Citizenship education – beyond budgeting and the ballot box

By Jennifer Jeffes

Friday 12 July 2013

Earlier this week the Department for Education (DfE) set out its vision for citizenship education in schools in England, following much debate about its role and purpose within the education system. Democratic participation and financial capability feature heavily within the mandatory requirements at both Key Stage 3 and 4, with the Government taking a pragmatic approach towards equipping young people with the tools they require to become active participants in society.

There is certainly a compelling case for the inclusion of both themes. Concerns about political engagement and voter turnout among young people have long been recognised but not yet resolved: an estimated 44 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted in the 2010 general election, around 20 per cent lower than overall turnout. Likewise, there is evidence to suggest that many young people lack an understanding of how to manage their financial circumstances, which is a particular issue in the context of a difficult economic climate and increasingly common instances of personal debt and insolvency.

But what about the young people’s wider sense of their rights and responsibilities as citizens? There is no mention of mandatory teaching about global citizenship, inequalities and topical issues, although schools are free to add such topics if they choose. But if they do choose (and they may not, particularly if there are other subjects competing for curriculum space), how will teachers be supported to deliver this effectively? And who will be available to provide this support?

NFER has conducted plentiful research into citizenship since its introduction into the statutory curriculum in September 2002, and all the evidence tells us that exploration of wider citizenship themes is valuable for young people. For example, NFER’s 2001-2010 Citizenship Education Longitudinal Study (CELS) showed that where young people receive a great deal of citizenship education, this can positively impact on their citizenship outcomes, more so than the impact of other factors such as age, life stage, and background.

Likewise, research conducted in partnership between NFER and the University of York suggests that schools welcome the opportunity for their pupils to engage widely in debates on contemporary issues and to critically appraise their role within society. The same research suggests that while students feel strongly attached to their immediate communities, they generally feel a weaker sense of belonging to national, European and international communities. This confirms that there is a role for citizenship education in broadening young people’s horizons to include consideration of their contribution within a wide variety of communities.

Returning to the issue of how schools will deliver the curriculum, there are questions even for those parts of the framework which are mandatory. For instance, among the aims of the new curriculum is a drive to develop young people’s interest in, and commitment to, volunteering. At Key Stage 4, this will include the chance for young people to volunteer in their local communities. We know that many schools already provide these opportunities to their pupils and support them in pursuing their independent volunteering interests. However, both CELS and the NFER/University of York study show that while schools’ capacity to facilitate student participation is developing, some lack the necessary infrastructure to effectively identify and engage with volunteering opportunities provided by external organisations. Again, this points to a need for structured support and guidance for schools, so that we can be sure that pupils are getting the input they need.

As schools and their partners now begin to shape their response to the revised citizenship education curriculum, it is important to balance the opportunities it offers young people to understand their voting rights and develop the tools they need to manage their future finances with a corresponding need to encourage their growth as citizens of a globalised society. The test of the new curriculum will be the emergence of future generations who have both the agency and desire to positively influence their futures, as well as those of others.