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The Impact of Citizenship Education: a review of evidence for school leaders

Whole school policies • Research

The Impact of Citizenship Education: a review of evidence for school leaders

This summary report has been produced by the Association for Citizenship Teaching and Middlesex University as part of the research and evaluation of the Active Citizenship in Schools programme that is running from 2021-25. The programme offers a strategic approach to embed social action and active citizenship within the school curriculum. It aims to identify models and practices that ensure pupils engage in and benefit from citizenship education in a sustained and impactful way.

The evidence informing this report has been analysed following a systematic review of research journals. The researchers looked for peer-reviewed academic journal articles which were concerned with evaluating the impact of citizenship education, specifically in relation to active citizenship outcomes. The review included 133 articles from around the world, including 18 randomised control trials and large cohort studies, widely thought to be the most reliable form of evidence.

This summary report provides five evidence-informed arguments to encourage school leaders to consider supporting citizenship education. It boosts political knowledge, efficacy, trust, tolerance and attitudes towards democracy – all relevant aims for any school helping young people build successful foundations for life. Download the summary report for full details.

1. Schools make a difference:

Research in England demonstrates that citizenship education secures positive outcomes into adulthood in relation to attitudes towards, and actual levels of engagement in, various forms of civic participation. Continuing participative learning through key stage 4, for example through school councils, mock elections and debating, had the biggest impact. 

2. The ripple effect of citizenship education:

There is some evidence that school-based programmes can have a ripple effect beyond the curriculum. Some projects have an impact across the school, even on those students who do not participate directly in the project. This may be because such projects enhance the perception that the school has a participatory ethos. There is also some evidence that well-designed Citizenship programmes might have a wider impact on the families of students, by stimulating discussion and engagement at home. This family effect can amplify the impact of citizenship activities on students and have an independent effect on their parents.

3. Developing knowledgeable citizens:

One of the most important roles for schools is to build students’ knowledge and understanding of politics. Coherently planned Citizenship programmes generally lead to significant improvements in political knowledge and this is true of a range of approaches to presenting that information, for example, through timetabled Citizenship classes, regular engagement with the news, real-life active citizenship projects, attending educational exhibitions and on-line activities. Building a culture of open classroom discussion is more effective in building knowledge than lecture style teaching. However, knowledge does not necessarily lead to improved attitudes towards participation or actual levels of participation. Whilst it is useful in its own right, it is not sufficient on its own to secure attitudinal change or to promote participation. 

4. Building a can-do attitude:

There is some evidence that active citizenship projects, where young people have leadership roles, can lead to reduced feelings of political alienation. Alongside the reduction in negative feelings, citizenship education can also nurture students’ sense of their own efficacy, which is to say their sense that people like them can have an impact. This is the beginning of developing political agency. This has been shown consistently through secondary school level teaching, extra curricula activities such as Model United Nations simulations, and community based enrichment projects, such as summer camps.

5. Boosting student well-being and connectedness to others:

Whilst well-being tends to be seen through the lens of PSHE, there is some evidence that Citizenship also has beneficial effects in relation to building happiness and well-being. In part this seems to be related to how young people feel connected to others through meaningful relationships linked to participation opportunities. Citizenship education also contributes to positive attitudes towards others, for example, by boosting levels of trust (a core component of classic ‘social capital’ theory), developing empathy, and promoting tolerance towards others. 

More about this research

There is also a companion report Effective Teaching for Active Citizenship aimed at Citizenship subject leaders, and a full technical report is also available. You may also be interested to read the Journeys to Citizenship Education: four case studies.

Download The Impact of Citizenship Education report