Do lessons in citizenship create better citizens?

Students working together in class

Under an ongoing review of the National Curriculum the teaching of citizenship teaching is likely to be downgraded. The subject should continue to be taught, the review has recommended, but schools should have complete freedom to decide how to teach it. In future it is unlikely there will be prescribed programmes of study or assessments for the subject.

But recent research from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and the University of EssexCitizens in Transition in England: The Longitudinal Cohort at age 19-20, suggests citizenship lessons do help young adults to make a contribution to civic society.

The researchers tracked students over a ten-year period during which citizenship education became a statutory curriculum subject for 11-16 year-olds in England. The result was the largest and longest-running study about the impact of citizenship education anywhere in the world.

It followed a cohort of young people from age 11 until they were old enough to vote, and questioned them about their attitudes towards politics and politicians.

Although the young people displayed a lack of confidence in politicians’ abilities to address key issues such as the economy, unemployment and the environment, they also showed an encouraging interest in politics more widely.

Six out of ten participants in the study voted for the first time in the 2010 general election – a significantly higher figure than the estimated 44 per cent of all 18-24 year-olds who turned out. Young people are less likely to vote than the population as a whole, among whom 65 per cent voted in 2010.

While the higher turnout among the young people who had experienced statutory citizenship lessons may have been due to the fact that this was their first opportunity to vote, the authors of the report said there was a ‘legacy’ effect from their citizenship lessons.

Levels of political and economic awareness were found to be higher among those who had been most engaged with citizenship lessons while at school.

The report said:

“This is a generation of young people who are neither disinterested in nor disengaged from political and social issues and with political life”.

About half of those who voted had already decided which way to vote prior to the election. The other half made their decision during the election campaign.

These young people were clear about the issues that they thought needed to be addressed by politicians and the government. The key issues for them were:

  • the economy;
  • immigration;
  • education – including student fees;
  • war  – on terror or in Afghanistan; and
  • the National Health Service.

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