Lee Jerome, Associate Professor of Education, Middlesex University, UK
Ben Kisby, Senior Lecturer, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Lincoln, UK

The introduction of citizenship education in England in 2002 coincided with renewed international interest in this area. This period of innovation in curricula, assessment and teaching approaches in turn generated some significant opportunities for research, and in this article we consider some of the most robust evidence emerging from that work.

The impact of citizenship education on participation

The original Advisory Group on Citizenship (1998), which recommended the introduction of citizenship education into the National Curriculum in England, proposed that it should include three strands: social and moral responsibility, community involvement and political literacy. The group’s report expressed the hope that the subject might bring about a transformation in the political culture of the country. Many commentators would argue that in the intervening 20 years we have indeed seen some significant changes, with rising concerns about extremism, fake news, the influence of social media and populism. But neither those changes nor the absence of the hoped-for transformation can be attributed to the subject. As anyone involved in schools during that time will know, citizenship has not become established uniformly across schools, and so it is unreasonable to expect any whole-scale cultural shift (if education could ever achieve such an outcome) (Jerome, 2012). A fairer evaluation would focus on those schools where citizenship education actually takes place and consider the impact at that level.

In this article, we are going to focus on active citizenship, taking our lead from the Advisory Group’s definition of their hoped-for transformation as leading ‘people to think of themselves as active citizens, willing, able and equipped to have an influence in public life’ (p. 7). The wording ‘willing, able and equipped’ hints at the fact that citizenship education has to attend to the development of attitudes, skills and knowledge, and when the Advisory Group’s recommendations were translated into the curriculum there was also a substantial requirement for ‘knowledge and understanding’. This included the information one would need to understand and undertake informed active citizenship – for example, how government works, who is responsible for different decisions, how the media works, etc. In the revised curriculum in 2007, this account of knowledge was deepened with explicit references to the underlying concepts that underpin citizenship, including democracy, justice, rights and responsibilities. This started to lay out the knowledge base for citizenship but left open the pedagogic strategies; for example, teachers could develop knowledge through planning and reflecting on action, or they could allow ideas for action to arise from knowledge-focused study (Kisby and Sloam, 2009). Some international evidence (e.g. Niemi and Junn, 1998) showed that levels of knowledge and attitudes towards democracy and democratic participation were correlated, suggesting that these elements were mutually reinforcing. The same relationship emerged in the longitudinal research project that tracked the first eight years of the subject in England (Nelson et al., 2010).

That longitudinal research concluded that positive outcomes were more likely where citizenship lessons were consistently on the weekly timetable, taught by specialist teachers and formally assessed to confer status (Keating et al., 2010). This should be of little surprise, as no other subject would settle for less and expect success. Nevertheless, the research does offer us some insights into the various effects of citizenship education on participation, and of participation on other outcomes. This gives us a glimpse into what a more consistently developed citizenship education provision might bring about.

That original longitudinal work included over 18,000 secondary students and concluded that where they received a consistent high-quality teaching experience, there were improvements in their personal efficacy (the sense that one can make a difference and influence others), increased levels of participation (such as raising money for charities and signing petitions) and positive intentions to participate in adulthood (such as voting and involvement in community groups) (Keating et al., 2010). Shortly after that work, Whiteley (2014) analysed survey data from over 3,000 young people from across England, Scotland and Wales and concluded similarly that experiencing citizenship education leads to increases in political knowledge, political participation and political efficacy. One of the problems confronted by Whiteley was that he had to construct a composite measure of individuals’ experience of citizenship education (made up of self-reports and being in a country where the curriculum included citizenship); this inevitably loses details about the extent or quality of education. By contrast, Keating and Janmaat (2016) had the advantage of accessing a cohort of students who were being tracked after that original longitudinal study. Whilst this sample is smaller than Whiteley’s study (746 19- to 20-year-olds), the researchers were able to track data collected since the students were 11 to 12 years old, and were able to identify their experiences of specific forms of active citizenship, including school councils, mock elections and debating clubs. Keating and Janmaat conclude that young people who experienced these forms of citizenship activities towards the end of their secondary schooling (aged 15 to 16 years) were more likely to vote in the subsequent general election and also more likely to engage in a range of other political activities. This indicates that those good intentions about participation may well translate into actual activity as the young people enter adulthood. However, we have to exercise caution here, as the dwindling sample inevitably means that many of those who lost interest or left education are no longer included in the data.

Taking a slightly different approach, Hoskins et al. (2012) analysed an older international dataset (including approximately 15,000 responses from 14-year-olds across five countries) and concluded that the most important factors leading to positive attitudes towards political participation were regular conversations with parents, teachers and peers, which also underlines how important informal experiences are outside of school. In terms of their experience of school-based citizenship education, participation in school councils was also positively correlated with attitudes towards participation. These experiences are more important than simply receiving classroom-based instruction in social studies, which had no link with attitudes towards participation, although it is important to note here that the data was collected in England before citizenship education was introduced into the National Curriculum.

Tackling inequalities

Whiteley (2014) and Hoskins et al. (2012) confirmed the well-established pattern of inequality in attitudes towards, and actual levels of, political participation. Those continuing to university and those from middle-class backgrounds (with higher incomes and, on average, more educated parents) routinely report higher levels of participation and a greater sense of political efficacy than those from vocational educational routes and working-class backgrounds. However, Hoskins et al. (2017) examined this particular challenge more closely by re-analysing the same dataset used by Keating and Janmaat (2016), which included data on the nature and extent of citizenship education experiences (their analysis focused on 6,155 15- to 16-year-olds participating at the end of their secondary schooling). They concluded that whilst experiencing an open classroom climate (encouraging open debate) and participating in school-based political activities were positively correlated with attitudes towards engagement, these experiences were less likely to be accessed by children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. By contrast, children from all class backgrounds had equal access to citizenship education classes (in this dataset), and this did have a positive effect on attitudes towards participation. In fact, the cumulative effect of citizenship education throughout secondary schooling was particularly significant for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, leading to the conclusion that citizenship education ‘has the ability to reduce social disparities in political engagement’ (Hoskins et al., 2017, p. 100).There is, then, evidence that if we want to encourage young people to participate in democratic politics, this can be effectively pursued through citizenship education, and particularly educational experiences focused on participation.

Effects of participation

Increasing participation is a valuable end in itself, and certainly addresses the aspirations of those who introduced citizenship education into the curriculum as a means of strengthening democratic culture. In addition, it is useful to be aware of the wider benefits of participation on the individuals who participate. Some think of this as a kind of virtuous cycle, where engagement helps others and oneself, building efficacy, social capital and contributing to happiness (Gamarnikow and Green, 2000). Indeed, there is evidence that a desire to increase levels of social capital was a key motivation for some, such as former Education Secretary David Blunkett, involved in the introduction of citizenship lessons in England (Kisby, 2012). A small-scale qualitative project with young people participating in Amnesty youth groups recorded how involvement may start for a whole variety of reasons, but once young people are participating, they often develop a stronger sense of efficacy, and come to identify themselves as the kind of person who gets involved and tries to make a difference (Montague and Eiroa-Orosa, 2017). The more they participate, the more they develop strong social bonds with fellow activists, and therefore start to feel connected to others through their commitment to human rights. As the researchers argue, such social bonding or relatedness is often seen as an essential element of psychological wellbeing. This suggests that participation does not simply help to achieve the political goal, nor should it only be valued because it generates valuable political learning, but it should also be appreciated for contributing to adolescent wellbeing. This is reinforced by a more refined study of over 3,000 children in Northern Ireland, which confirmed a correlation between children’s subjective wellbeing and their perceptions that their participation rights were being respected in school and the community (Lloyd and Emerson, 2017).


We are advocates of citizenship education, based simply on the argument that a democracy should act deliberately to build a culture and set of practices to sustain itself. In addition to that argument, the evidence discussed here adds some weight to the proposal that we should revisit and refresh citizenship education. A good-quality citizenship education seems to promote positive attitudes towards participation and, where such education includes opportunities for participation, there is evidence to suggest that it leads to higher levels of political participation in adulthood. Importantly, there is also evidence to suggest that citizenship in schools can help to reduce the participation gap that reflects socioeconomic inequality. There are also grounds for claiming that such active citizenship experiences are linked with measures of wellbeing. This suggests that there may be some credibility in the notion of a virtuous cycle in which consistent opportunities for active citizenship in schools promote wellbeing and continued participation in adulthood.

This is worth thinking about in our current context, where practice is shaped by the ongoing disruptions and stresses of COVID-19 and teachers are devising a host of ‘recovery curriculums’ and thinking about how best to support young people with their mental health and emotional wellbeing. There is an obvious logic to turning inwards and dealing with the individual psychological issues that young people are confronting, through offering pastoral programmes and personal resilience-building interventions. But this kind of insight also raises the interesting possibility that benefits may also be derived from adopting an outward-facing programme, where young people are encouraged to collaborate in order to work with, and help, others. We might think of this as a form of democratic wellbeing (a term taken from Liz Moorse at the Association for Citizenship Teaching), where engagement in everyday forms of collective democratic action has a beneficial impact on society (meeting needs, solving problems and building social solidarity) and on individuals (building their sense of agency, and building real, purposeful relationships and happiness).


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