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How to make a citizen

Group of teenage students sitting in a circle around their teacher

Is citizenship education working? Evidence suggests that the values learnt by young people in schools stay with them into adulthood - but there are doubts over whether current approaches to teaching citizenship are rooted in an everyday reality that students recognise.

Work led by Dr Eleni Andreouli is starting up a UK-wide conversation involving young people, teachers and a host of stakeholders to reinvigorate thinking around how to make politically-engaged citizens for the future.

Citizenship is increasingly being recognised as both a practical and essential element part of the curriculum, not a tangent from the business of gaining qualifications.

“We live in an age where politics have become more polarised and extreme, where young people in particular can feel disengaged or helpless when it comes to influencing political thinking or bringing about change,” said Dr Eleni Andreouli, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS). “At the same time we have a widening social and economic divide between rich and poor, and more need than ever for young people with the skills to become informed and politically active, to fight for representation and their voices to be heard.

“Rather than seeing young people as inactive, incomplete, ’not yet’ citizens, our work is based on recognising young citizens in their own terms and seeing citizenship itself as a practice, not as a kind of status to be attained.”

Initial research by the team from FASS and The Open University in Wales looked at the ways citizenship has been understood and taught as part of the new 2022 Welsh curriculum, taking onboard views from students. This pointed to a disconnection between teaching and students’ own experiences and ideas about politics and citizenship; the research has also identified some of the key challenges faced by teachers around citizenship education, such as lack of subject-specific training, resources and guidance.

Open Societal Challenges funding is being used to extend research across the UK, building a picture of different citizenship education policies, and gathering new evidence on the views of secondary school students and their teachers on what citizenship is, and how it is or should be taught in schools. The work will also include collecting data on public perceptions about the role secondary schools should be playing in civic education.

The resulting analysis will be used to inform conversations with teachers and the schools sector more widely, as well as politicians and youth organisations, about how to improve citizenship education — and bring about long-term change. The OU team is part of networks that include the National Citizenship Service, PolicyWISE, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Political Literacy, Electoral Psychology Observatory (London School of Economics), ShoutOut UK (a political and media literacy social enterprise), the international OppAttune Project, Youth Parliament Wales and the Welsh and Scottish governments.