What Type of Citizenship Education; What Type of Citizen?

Education for citizenship raises key questions—what is education for? What is the role of the school in developing positive attitudes amongst young people? How can controversial issues be raised in the classroom? How do we develop critical citizens?

Citizenship is a compulsory element in most democracies throughout Europe, North America and the Pacific (Crick, 2000; Ostler & Starkey, 2005; Print, 2007; Kiwan, 2008). Research suggests that political education in schools in western democracies emphasizes political institutions, rights and responsibilities of citizens, debates on current issues and moralism in various combinations (Borhaug, 2008).

The largest international survey, the International Civil and Citizenship Education Study/International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (ICCS/IEA) study (Schultz et al., 2010), involved some 140,000 students (about 14 years of age) and 62,000 teachers in 38 countries. In terms of content areas, the topics that the ICCS countries most frequently nominated as a major emphasis in civic and citizenship education were human rights (25 countries), understanding different cultures and ethnic groups (23 countries), the environment (23 countries), parliamentary and governmental systems (22 countries), and voting and elections (20 countries). Topics less frequently nominated as a major emphasis were communications studies (14 countries), legal systems and courts (13 countries), the economy and economics (12 countries), regional institutions and organizations (12 countries), and resolving conflict (11 countries). Only five countries nominated voluntary groups as a major emphasis. However, another finding of note is the significant decrease in civic content knowledge scores between 1999 and 2009 in a number of countries that had comparable data from both civic education surveys: only one country had a statistically significant increase in civic content knowledge among lower secondary students over the past decade. This is worrisome as the decade was meant to be one permeated by education for citizenship and, in that context, we might have expected an increase in this kind of knowledge and understanding.

Students were far more likely to report school-based civic participation than involvement in activities or organizations outside of school. On average, across participating countries, 76 per cent of ICCS students reported having voted in school elections and 61 percent reported voluntary participation in music or drama activities. About 40 percent of students said that they had been actively involved in debates, taken part in decision-making about how their school was run, taken part in school assembly discussions, or been candidates for class representative or the school parliament. Involvement in groups helping the community and in charity collections was the most frequent form of participation among lower secondary school students across the ICCS countries.


Academics and commentators continue to question the motives behind the introduction of citizenship education. Yet, most would agree with Hahn (1998 and 1999) and Print (2007), who believe that it is the responsibility of schools to teach about democracy and prepare students to be effective democratic citizens. Kerr and Cleaver (2004) point out that many teachers view citizenship education as a politically fashioned quick fix. Rooney, (2007) takes this issue further urging us to be wary of citizenship education which he states can be viewed as a programme of behaviour modification and that it is not the responsibility of teachers and schools to solve political and social problems or issues of low voter turnout and political apathy. Indeed, he points out that citizenship education has thus far failed to reconnect young people to the political system or improve participation rates. Several authors (Lister et al., 2001; Whiteley, 2005; Kiwan 2008) highlight the fact that there is no empirical evidence of a direct correlation between citizenship education and formal political participation.

Whiteley (2005) points out that the expected improvement in civic engagement with the introduction of citizenship education is offset by other factors including the widespread feeling that governments don’t deliver on promises and scandals involving corruption and cynicism from many leading parts of society.

Further, while there is general agreement as to the desire to have a politically aware citizenry, it must be noted that there is no universal agreement as to the value of citizenship, political literacy, activism or pupil voice in schools per se (Lundy, 2007; Whitty and Wisby, 2007; Thornberg, 2008). Rooney (2007), for example, argues that to believe that these kinds of initiatives can be developed in the current school system undermines the very nature of education and makes teachers responsible for the ills of society.


Rising engagement with single-issue politics such as involvement in overseas wars, inspiring events such as the Arab Spring, world poverty, environmental and animal welfare issues, would appear to suggest that young people in western democracies, although alienated from formal politics and voting, are active and interested in single-issue campaigning politics where they can see results from their actions (Torney-Purta et al. 1999; Hahn, 1998; Lister et a l., 2001; Maitles, 2005; Schultz, 2011). Kiwan (2008) cites research by Pattie (2004), which found that individualistic participation is common, challenging assertions that people are politically apathetic.

Indeed, although a positive driver towards education for citizenship stems from attempts to promote democratic citizenship, human and participation rights at the local, national and global levels—rights which are enshrined in international convention such as the United Nations Rights of the Child and the Human Rights Act (Ostler and Starkey, 2001; Kerr and Cleaver, 2004; Benton et a l., 20 08)—Print (20 07) point out that such involvement can be episodic and should be treated with caution. Further, we must be aware t hat many schools see charity activities per se as a way of developing global citizenship. And, even within this, there can be a lack of any understanding as to how the money is used and rarely any discussion around the causes of poverty. Holden and Minty (2011) in t heir study of some 200 school students in England found that the students could name a charity or discuss charity work or ecological work they had been involved in, but had little understanding of the broader issues, such as the complex reasons behind world problems. Further, that they saw this as the key element that the school encouraged in terms of citizenship; nearly all discussions were on personal choice (fair trade, no littering) rather than any real discussion on poverty, conflict or wider ecological issues.


Inside the school, there is the thorny issue of whether one only learns about democracy or also lives it. If we take the ‘living’ model, then there are implications for our schools and indeed for society as a whole. Firstly, there is the difficult issue of whether democratic ideas and values can be effectively developed in the fundamentally undemocratic, indeed authoritarian, structure of the current typical high school where many teachers, never mind pupils, feel that they have little real say in the running of the school.

For schools, it means there should be proper forums for discussion, consultation and decision-making involving pupils and Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that young people should be consulted on issues that affect them. However, the experience of school councils is not yet particularly hopeful (Davies, 2000; Lister et al. 2001; Cruddas, 2007; Kennedy, 2007; Lundy, 2007; Print, 2007).


The argument for education for citizenship and democracy is underpinned by a learning style that can be summarized as ‘active learning’. This is not something new. John Dewey argued some 90 years ago that ‘give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results’ (Dewey, 1915, p. 3). Similarly, in her study of Swedish 11 year olds, Aleerby (2003) found that the word ‘fun’ was used to describe positive experiences, although one cynical pupil summed up his experience as being ‘during the break we have fun’.

The issue of interdisciplinary learning has been a problem in secondary schools, which has led some schools to take pupils off timetable to develop rich tasks (Maitles, 2010). There is evidence of deeper learning through these kinds of experiences (Dewey, 1915; Hannam, 2001; Ritchie, 1999; Save the Children, 2000 and 2001; Burke and Grosvenor, 2003; MacBeath and Moos, 2004; Rudduck and Flutter, 2004; MacIntyre and Pedder, 2005; Maitles, 2005; Maitles and Gilchrist, 2006).

Even if this overstates the case, there are clearly some advantages to this approach. So, why is it not more widespread, indeed the norm? For the individual teacher, it takes courage, skill and confidence to develop active learning and genuine participation and we need to explore the whole area of both the initial training and continuing professional development of teachers. Further, there are the anxieties of parents, who tend to judge a school by its exam results solely and believe that a traditional rote learning, direct teaching strategy leads to ‘good’ exam outcomes. This is further exacerbated by politicians and inspectorates suggesting that active learning is chaotic and might not work. There is also a conditioned expectation by many pupils of being directed rather than becoming independent learners.

The ICCS/IEA study of some 62,000 teachers in 38 countries found that the highest percentages of teachers viewed “promoting knowledge of citizens’ rights and responsibilities” as the most important aim of education for citizenship was found in Bulgaria, Chile, the Czech Republic, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, Guatemala, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Mexico, Paraguay, Poland, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation, the Slovak Republic, and Thailand. In contrast, in Cyprus, Finland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden, the highest percentages were found for ‘promoting students’ critical and independent thinking.’ The aim most frequently chosen by most teachers in Chinese Taipei and Colombia was ‘developing students’ skills and competencies in conflict resolution.’ Only minorities of teachers viewed ‘supporting the development of effective strategies for the fight against racism and xenophobia’ and ‘preparing students for future political participation’ as among the most important objectives of civic and citizenship education.


There are further issues as yet unresolved. Firstly, is the knowledge/skills/values base adequate? Indeed, should we be suggesting anything other than whole school initiatives? Secondly, there is the issue of curriculum overload. As initiatives are piled on schools, there is the possibility of areas like education for citizenship going onto the ‘back burner’. Thirdly, are teachers confident of dealing with controversial issues in the classroom?

The implementation and impact of education for citizenship initiatives depends on whether one sees the glass as half full or half empty. While there is excellent work going on to develop young people’s interest, knowledge, skills and dispositions in areas of citizenship and democracy; yet it is very limited, indeed rare, to find examples of genuine democracy based on children’s human rights. It is a matter of hearts and minds. No amount of hectoring and/or government instructions can counter this; as Bernard Crick, the person who has most lobbied for education for citizenship in schools, put it ‘teachers need to have a sense of mission…to grasp the fullness of its moral and social aims’ (Crick, 2000, p. 2).

There is much to be positive about. We need to do more research into the effectiveness of citizenship in the development of positive values. However, it is also clear that we have to keep some kind of realistic perspective on the influence of education for citizenship or any kind of other civic or political education. Education for citizenship throws up the central questions as to what sort of education we want. However, while there are clear benefits from education for citizenship programmes, we must be clear that no programme of education can guarantee democratic participation nor an acceptance of societal norms. Other factors, particularly socio-economic ones have a strong impact, particularly where it is perceived that governments have let down the aspirations of the population.  



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