive benefits of schooling, schools are in fact also regularly violent towards pupils and harm them in a variety of ways (Harber 2004). The students were therefore asked whether they thought schooling was violent in any way. The failure of schools to protect children against bullying was mentioned by British students. One student said she had been repulsed by the,

“Physical presence over children … shouting, threats terrible language and strong sarcastic elements. I remember from a previous job (as a learning mentor) just being absolutely horrified by it and very angry about it.”

She went on to say,

“The whole nature of schooling I think, actually, it's about suppressing children’s personalities, children’s wishes, children’s needs …”

There was concern expressed about the level of shouting in schools,

“I went into schools where I associated the shouting with violence … I don’t know how schools can get away with doing it because it seems almost illegal to me that it’s acceptable that anybody shouts at anybody. In some schools it happens on a daily basis and invading personal space and things like that and it seems a normal strategy for dealing with children.”

Some of the students noted that it had been suggested to them that they practice shouting and looking mean as part of classroom preparation.

Another student teacher suggested that schools do attempt to prepare them to respond to bullying, but some insight is provided into the efficacy of such preparation is given by the two students who commented,

“It has also been made clear to us to look at the anti-bullying policies in schools, behavioural policies, because each school may have a different way of tacking this so we have to implement school rules. I think that is the only direct guidance as such, certainly I would know how I’d respond off the cuff.”

“I had to deal with it (a bullying incident) yesterday because I was in school, and I actually witnessed a child bullying another child quite severely … a big lad. He got called into the office. I think it was the social worker for the whole school and he said, ‘You are bullying and it’s not right you should do it.’ After he’d gone out, the teacher dealt with it fantastically… was angry with the child to start off with but brought it down to a sensible level, very, very calmly, we are going to help you with this. But I was itching to ask the child, ‘Why are you doing this?’ When he went out I asked him, ‘How do you think your parents are going to feel about this? Are they going to be happy? What makes you do it?’, he said, ‘People are bullying me’. The school had not asked that question, ‘Why he was doing it?’ I was quite shocked. I obviously let the teacher know he was just retaliating; it is not a reason or an excuse.”

The South African students noted that although corporal punishment had been banned in schools and is now illegal, it was still used in some and that it still had a lot of support from parents, even though the pupils themselves are not at all keen on being caned. One talked of being able to “… hear the children screaming in other classes.” Some of the student teachers even expressed support for corporal punishment as a form of control in schools because “… the child knows that there is some sort of punishment waiting for you if he doesn’t do the work.”


Among the British students there was a tendency to see citizenship in terms of community and identity, behaving responsibly and respecting others. There was little unprompted discussion of citizenship as involving a relationship to the state, a key element in the political role of the individual. The South African students similarly saw citizenship in terms of taking responsibility for others, though there was understandably more emphasis on non-violence. There was support for the idea that Britain was basically democratic but it was acknowledged that there was still much to be done to make it a fuller and deeper democracy at the level of civil society. The South African students also thought that South Africa was now much more democratic in terms of the constitution and state structures but that there was often a gap between the rich and the poor in a context where absolute poverty can deny people their rights as a citizen.

In terms of schooling, the British students saw schooling as quite authoritarian for both staff and pupils and that this is a reflection of the need for greater democracy in the wider society. The South African students thought that the education system was definitely moving in a more democratic direction, but that there were barriers to this, such as teacher professionalism and teacher resistance. In terms of racism, the British students felt that schools only tackled the issue indirectly and that teachers did not feel comfortable or confident confronting it. Gender issues were also dealt with indirectly but masculinity was not reported as being discussed in schools in either country. The South African students suggested that while desegregation had taken place, integration policies and practices had not been developed within schools. Homophobia does not seem to be sufficiently tackled in schools in either country. However, students from both countries could provide examples of how schooling was violent towards pupils.

Student teachers are in an interesting position in that many remember their own schooling clearly and they are both students of education and also potential teachers who have not yet been fully socialised into their role in formal education through the need for day to day survival. Their comments suggest that traditionally schooling in both countries has been authoritarian but that in South Africa there is movement towards greater democracy. Much is still to be done in both countries in terms of schools combating racism while the seeming failure to tackle issues of masculinity on the one hand and homophobia on the other appear to be serious gaps in the potential role of schools in educating for democracy. Moreover, as well as reproduction by omission – as in the case of homophobic bullying – schools are also seen to be actively violent towards pupils. According to these student teachers, schooling has a long way to go before it can claim to be truly contributing to education for democratic citizenship. However, in order to help to create schools and classrooms that operate in a more democratic manner, teacher education must also provide relevant and congruent experiences, skills and knowledge and help to shape values in a democratic direction. This will be further discussed in the conclusion to this book.


  • British student teachers see schooling as quite authoritarian in nature whereas South African student teachers agreed that this had been the case but that the education system was moving in a more democratic direction.
  • Student teachers in both countries recognise barriers to effective education for democratic citizenship in schools.
  • The student teachers felt that issues of racial and gender equality were not overtly handled in schools.
  • Students teachers perceive that schooling can sometimes be violent towards pupils.
  • Student teachers are of the opinion that there is still much to be done on education for democratic citizenship in schools.


  • Davies, L., Harber, C. and Yamashita, H. (2005) Global Citizenship Education: The Needs of Teachers and Learners - Report on DFID Funded Research Project. University of Birmingham: Centre for International Education and Research.
  • Harber, C. and Serf, J. (2006) ‘Teacher Education for a Democratic Society’, Teaching and Teacher Education. 22 (8), forthcoming.
  • Harber, C. and Serf, J. (2004) Exploring Ubuntu : Education and Development, An Introduction to Theories and Debates. Birmingham: Development Education Centre
  • Oxfam (2006) Teaching Controversial Issues. Global Citizenship Guides.
  • Shaw, M. (2006) Classes to stop suicide bombs? Times Educational Supplement. 23/06/06, p18.

Points for discussion

  • What can be done by teacher educators to better prepare student teachers to be able to educate for democratic citizenship?
  • Why do teachers seem reluctant to handle controversial issues?
  • To what extent does your teacher education institution perpetuate the ‘myth of the liberal college’ as discussed in chapter 1 of this book?


  • Arnot, M., Araujo, H., Dellyanni-Koulmtzis, K., Rowe, G. and Tome, A. (1997) ‘Teachers, gender and the discourses of citizenship’. International Sociological Studies of Education, 6 (1), pp3-35.
  • Burke, C. and Grosvenor, I. (2003) The School That I’d Like. London: RoutledgeFalmer.
  • Carr, W. and Hartnett, A. (1996) Education and the Struggle for Democracy: The politics of educational ideas. Buckingham: Open University Press.
  • Carter, C., Harber, C. and Serf, J. (2003) Towards Ubuntu – Critical Teacher Education for Democratic Citizenship. Birmingham: Development Education Centre.
  • Crace, J. (2004) Booted and suited. Education Guardian, 04/05/04, pp2-3.
  • Davies, I., Gregory, I. and Riley, S. (1999) Good Citizenship and Educational Provision. London: Falmer Press.
  • Devine, D. (2003) Children, Power and Schooling. Stoke On Trent: Trentham Books.
  • Harber, C. (1998) Desegregation, racial conflict and education for democracy in the new South Africa: a case study of institutional change. International Review of Education, 44 (5/6), pp569-582.
  • Harber, C. (2001) State of Transition: Post-Apartheid Educational Reform in South Africa. Oxford: Symposium Books.
  • Harber, C. (2002) Not quite the revolution: citizenship education in England in Schweisfurth, M., Davies, L. and Harber, C. (eds) Learning Democracy and Citizenship : International Experiences. Oxford: Symposium Books.
  • Harber, C. (2004) Schooling As Violence. London: RoutledgeFalmer. Human Rights Watch (2001) Safe At School? London: Human Rights Watch.
  • Lawson, H. and Edmonds, K. (2002) Student teachers and citizenship education. The Development Education Journal, 8 (2), pp11-14.
  • Mattes, R. (2002) South Africa: democracy without the people? Journal of Democracy. 13 (1), pp22-35.
  • Osler, A. and Starkey, H. (1996) Teacher Education and Human Rights. London: David Fulton.
  • Samuel, M. and Pillay, D. (2003) The University of Durban-Westville: face-to-face initial teacher education, in Lewin, K., Samuel, M., and Sayed, Y. (eds) Changing Patterns of Teacher Education in South Africa. Sandown: Heinemann.
  • Wilkins, C. (1999) Making “good citizens”: the social and political attitudes of PGCE students. Oxford Review of Education, 25 (1/2), pp217-30.
  • Wilkins, C. (2001) Student teachers and attitudes towards “race”: the role of citizenship education in addressing racism through the curriculum. Westminster Studies in Education, 24 (1), pp7-21.