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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Pupils are not just citizens in waiting. They are already citizens, and they need more than political literacy

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 30 September 2021

By PGCE Citizenship students Madeleine Spink, Nikita Yadav, Joe Lewin, Farhana Khanom & Achintya Gupta supported by Hans Svennevig.

The establishment this year of an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Political Literacy is welcome news for Citizenship teachers, as its aims assert the importance of young people having a strong political education in order to play an active role as citizens.

The APPG puts forward the idea of a Politics GCSE. As most of us are new alumni of the IOE’s PGCE citizenship programme we are strong advocates for comprehensive political literacy. But we want to set out the value of a broader approach. We urge the APPG to engage with the value of existing teaching and the unique elements of Citizenship as a subject, including the Citizenship GCSE.

How does Citizenship promote Political Literacy?

The National Curriculum for Citizenship, along with extensive work by the Association for Citizenship Teaching (ACT) comprehensively outlines an education framework more than fit to engage pupils in politics, but also enhance this political literacy through deliberation. Notably, the three strands of Citizenship as outlined by the ‘Crick Report’ – social and moral responsibility, community involvement and political literacy exemplify the way pupils learn about critical media literacy, how Parliament and governments work, British values (Vincent, 2019) and identity, the economy, climate change and sustainability and more. The use of discussion exposes pupils to various viewpoints, further enhancing tolerance (Hess and Gatti, 2010). The Citizenship classroom is the place for these actions and discussions. It’s taught by subject experts and informed by the subject’s own pedagogy, enabling students across the country to take on the big questions, developing their perspectives, and considering their role in shaping change.

What’s unique about Citizenship?

Citizenship education is unique in its approach to political literacy because of the combination of teaching in a range of areas tied to political literacy and the ‘active citizenship’ element of the curriculum. In Citizenship, pupils run a project in their school or local community, for example setting up a petition, running a campaign or to raise awareness or money for a cause they are passionate about. By focusing on action and student-led initiatives, citizenship education allows learners to actualise knowledge concepts and take responsibility for achieving them (Rowe, 2006). Allowing pupils to apply knowledge; develop their skills in research, teamwork and problem-solving, and to evaluate their learning. Planning and reflecting on these experiences make up 15% of the GCSE grade.

Furthermore, the subject is truly intersectional in its approach. All the GCSE specifications cover themes of identity, law, politics, history and more; each offering individual, local, national and international perspectives, maintaining academic vigour, with unique elements of discussion and active participation. At KS3, there is autonomy to cover these themes in preparation for the GCSE, but to also link in current affairs. Citizenship is the subject of the ‘now’. GCSE Citizenship was a fantastic feeder into A Level Citizenship when this was part of the post-16 offer and still is a fantastic feeder into A Level Government & Politics, Sociology and Law, and other vocational qualifications such as Public Services, Health and Social Care or Travel and Tourism as well as building a foundation in pupils to participate in democratic life.

Active Citizenship

Research about Citizenship Education supports the value of active citizenship. The influential ‘Crick Report’ by the Advisory Group on Citizenship Education was clear at the start of Citizenship Education in England. An Active Citizen is one who: (i) cares for their community through tangible involvement; (ii) is socially and morally informed and responsible; and (iii) is politically literate. By adding the word ‘active’ to citizenship, there ‘is a shift towards examination of individual action’ and an emphasis of being a citizen (Hoskins and Mascherini, 2008:461). When we are considering how to develop the political engagement of the next generation, one factor simply cannot exist without the other.

Citizenship allows learners to engage in civic action not only to earn their qualification, but because they believe in the causes for which they will be campaigning and wishing to advance. They are already citizens, not citizens-in-waiting. This kind of maximal citizenship (McLaughlin, 1991) where learners engage with Politics is an integral part of their identity and best served by Citizenship Education. A report by Parliament in 2018 records the then Government’s commitment to using Citizenship Education as a remedy to consistently low youth engagement in General Elections. This is because Citizenship provides that experiential bridge through which learners connect pure political theory with tangible action.

To strengthen political literacy we must strengthen the unique value of Citizenship education as a subject that creates politically literate active citizens. The value in students creating a project on a societal issue of their choice brings maximum benefit to political literacy beyond reading and writing, allowing learners to connect theory to action.


One Response to “Pupils are not just citizens in waiting. They are already citizens, and they need more than political literacy”

  • 1
    Geraldine Rowe wrote on 1 October 2021:

    A strong argument for Citizenship on the curriculum. However, in order for citizenship to be learned it has to be lived. As Derry Hannam, who write the follow-up to the Crick Report, is reported to have said, in some schools learning about citizenship is akin to reading holiday brochures in prison (or words to that effect). My IoE doctorate was on the teacher experience of sharing classroom decision-making with pupils, leading to my book, ‘It’s Our School, It’s Our Time.’ If you are interested in students as citizens, read my book so you can help your students to practice that active citizenship right now, in their own classrooms.