Citizenship Education in Global Perspective: More Harm than Good?

Posted on September 5th, 2017 by Amy Fedeski

In the first of three blogs during her stay with the Crick Centre, full-time secondary school teacher Suzy Dodd provides an overview of the global state of citizenship education. Suzy is currently working as a research assistant on the Youth Politics research pathway with James Weinberg.

The Crick Report on citizenship education in England celebrates its twentieth birthday next year. The important question is: what exactly can we celebrate? The report’s enduring impact and influence is, certainly, a great achievement. We could, for instance, look at the turnout statistics for young people in the 2017 general election (around 54%, compared to about 38% in 2015) and cry victory for citizenship education. However, aside from the peculiarities of that election in itself, there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that citizenship education programmes around the world may not being having the impact Sir Bernard Crick hoped.

The citizenship curriculum in China, for example, has rather different aims to England’s schema. There’s a powerful argument that, in fact, schooling in China is almost entirely dedicated to the development of responsible citizens who are aware of their obligations to their country. Studies of Chinese pupils have suggested that their attitudes are far more patriotic and nationalistic than those of their international counterparts. However, many of these studies go on to argue that this is a problem rather than a victory: classroom debates can often have a polarising effect, and risk stymying understanding between different groups.

Indeed, China is only one example. These conclusions on the polarising nature of nationalistic CE have also been reached by researchers in, for example, South Africa and the Middle East. There’s also evidence that minority groups can be ‘Othered’ by citizenship education, which can take an “us and them stance” in the name of developing a national identity. Canada, for example, has historically side-lined indigenous narratives through its education system, using citizenship programmes to cement the dominance of white history and culture.

These negative studies, however, have a common thread: the authors unanimously agree that citizenship education can be a force for good – but only if it is designed and delivered well. Looking at the database on the positive impacts revealed a myriad of possibilities. Although it would be impossible to argue that the 2017 increase in young voters was caused by citizenship education in schools (indeed, it’s much more likely to have been the result of grassroots campaigning), there is a lot of evidence to suggest that relevant curricula can vastly increase levels of participation within local and national communities. There may be global concern over young people’s participation in politics, but there’s plenty of data from most countries to suggest that encouragement from schools has boosted the numbers of young volunteers in a huge variety of organisations.

In the UK, participation in the National Citizen Service has steadily increased each year since its inception. Furthermore, participants generally demonstrated an improvement in positive values at the end of the programme. Similar projects in the Middle East have also proven successful. It seems that, once pupils have chosen to become involved with extra-curricular civic activity (often as a result of curricular content and school-based initiatives), their sense of agency can improve. New Zealanders, for example, are some of the most active citizens in the world; this is often attributed to both formal and informal citizenship education in the country, which has achieved great successes.



Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey MLA joins young people as they celebrate taking part in the NI National Citizen Service programme. Lorcan Doherty Photography

There’s also plenty of evidence that an increase in good citizenship education can result in improved values. Polish students, for example, receive far more citizenship education than their Belgian counterparts. Their views on the world reflect this: Belgian students were far more likely to agree that the movement of immigrants should be restricted in case their country gets “full”. Although a causative link cannot be inarguably established here, the Education for Citizenship in Europe study provides an impressive database suggesting a similar pattern.

Political literacy can also be improved through citizenship education. Indeed, this is the most common positive outcome I came across while reviewing the relevant literature, particularly within the UK. Whether this is a means or an end is debatable: many would argue that, unless this knowledge empowers citizens to be active, it is somewhat impotent. There is, however, data to suggest that improved political literacy leads to higher levels of civic activity.

Although the global database on the positive impacts of citizenship education is still relatively small, there is certainly cause for celebration in 2018. In the twenty years since the publication of the Crick Report, the UK has developed a national curriculum thatis inclusive of citizenship education and, consequently, the political literacy of its young people. This is clearly a trend echoed in many other countries. Although there’s clearly room for improvement and refinement, we’re now much better placed to understand how to do this. Change will, however, rely upon the focus and intent of apposite political will. Just like our pupils, we’re still learning.

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