Citizenship is not just volunteering


The fight to keep citizenship in the reformed national curriculum has been won, but campaigners are disappointed with the draft programmes of study, which promote volunteering while failing to mention human rights. Emma Lee-Potter reports.

The news that citizenship is to remain as a statutory subject in the secondary national curriculum has been greeted with sighs of relief by heads, teachers, students and campaigners.

Education secretary Michael Gove rejected the curriculum review expert panel’s advice to downgrade citizenship and announced last month (February 7) that it will continue to be taught at key stages 3 and 4.

The proposed new citizenship curriculum is subject to a full public consultation until April 16, with final versions due in schools this autumn for first teaching from September 2014.

But despite their delight, campaigners believe improvements to the draft citizenship curriculum are needed – to ensure that there is clarity about what must be taught and that appropriate standards for the subject are set.

“We believe this positive decision will help teachers to build on over 10 years of hard work to establish this unique national curriculum subject,” said Liz Moorse, chair of Democratic Life, a voluntary coalition of 40 organisations that has worked tirelessly to see citizenship education retained as part of the curriculum.

“Schools can now plan steps to continue to improve their citizenship provision so that more pupils benefit from the very best citizenship teaching.

“However, there is still room for improvement and Democratic Life is committed to working with the Department for Education to strengthen the proposals.”

Democratic Life has suggested a number of key changes to the draft curriculum. The organisation, which is backed by high-profile supporters like David Blunkett and Alastair Campbell, is particularly concerned that the draft only includes knowledge, not specific skills.

“The government has said that they want this to be a knowledge-focused curriculum but one of our over-riding concerns is that skills are not set out very clearly in the aims of the subject, or indeed in the teaching requirements,” said Ms Moorse, who is also senior manager at the Association for Citizenship Teaching.

“We also need to make sure that the right knowledge areas are in the curriculum, both at key stage 3 and key stage 4 – and there are some gaps at the moment.”

The gaps Democratic Life wants to see filled include “a clear requirement” to teach youngsters about human rights. 

“It is disappointing that human rights hardly features in the required subject content in the new curriculum proposal,” said Isobel Mitchell, head of education at Amnesty International UK. “Good quality human rights education requires more than a passing mention of rights in the UK. It should develop knowledge, skills and values to understand and protect human rights in the UK and globally.”

Democratic Life campaigners also stress the importance of teaching pupils that active citizenship is not just about volunteering – but should involve them taking part in “genuine social and democratic action” in their schools and communities.

However, the draft programme of study states as one of its aims: “That all pupils develop an interest in, and commitment to, volunteering that they will take with them into adulthood.”

Ms Moorse said: “There is a risk that if you use a term like ‘volunteering’, people think that it is all about do-gooding. 

“But it’s a bit more than that. It would be a desperate shame if young people were encouraged to make cups of tea for the elderly, for example, without thinking about provision for the elderly in society and the wider political and social aspects of how society looks after its older citizens.” 

Personal finance is included in the draft, but Democratic Life is calling for financial education to include economic understanding and public finance too. It also believes that key stage 3 teaching of citizenship should not be solely focused on the UK and wants to see better progression between key stage 3 and 4, especially in aspects such as the law (which in the draft barely features at key stage 4).

Many students themselves have signed up as supporters of Democratic Life, keen to air their views about the importance of citizenship teaching. One described the subject as “the only way to encourage students to take an interest in politics and to become active citizens”, while another said it helps those “who maybe don’t hear much about it at home, but still have a chance to understand and learn, being prepared and getting involved”.

Meanwhile Democratic Life is urging as many people as possible to comment on the draft curriculum. 

Ms Moorse added: “We want the end product to be as high quality as possible, so that the integrity of the subject remains and doesn’t get confused or watered down.”

Excerpts from the draft citizenship curriculum

A high-quality citizenship education helps to provide pupils with knowledge, skills and understanding to prepare them to play a full and active part in society.


To ensure that all pupils: 

  • Acquire a sound knowledge of how the UK is governed, its political system and how citizens participate actively in its democratic systems.

  • Develop a sound knowledge and understanding of the role of law in our society and how laws are shaped and enforced.

  • Develop an interest in, and commitment to, volunteering that they will take with them into adulthood.

  • Are equipped with the financial skills to enable them to manage their money on a day-to-day basis as well as to plan for future financial needs.

Content: key stage 3 

Pupils should be taught about: 

  • How the political system of the UK has developed as a democracy, including the role of the monarchy, the development of our constitution and Parliament.

  • The operation of Parliament, including voting and elections, and the role of political parties.

  • The precious liberties enjoyed by the citizens of the UK.

  • The nature of rules and laws, and the difference between criminal and civil law.

  • The justice system, including the role of the police, and how courts and tribunals work.

  • The importance of personal budgeting/money management. 

Content: key stage 4

Pupils should be taught about: 

  • Parliamentary democracy, including the role of Parliament in holding governments to account and the executive, legislature and judiciary.

  • The different electoral systems used in and beyond the UK and actions citizens can take in democratic and electoral processes to influence decisions.

  • Other systems and forms of government, both democratic and non-democratic, beyond the UK.

  • Diverse national, regional, religious and ethnic identities in the UK and the need for mutual respect/understanding.

  • The different ways in which a citizen can contribute to the improvement of their community, to include the opportunity to participate actively in community volunteering.

  • Wages, taxes, credit, debt, financial risk, and financial products and services.


  • Emma Lee Potter is a freelance education journalist.

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