Citizenship Education and Political Literacy in the United Kingdom

britishBy Ian Howarth

I am by professional training a Citizenship teacher.  I was Head of Citizenship/PSHE and Politics at the Arnold Hill Academy in Nottingham England for five years.  Here I set out my views on the vital importance of Citizenship education in the National Curriculum for the future of British democracy from both an academic and professional prospective.

 “Education is one of the most important predictors – usually, in fact, the most important predictor – of many forms of social participation – from voting to associational membership, to chairing a local committee to hosting a dinner party to giving blood…Education is an especially powerful predictor of participation in public, formally organized activities.”  (Putnam 2000: 186).

How can citizenship education raise levels of political literacy, and re-engage people with community politics?  In order to answer this first question we must ask a number of others.  Firstly what is political literacy in citizenship education and why is it needed?  What is the best means of delivering it in schools, and what are the potential pitfalls in the citizenship curriculum focusing too much on group politics?  Finally how will increased political literacy help to restore communities as a focus for participation in public life?

Citizenship and Cricks third strand: Why?

The 1998 final report of the Advisory Group on Citizenship (AGC) ‘Education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy in schools’ (the Crick Report) agreed with Robert Putnam’s argument that education is the most important factor in determining ‘social participation’ (Putnam 2000: 186) and recommended the introduction of Citizenship in to the National Curriculum as a statutory subject.  The subject was defined as containing ‘…three strands: social and moral responsibility, community involvement and political literacy.’  (Crick 1998: 8)

The stated aim of the report; was “…. no less than a change in the political culture of this country both nationally and locally: for people to think of themselves as active citizens, willing, able and equipped to have an influence in public life and with the capabilities to weigh evidence before speaking and acting…’  (Crick 1998: 7)  The report went onto highlight ‘…worrying levels of apathy, ignorance and cynicism about public life…  [arguing that]…unless tackled at every level, it could well diminish the hoped-for benefits both of constitutional reform and of the changing nature of the welfare state.’  (Crick 1998: 8) In this vane the report quoted ‘…the Lord Chancellor: [Lord Irvine of Lairg who stated that] ’we should not, must not, dare not, be complacent about the health and future of British democracy.  Unless we become a nation of engaged citizens, our democracy is not secure.’  (Crick 1998: 8)

This need for an approach to addressing low levels of political literacy, and increasing apathy with the political process in Britain rooted in education has been established against the background of a 20-year decline in voter turnout.  Despite some recovery in turnout between 2005/2010 at 65.1% it remains well below the historic average, with the 2009 European Parliamentary elections recording a turnout of 33.52%. Blame for the public’s withdrawal from participation in the democratic process in Britain is levelled widely at public and media cynicism, a distrust of politicians, the over emphasis on ‘spin’, and a general lack of political literacy.

A number of studies have been conducted into the level of political literacy amongst the general population, the ‘2001 Home Office Citizenship Survey: People, Families and Communities’ with 10,014 respondents, found that when asked what rights they thought they had as UK citizens; 35% of the sample responded with the right to freedom of expression, 13% to fair, equal and respectful treatment, 8% to free elections, and only 6% believed they had the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religious expression. (Attwood, Singh, Prime & Creasy et al 2003: 10)  This survey gave an insight into the public’s perception of its rights and responsibilities, and the role individuals play as citizens in maintaining them.  With only 8% of the population believing they have a right to free elections, Lord Irvine of Lairg’s statement of concern that British democracy may not be secure is given some weight.

Even more recently an ICM survey of 110 pupils aged 14 – 16 on national identity and political awareness found that ‘Only one in four could identify Labour as the party of government….  4 per cent thought the Conservatives were in power, while 2 per cent thought the Liberal Democrats were the government of the day.  Two-thirds admitted they had no idea.  Nearly half said they did not think it was important to know what any of today’s political parties stand for.’  (Garner 2005)  Personal teaching experience backs up these findings.  Having taught A’ level Politics myself for a number of years I can personally testify to the high levels of ignorance of the British electoral and political system amongst even those students sufficiently motivated to seek to complete and A’ level in the subject.

Therefore, the increasing lack of understanding and knowledge of how government works is clear to see, and must be a prime cause in the decline of participation in traditional politics.  The analysis of the root causes of political apathy driven by surveys like those cited above has led to a focus on using education to re-engage the population with the political process to create future generations of more active citizens.  This idea of the engaged, or ‘good citizen; is one of the aims behind the concept of citizenship education.  David Blunkett argues that the role of the state should be one of empowering people to become good citizens through education (Blunkett 2001), while Sir Bernard Crick talked about developing a citizenship culture ‘…where people are concerned with and actively involved in public affairs’ (Cited; Attwood, Singh, Prime & Creasy et al 2003: 9).  Both views focus on education as the key, and upon citizenship education as the means of delivery.

But what is meant when talking about political literacy in the terms of citizenship education?  The Crick Report defines it as more than simple political knowledge, as including an understanding of public life which ‘…encompasses realistic knowledge of and preparation for conflict resolution and decision-making related to the main economic and social problems of the day, including each individuals expectations of and preparations for the world of employment and discussion of the allocation of public resources and the rationale of taxation.  Such preparations are needed whether these problems occur in locally, nationally or internationally concerned organisations or at any level of society from formal political institutions to informal groups, both at a local or national level.’  (Crick 1998: 15)  This definition recognises the importance of political knowledge, but also highlights that political literacy is a wider concept, which encompasses a view of the numerous influences on societal development, such as the economy, and community involvement.  Tony Breslin sees it as ‘…a full range of literacies that, in common parlance at least, go significantly beyond the political: to the social, economic and legal and then beyond.’  (Breslin 2004:13)

Political Literacy through a Cross Curricular Approach:

Political literacy as seen above requires a much broader interpretation within the national curriculum than that which could be offered by a stand-alone citizenship curriculum, it gives political literacy scope across the curriculum, penetrating into other areas like English, and Geography.  It questions how you can convey the importance of voting or the value of parliament without providing an awareness of the historical narrative that underpins these processes, or gain a true understanding of multiculturalism without examining human geography, and patterns of migration.

The current Citizenship curriculum recognises its cross-disciplinary nature in modules like Key Stage 3 ‘Unit 12: Citizenship and History: Why did women and some men have to struggle for the vote in Britain?  What is the point of voting today?’  (QCA 2004: Key Stage 3)  However despite this formal recognition are schools in practice coordinating their Citizenship and History schemes of work so as to provide each other mutual support.  The answer in the majority of cases is almost certainly no.  Unit 12 if it is being taught is probably being delivered at a different time and maybe even stage of a pupils education than ‘Unit 6: Government, Elections and Voting’ (QCA 2004: Key Stage 3).  The result of this practice in this case would be to reduce the understanding and appreciation of pupils for the electoral process, a result that is true across many areas of the Citizenship curriculum.  If citizenship is to deliver politically literate individuals schools must adopt it as a cross-curricular subject that requires the support of all subject areas.

The politically literate citizen is someone with a broader appreciation, and understanding than that simply offered by the current citizenship curriculum alone.  The national curriculum, like many aspects of government must learn to develop a joined up approach, which mutually supports the content of each subject.  History can provide an overview of the 19th century Reform Acts and the extension of the franchise, along with an understanding of the role of prejudice and discrimination in war, and Britain’s imperial past.  This kind of approach is critical if citizenship education is going to have the society changing impact that the Crick Report argues for.  Citizenship may appear on timetables, and its curriculum may very well be ardently adhered to, but to have an effect on the level of political literacy in this country it requires across the board support.  A politically literate person is more than just an individual endowed with a textbook understanding of the workings of the first past the post electoral system; they are critically thinking, informed individuals able to make decisions, and access services without outside interference.

The cross curricular approach to citizenship is already considered best practice, Tony Breslan states that the best provision of citizenship ‘…is likely to be characterised by a combination of: Discrete provision: Citizenship ‘lessons’, identified as such on the timetable and within any broader framework such as the one that PSHE might provide; Cross-Curricular support: Themed and clearly identified work within other subjects of the curriculum which complements that undertaken in the discrete sessions…’ (Breslan 2004: 15)  How widespread practice like this is will determine how successfully political literacy is delivered in schools.

Citizenship and ‘Group politics’:

It is arguable that the British education system has been delivering a certain type of politically literate individual for some time.  Although we may not be voting in huge numbers, or becoming involved in party politics, the rise of single-issue politics has been substantial in the last 20 years.  Arguably a politically illiterate society does not witness 2 million people marching through Whitehall against an unpopular war, or a nation gripped by fuel shortages brought on by protesters demanding tax cuts.  Equally organisations like Greenpeace, Oxfam, and media campaigns like Comic Relief, and Children in Need have year upon year raised more money as people donate their time and effort to fundraising.

However, despite the attractiveness of this view of political literacy, single-issue politics is not real engagement with the political process.  It is group politics.  Politics which does ‘…benefit the political system by strengthening representation, promoting debate and discussion, broadening political participation, and acting as a check on government power…. [but also]…poses a threat in that they entrench political inequality…are socially and politically divisive, exercise non-legitimate and unaccountable power, and make the policy process more closed and secretive.’  (Heywood 1997: 268)  Therefore despite the apparent safety of using a group issue in lessons, you have to consider the structure of the organisation, its funding and membership, and question whether the group is an exemplary example of democracy in action.  The truth is that interest groups are elitist, and promote specific agendas that may be contrary to the principals of democratic governance, and one of the roles of citizenship is to promote democracy.

In the majority of schools citizenship is not being taught by subject specialists, this means that historians, geographers, and religious studies teachers have been given the responsibility of introducing citizenship into the timetable.  This has meant that many of the narrow basic content on how parliament and pressure groups work has become the main source of teaching, coupled with looking at the media, and human rights often through single-issue case studies.  It is here that citizenship education faces a real challenge it must overcome the single issue bias of group politics, and attempt to engage pupils with broader ideas, like why vote, and what are the differences between right, and left wing views of society.  Broader subject content on the economy, global citizenship, and electoral systems has been pushed inadequately into careers talks, or interpreting active citizenship as a fundraising opportunity for non-governmental organisations (NGO’s).  NGO’s are probably to date the largest beneficiaries of citizenship education, as teachers and inspectors avoid more sensitive ‘political’ issues by repeatedly returning to group politics as the focus of pupil’s engagement with politics.

Pupils could be protesting about a proposed bypass, or the construction of housing on their playing fields, but instead their energies are being directed outside their community which is likely to reinforce current political trends towards group political engagement, rather than affect the levels of turnout at future elections, or improve their own environment.  If our children only experience political engagement through saving pandas, or protecting water reserves in Palestine then is it any wonder that they fail to engage with things closer to home.

There is a danger in allowing a society to increasingly seek change through protest, rather than through its established political process, as fewer and fewer people vote the representative nature of democracy can become undermined as whole sections of the community fail to engage, and therefore lose their voice in the political debates of the day.  Citizenship education must therefore through a combination of discrete and cross-curricular support from related subjects bring across to pupils that change and influence over politics can be achieved through action within the political system.  Make pupils aware that MP’s hold surgeries, and encourage letter writing, petitions, and convey that the ballot box is an effective way of bringing change.  This is not to say that NGO’s can’t play a role, they certainly must, but not at the expense of building civic pride and concern for issues that directly affect pupils quality of life.

Political Literacy and building ‘Social Capital’:

Citizenships approach to teaching political literacy must also break free from the confines of the school timetable, and reach out into the community.  Research that reveals ‘…growing levels of apathy and political distrust, concentrated among the young…’  (Richards & Smith 2002: 195) has also highlighted the decline in the membership of voluntary organisations, and political parties.  ‘Although the membership in environmental groups has grown rapidly in recent years, the membership of political parties has been in decline since the war.  The Conservatives had 2,800,000 members in 1952, but this figure had fallen to 400,000 [1995] and is still dropping.’ (Richards & Smith 2002: 195) Membership stood at 177,000 in a 2012 House of Commons Library study (McGuinness & Clements 2012).  This is symptomatic of a wider problem within not only British, but also western society as a whole.  Theorists such as Robert Putnam have classed this disengagement with civic life as a collapse in social capital.

‘Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to the properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.  In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.” The difference is that “social capital” calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a sense network of reciprocal social relations.  A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.’ (Putnam 2000: 19)   This concept offers a clear analysis of the nature of political engagement amongst the young today, ‘virtuous individuals’ engaged in single issue movements, yet totally isolated from the community around them, in other words many little ships each with different concerns passing in the night.

In taking this concept and applying it to Citizenship education the emphasis must be on trying to anchor some of these ships in their own communities.  This should not develop into a campaign against NGO’s, but it must mean that when approaching the active citizenship element of the Key Stage 4 curriculum (Unit 7) the aim should be a project grounded in the schools, and/or pupils community that will enrich relations between young people and their surrounding environment, and between the school and its supporting community.

Disengagement with the political process (meaning more than party politics) cannot continue at the current pace, if turnout continues to decline at elections and communities maintain their isolation then the social fabric of the country will be at jeopardy.  Constructing social capital through citizenship is based on the view that‘…the more people join together in face-to-face meetings either as neighbours or through clubs and societies (which may have nothing to with politics); the more likely they are to work together in an attempt to solve the problems that affect their community.  Contact produces trust that enables people to work together without state compulsion to solve problems.’ (Richards & Smith 2002: 195-196)

Fortunately the opportunities for civic engagement offered by citizenship education are being embraced (QTS: 2.1); the then Home Secretaries publication  ‘Civic Renewal: A New Agenda’ in June 2003 advocated participatory democracy, and supports the idea that civic engagement involves encouraging people to become involved in taking responsibility for improving their communities.  Unit 7 of the Key Stage 4 Citizenship curriculum ‘Taking part – planning a community event’ allows pupils to ‘…take responsibility for planning and implementing a community event…. work[ing] as part of a team, taking on a variety of roles and responsibilities, including aspects of leadership. They learn to respect and value others’ opinions and contributions.  They consider how the event can make a difference in their school and local community and can provide opportunities for individuals and groups to contribute to social change’ (QCA Unit 7: 2004).

I have experienced this unit in practice as part of a GCSE Citizenship Short Course; however, the environmentally grounded project was very much focused within the school, which was far from the spirit the curriculum intended, and what I fear is common.  An example of this unit being implemented in line with its community focused aspirations can be seen at the Hinchingbrooke School which ‘…. entered into an effective partnership with Huntingdonshire District Council who had begun to explore how to engage young people and were keen to form partnerships with schools.  A group of 10 students volunteered to consult other young people in order to inform the development of the Community Action Plan, setting up the interviews in the form of a Big Brother diary room and interviewing 40 pupils.  They collated the findings, identifying key recommendations, and a PowerPoint presentation was given to the Leader of the District Council.  He and the Deputy Head of the school were also asked by the young people to respond to questions that had arisen from the project.  The project group of young people concluded that “young people do have opinions about community issues, that they need to be encouraged to express them, and that they raised some very sensible solutions.” (Stenton 2004: 61)

Community involvement like that highlighted above, working along with a whole school approach to citizenship teaching shows the potential for creating politically literate individuals.  Only through the recognition of political literacy as more than party politics, pressure groups or institutions along with its incorporation into the teaching and learning of pupils throughout primary, and secondary education can the goal of creating a ‘…nation of engaged citizens…’  (Crick 1998: 8) be achieved.


The role of citizenship in raising the standards of political literacy is central to its whole purpose in the national curriculum, through providing interesting and expansive content supported across the curriculum to give students an encompassing appreciation that politics is more than David Cameron, and Parliament, but something that is part of their daily lives.  In re-engaging young people with politics, developing community links and encouraging young people to stand up for issues of concern in their own communities as well as global, and national questions citizenship can achieve the goal of changing British society and strengthening the roots of our democracy.

The agenda for citizenship set out here is ambitious, and if it is to succeed it will require commitment, money, and effort on the part of government, Ofstead, teachers, parents, and pupils.  However, it is my belief that unless political literacy is taught in the round, meaning a broad general understanding of institutions, rights and responsibilities coupled with an appreciation of the historical, and social context of these institutions that encourages engagement with the local community; citizenship, at least in the aims set out in the Crick Reports third strand of political literacy will fail to achieve all it could have.

The process of writing this essay has caused me to consider a number of issues I had previously not thought needed much consideration.  The cross curricular requirement for the effective provision of political literacy in schools had not occurred to me when I set out to write, and the expansive nature of the subject was only partially appreciated.  Consequently in seeking to remain relatively brief and focused I have ignored issues such as the role of social class on civic engagement and political literacy, and the wider issues of potential government interference in the curriculum content if we are to pursue such a radical agenda in teaching.  Despite this I hope that the ideas, and opinions expressed here have shed some light on the potential for citizenship education, and the role for it in widening political participation and increasing pupils understanding of how society works.

This is a tall order, and maybe beyond the capabilities of an overstretched timetable, and overworked teaching profession, but if only two thirds of its potential is realised then the introduction of Citizenship into the National Curriculum could well be the most significant development in British education since the introduction of the National Curriculum itself.  Ultimately the goal of increasing political literacy is one aimed at building a sense of belonging between citizens, communities, and government.  It is a positive agenda for change that could result in the radical reinterpretation of the role of schools in society as pivotal centres of community support and investment in social capital.


Attwood, Chris. Singh, Gurchand. Prime, Duncan. & Creasy, Rebecca et al. (2003) ‘2001 Home Office Citizenship Survey: People, Families, and Communities’ Home Office Research Study 270, Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, London pp.9 -10

Breslin, Tony (2004) Think Different!  Citizenship Education and the School of the Future, Eds. Linsley, Benjamin, & Rayment, Elisabeth ‘Beyond the Classroom; Exploring Active Citizenship in 11-16 Education’ New Politics Network, London, pp.13

Blunkett, David (2001) ‘Politics & Progress – Renewing Democracy in a Civil Society’ Methuen Publishing, London

Crick, Bernard (1998) ‘Education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy in schools: Final report of the Advisory Group on Citizenship’ Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, London pp.7-8, pp.13

Heywood, Andrew (1997) ‘Politics’ Palgrave, London, pp.268

Putnam. Robert D. (2000) ‘Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community’ Simon and Schuster, New York, pp.19. pp.186

Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (2004) ‘Citizenship National Curriculum Scheme of Work Key Stage 3’

Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (2004) ‘Citizenship National Curriculum Scheme of Work Key Stage 4, Unit 7: Taking part –

Richards, David & Smith, Martin J. (2002) ‘Governance and Public Policy in the UK’ Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp.195-196

Stenton, Sally (2004) ‘Community Action and Young Person Led Participation’, Eds. Linsley, Benjamin, & Rayment, Elisabeth ‘Beyond the Classroom; Exploring Active Citizenship in 11-16 Education’ New Politics Network, London, pp.61

Garner, Richard (2005) Politics? Teenagers don’t know and don’t care’, The Independent, 16th January 2005

UK Political Information, ‘General Election Turnout 1945 – 2012’ (accessed 08/06/2013)

McGuinness, Fergal & Clements, Rob (2012) ‘Membership of UK political parties – Commons Library Standard Note’ (accessed 08/06/2013)


One thought on “Citizenship Education and Political Literacy in the United Kingdom

  1. Pingback: Changing the Political Culture: The Advisory Group on Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools |

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