Citizenship education inspires and encourages political knowledge and action. It is often the only opportunity within the curriculum that young people may have to learn about democracy, government, politics, elections, referenda, human rights and international organisations such as the EU, UN and the World Trade Organisation. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a chance to develop their own skills of active participation.

“I want to grow up in a country where the people are more powerful than the government.”

This statement was made by 16-year-old Harry in a speech he gave during MP6, a political speaking competition in Leicester. MP6 was part of his school’s Citizenship education programme, which, in a new decade, with a new government, is even more important.

2020 has affected the lives of young people in a way that has not been seen in our lifetime. The COVID-19 pandemic has seen young people having to adapt to a new ‘normal’, many of whom having missed so much of their education through school closures and are now faced with uncertainty over examinations or for older students, work placements and gap year opportunities.

Alongside this adjustment young people have risen to global calls for justice and action within communities, they have been called upon and taken the lead on actions to support each other. Young people are becoming more involved with activism than ever.

Citizenship education must support young people to reflect on current events, to inspire and encourage political knowledge and action.  It is often the only opportunity within the curriculum that Harry and others might have to learn about democracy, government, politics, elections, human rights and international organisations. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a chance to develop their own skills of active participation and empower young people to be effective activists. 

Recent events surrounding the death of George Floyd have seen more young people questioning authority, taking part in organised protests and becoming more vocal on issues such as systemic and institutionalised racism. These are issues which drive emotion and some teachers may find difficult to address within the classroom. This is where citizenship education through its unique and specialised pedagogy is in a class of its own. 

Developing students’ skills of critical evaluation, so they can knowledgeably discuss controversial issues, deliberate on government responses and work through strategies of conflict resolution. This is what Harry implies, young people being given the knowledge and tools they will need to prepare them for life in a very unpredictable modern Britain.

Since 2002 Citizenship has been on the national curriculum and the programmes of study require these topics to be taught in secondary schools. Discreet lessons in Citizenship are often the only opportunity for these ideas to be explored with adequate time to develop students’ confidence and strategies to navigate the complexities of local, national and world issues.

Developing students’ skills of critical evaluation, so they can knowledgeably discuss controversial issues such as Brexit or the escalation of conflict between different countries, is vital in today’s polarised world.

Hoskins and Janmaat highlight in their new book Education, Democracy and Inequality and in a recent Institute of Education blog that the link between lower social background and lower voting turnout in Europe is most prominently felt in the UK.

Our current political and educational system appears to be increasing this class-based gap in political engagement.

This makes Citizenship education particularly important as “experiencing a high volume of Citizenship Education helps children of disadvantaged backgrounds to catch up with their peers of more endowed backgrounds of political engagement”. Perhaps surprisingly, they found that having teachers with special responsibility for the subject does not seem to be making a difference to students.

We believe that this is due to the current shortage of Citizenship teachers who have had high quality specialist training.

The House of Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement said in 2018 that the government should ensure that there is a trained Citizenship teacher in every secondary school and that teacher training in Citizenship education should be urgently prioritised. The committee said many schools do not have adequate provision or expertise in the subject and therefore are not delivering it in the most effective way (i.e. those with responsibility for it do not have the expertise).

There are now only five university providers of Citizenship Post Graduate of Certificate in Education (PGCE teacher training) and UCL Institute of Education is one of them. We urge the new government to improve recruitment of Citizenship specialists. Our young people are relying on it and as of 2019 OFSTED requires it.

As Osler and Starkey contend, young people need more than access to processes such as voting. They need to know how to participate, be informed and critically understand the messages and impact of decision makers and decision making. Students do not just need knowledge; they need to know how to use what they have learned. The participatory nature of Citizenship education gives them opportunities to listen to other ideas and opinions and explore different narratives. The classroom becomes truly ‘deliberative’. (For more resources on this method of teaching see The Association for Citizenship Teaching or our Democracy Ambassadors pack).

Sir Bernard Crick (1998) aimed for a change in the political culture of the UK through Citizenship education. In the Netherlands, where Citizenship education is not part of the formal curriculum, Groot and Eidhof (2019) demonstrate that the time and attention to focus on issues such as mock elections in a meaningful way to develop young people’s engagement with systems of democracy is limited.

Young people should always have the final word in matters that concern them, and the importance of Citizenship education and active support for it is best expressed in this video made by the students of Hamilton Academy in Leicester.