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What is citizenship education?

We want young people to leave school or college with an understanding of the political, legal and economic functions of adult society, and with the social and moral awareness to thrive in it.

"Citizenship education is essential for preparing young people for our shared democratic life." Democratic Life coalition, 2010

"It's the job of the education system to prepare our young people for the challenges and opportunities of a changing world." Rekha Bhakoo CBE, Headteacher, Newton Farm School (Top Performing Primary School in England, 2011)

Citizenship education is about enabling people to make their own decisions and to take responsibility for their own lives and their communities.

"Citizenship is more than a subject. If taught well and tailored to local needs, its skills and values will enhance democratic life for all of us, both rights and responsibilities, begninning in school and radiating out." Bernard Crick, National Curriculum Citizenship, 1999

It is not about trying to fit everyone into the same mould, or about creating 'model' or 'good' citizens.

We want our schools and colleges not simply to teach citizenship but to demonstrate it through the way they operate.

Why teach citizenship?

There are elements of citizenship education in many subjects - such as English, history and maths - as well as in a school's SMSC outcomes (see doingsmsc.org.uk).

But citizenship education is more than that.

Democracies need active, informed and responsible citizens; citizens who are willing and able to take responsibility for themselves and their communities and contribute to the political process.

Democracies depend upon citizens who, among other things, are:

  • aware of their rights and responsibilities as citizens;
  • informed about the social and political world;
  • concerned about the welfare of others;
  • articulate in their opinions and arguments;
  • capable of having an influence on the world;
  • active in their communities;
  • responsible in how they act as citizens.

These capacities do not develop unaided. They have to be learnt. While a certain amount of citizenship may be picked up through ordinary experience in the home or at work, it can never in itself be sufficient to equip citizens for the sort of active role required of them in today's complex and diverse society.

If citizens are to become genuinely involved in public life and affairs, a more explicit approach to citizenship education is required. This approach should be:

  • Inclusive: An entitlement for all young people regardless of their ability or background;
  • Pervasive: Not limited to schools but an integral part of all education for young people;
  • Lifelong: Continuing throughout life.

And, as Democratic Life points out, citizenship is the only subject in the national curriculum that teaches about the way democracy, politics, the economy and the law work.

Citizenship issues are:

  • real: actually affect people's lives;
  • topical: current today;
  • sometimes sensitive: can affect people at a personal level, especially when family or friends are involved;
  • often controversial: people disagree and hold strong opinions about them;
  • ultimately moral: relate to what people think is right or wrong, good or bad, important or unimportant in society.

How does it benefit young people?

  • It helps them to develop self-confidence and successfully deal with significant life changes and challenges such as bullying and discrimination;
  • It gives them a voice: in the life of their schools, in their communities and in society at large;
  • It enables them to make a positive contribution by developing the expertise and experience needed to claim their rights and understand their responsibilities and preparing them for the challenges and opportunities of adult and working life.

Who else does it benefit?

"Citizenship is becoming a cornerstone subject in our education system, and rightly so. It is a gateway to a more inclusive society." Stephen Twigg, former Education Minister

Citizenship also brings benefits for schools, other educational organisations and for society at large.

For schools and other educational organisations, it helps to produce motivated and responsible learners, who relate positively to each other, to staff and to the surrounding community. For society it helps to create an active and responsible citizenry, willing to participate in the life of the nation and the wider world and play its part in the democratic process.

What are its essential elements?

Citizenship education involves a wide range of different elements of learning, including:

  • Knowledge and understanding: About topics such as: laws and rules, the democratic process, the media, human rights, diversity, money and the economy, sustainable development and world as a global community; and about concepts such as democracy, justice, equality, freedom, authority and the rule of law;
  • Skills and aptitudes: Critical thinking, analysing information, expressing opinions, taking part in discussions and debates, negotiating, conflict resolution and participating in community action;
  • Values and dispositions: Respect for justice, democracy and the rule of law, openness, tolerance, courage to defend a point of view and a willingness to: listen to, work with and stand up for others.
The most effective form of learning in citizenship education is:
  • active: emphasises learning by doing;
  • interactive: uses discussion and debate;
  • relevant: focuses on real-life issues facing young people and society;
  • critical: encourages young people to think for themselves;
  • collaborative: employs group work and co-operative learning;
  • participative: gives young people a say in their own learning.

This text is based on Chapter One of the CPD handbook Making Sense of Citizenship.

Campaign for citizenship education

In September 2010 the Democratic Life campaign was launched to lobby for keeping citizenship on the National Curriculum. You too can sign the Democratic Life petition to show your support.

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