Skip navigation
1st Nov 2023 8:00am Blogs

Top tips for teaching Citizenship

ACT's Head of Education and Professional Development, Zoe Baker, offers her top tips for teaching Citizenship.

ACT’s Head of Education and Professional Development, Zoe Baker, offers her top tips for teaching Citizenship. Whether you want to know how to handle a controversial topic, use case studies in your lessons or engage your students in active citizenship, this blog is for you.

Citizenship concepts

Citizenship is a subject that should be relevant to young people’s lives wherever possible. The concepts of the curriculum should relate to events in everyday life that they will have encountered or be aware of in the media. For example, if you are teaching about the Equality Act of 2010, highlight the ongoing disparity over pay for women in football or other areas.

Controversial topics

When teaching citizenship, you will naturally cover topics that are classified as controversial. Controversial issues are those about which individuals and groups disagree and hold strong opinions, issues that can divide society and arouse strong feelings and/or deal with fundamental questions of value and belief – for example, war, immigration, abortion, gay rights. While some teachers may feel anxious about introducing them, such social and political issues are central to effective citizenship teaching. Learning to manage differences of opinion in an appropriate and reasoned way in a democratic society is one of the main aims of Citizenship education. You will need to prepare for this and make sure your students understand that views on topics will differ as the issues are controversial. Where possible, ensure that a range of views are heard and be ready to challenge those who try to dominate the discussion. In addition, you need to be aware of  views that step over the line which may become offensive to others, lay ground rules clearly so you establish a safe learning environment for discussion. Advice on teaching sensitive and controversial issues can be found here: Prevent and controversial issues.

Debate or deliberation?

For many issues in Citizenship learning we want to see young people become advocates for issues that are important to them and have the skills to persuade an audience of their position. However, in a traditional debate there will always be those that win and those that lose. Therefore, moving towards deliberation in the classroom allows for broader agreement and reflects negotiation in real terms. 

If this is a new area of teaching, then start with small contained activities. For example, rather than starting with a debate about what learners think about immigration, begin by investigating the issue, considering:

  • Why is it controversial or political?
  • Who is most affected?
  • How are they affected?
  • What rights are relevant to the issue? 
  • What information will help us to think about this issue?

By beginning to analyse the issue, learners are encouraged to engage with the political dimension rather than focus on their own views.

For a pack of resources using the skills of deliberation please visit this link: The Deliberative Classroom project.


Remaining impartial is an important element for all teachers. However, many Citizenship teachers worry unduly about this issue as their role involves educating young people regarding politics and democracy. It is important to remember that impartiality means over time. Therefore you do not need to always balance a view you teach with an alternative. It is good practice for students to learn about the differences between political parties and look at manifestos. When local or general elections are taking place it is good practice for schools to host a parallel election to help students understand how elections work, using the policies of parties running in the elections. For more advice on remaining impartial, please visit ACT’s guidance here: Political impartiality in Citizenship – A guide for secondary schools in England.

Difficult questions

It may be concerning for some teachers to be asked a question that they are unsure of or cannot answer. However, when dealing with such contemporary and often quickly changing topics in Citizenship, it is likely you may not have all of the answers. It is better to take time to clarify issues, rather than try to rush to provide an answer. As political issues are by their nature current and fast-moving, this is to be expected, especially as learners may often be accessing information through different online sources from adults. It is useful to make a note of issues or questions that arise that cannot be dealt with at the time, so they can be revisited later. Alternatively, the class can think about hypotheticals and consider how their views might develop if the facts were different. Being honest with your learners and explaining you have not heard of that particular issue/case/example can be quite powerful. This again can be an example of where Citizenship and Political Education is reactive and constantly developing. 

Case Studies

Case studies are a very effective way to teach a range of citizenship concepts, especially Human Rights and Children’s Rights. Rights are quite an abstract concept and talking about the right to do something or the freedom from something can be hard for students to fully engage with. In addition, tackling topics which young people today have no experience of also leaves them feeling that these important concepts have no relevance to their lives. While a discussion around torture or the death penalty may prove fertile ground to look at human rights and the concept of absolute rights, it’s more helpful to find an issue that might be easier to grasp, such as modern day slavery, with opportunities to consider how action could be taken by students in their own lives. However, we very much hope that our students will never experience issues around these rights. The rights that affect them every day and case studies, can highlight these to them. 

Using case studies of human rights defenders especially, allows young people to see the impact that can be made by individuals. When students understand how to protect and take action over the rights of others then their knowledge of citizenship is far stronger than just knowing what rights they have. 

Active Citizenship

Many people confuse Active Citizenship with what can be described as worthy acts. Paying £1 to wear your own clothes to school or buying a cake to support charities are definitely worthy things to do, but they lack the engagement needed to be true Citizenship action. Active Citizenship should be planned and led by students from the start and have connections to wider issues, often around changing policies or raising awareness. Students should know why they are taking part and what difference they are hoping to achieve. As teachers this means we often have to loosen our grip on their planning and activities but if we do, the results are often amazing. Even if the students do not achieve what was planned, their evaluations and reflections are powerful learning opportunities. A useful resource around active citizenship can be found here: Active Citizenship.

Linking topics

Try to link to the bigger issues when teaching topics, especially the broader political debates. For example, when looking at topics such as homelessness or council services for young people, encourage students to look at the national picture and issues around funding and budgets. It is important that they develop the understanding that decisions are made at a national level that affect local people and which also affects them. Interconnections in the subject are really vital. Students need to understand that democratic society does not start and end at the ballot box on the day of a general election. 

Outside speakers

Make use of outside speakers. There are a range of really excellent organisations that will visit (virtually or in person) your school and work with young people, engaging them in a range of topics. For example, Speakers for Schools, The Parliament Education team, Bank of England, National Justice Museum, The Politics Project, the police,  local councillors, members of the House of Lords and your local MP will all visit classes to discuss topics or provide workshops. In addition, locally you may find other organisations such as Amnesty International who also have local volunteers who engage with young people. Always be sure that the speakers you invite are going to be talking about the subject you have agreed and you are happy and familiar with the material they are delivering. If you feel they may have delivered a one-sided view, remember you have time in your curriculum to offer an alternative to the students.

Be passionate

Enjoy your subject and let students know you are passionate! Students can tell if you really enjoy your subject but with Citizenship if you are a passionate activist, let it show, if it is relevant and connected to the curriculum, share experiences and views let them know why it matters. If you are a young local council member, why does local democracy matter? If you campaign for equality, what do you campaign about? As Paulo Friere said, “I cannot be a teacher without exposing who I am”.

Zoe Baker, Head of Education and CPD, ACT

About the author

“The reason I love Citizenship education and continue to be inspired by the subject is seeing the impact it has on young people. There is nothing greater than awakening the possibility to a young person that they have the chance to change the world.”

Zoe leads on the development and delivery of professional learning, working with a range of agencies and ACT regional Teaching Ambassadors. She works in close partnership with Kirsty, our Head of Resources, to ensure that our teachers have a wealth of material to draw on to support their roles in school. Zoe’s qualifications include a History and Social Science BA hons, PGCE, and Fellowship of Holocaust Education. She also works on the ITT programme at Canterbury Christ Church University, and she has been a teacher in Kent for over 20 years, as well as an ACT teaching advisor. Zoe is also a freelance educator at the Holocaust Educational Trust, working on the Lessons From Auschwitz Project and accompanying survivors into schools to deliver their testimony.

Outside of work Zoe attempts to run, enjoys a ballet class and spoils her cat Dennis who sometimes drops into CPD webinars.