Teaching citizenship helps children to understand rights and responsibilities – their own and others’ – as well as how society works and how they can play an active role. Margaret Collins discusses, suggesting ways in which she believes schools can help to make society a better place

The UN Convention of the rights of the child states that: ‘All children and young people have the right to have a say in the decisions that affect them, to access relevant information and to express their feelings. This statement includes all the children in the world.’

Most primary schools teach citizenship as part of their PSHE (personal, social and health education) program. Lessons in citizenship help children to understand their rights and responsibilities, to understand how society works and to play an active role in society. Education about citizenship also helps children to:

  • recognize their worth as individuals, knowing that they are unique
  • understand that we are all different in many ways
  • see things from other people’s point of view
  • recognize right from wrong and to have the confidence to choose right
  • understand that they have rights and responsibilities
  • understand the democratic process.

This teaching is fine, as far as it goes. However, in the society in which we live today young children need to understand and live with so much more. In our multicultural society it is even more important to include a global strand in the PSHE curriculum. Citizenship, with its emphasis on teaching social and moral values, is important but we need to include a global element when you consider the kinds of discrimination and racial tension seen in the UK as well as in the wider world. Young children need to:

  • recognize and accept that we are a multicultural society where everyone is equal
  • understand that we can all learn from other races and cultures
  • understand that we must help developing countries to realize their potential
  • recognize that they themselves will have a part to play in working towards world peace.

The DfES document Developing a Global Dimension in the School Curriculum states that the school curriculum should: ‘contribute to the development of pupils’ sense of identity through knowledge and understanding of the spiritual, moral, social and cultural heritages of Britain’s diverse society and of the local, national, European, Commonwealth and global dimensions of their lives’.

To do this we should start where the children already are in their understanding of what constitutes a good citizen, their role in the community and their responsibility to promote and enhance racial harmony. Of course, the starting point will vary according to the catchment area of the school. Many schools with diverse populations are already addressing these points incidentally throughout the school day; others, where children are mainly of one culture, are not so able to do this without actual teaching.

It could be easy for children to develop a feeling of superiority towards those in schools in deprived areas in Britain or in developing countries and forget that children in these situations have much to offer our children and our adults; it is important that what we receive from other cultures is not undervalued, we should celebrate their achievements and their way of life.

Developing a Global Dimension in the School Curriculum contains advice on how to implement a global thrust to citizenship with examples of what schools are already doing at different key stages. The eight key concepts are citizenship, sustainable development, social justice, diversity, values and perceptions, interdependence, conflict resolution and human rights.

Let’s start with the youngest children

Young children arrive at school with varied experiences of other cultures. There are, however, four specific areas where teachers can start to help Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1 children to appreciate a sense of national and global awareness: self-esteem, communication skills, empathy and cooperation. Developing skills in these areas can greatly help in working towards global citizenship.

Fountain, (1994, page 3) states that, ‘it is thought that children under seven, who learn through their senses via first-hand experience of their immediate environment, cannot grasp abstract notions about justice, rights, resource distribution and interdependence. Or can they?’ She then goes on to list areas of behavior which she links to global citizenship, stating that young children regularly:

  • call each other names, sometimes gender or race-related (prejudice)
  • exclude others from play for arbitrary reasons (discrimination)
  • argue over materials (resource distribution)
  • protest that rules are ‘not fair’ (human rights)
  • fight (peace and conflict)
  • use consumable materials, sometimes unwisely (environmental awareness)
  • find that by sharing and working together, more can be accomplished (interdependence)
  • negotiate to find a solution to a problem that both parties will find acceptable (perspective consciousness)
  • discover that some adults in school have power in the school to make decisions or that older children may be allowed to do things that younger ones are not (‘state of planet’ – or in this case ‘state of school’ awareness)
  • decide what activities they will take part in; write letters, pick up litter or plant flowers in the school grounds (awareness of human choice and action).

It would be useful and relevant to use everyday incidents such as these, as they occur, and follow them to a global conclusion through discussion, perhaps in circle time. By helping young children to focus on their own behavior and choices and the implications to others in school and home, we can help them to relate these behaviors and choices to their wider community and the world.

Such spontaneous and incidental teaching puts citizenship into a relevant context but it is also important to have regular and structured sessions of teaching in your PSHE program in order to make sure you deliver this vital aspect of education.

Every Child Matters (DfES publication) states that ‘children and young people have told us that five outcomes are key to wellbeing in childhood and later life; being healthy; staying safe; enjoying and achieving; making a positive contribution; and achieving economic wellbeing.’

Under ‘Make a positive contribution’ in the outcomes framework of that document, five specific aims are highlighted:

  • engage in decision making and support the community and environment
  • engage in law-abiding and positive behavior in and out of school
  • develop positive relationships and choose not to bully or discriminate
  • develop self-confidence and successfully deal with significant life changes and challenges
  • develop enterprising behavior.

The Advisory Group on Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools (see www.qca.org.uk/libraryAssets/media/6123_crick_report_1998.pdf), identifies three inter-related components that should run through citizenship education:

1. Social and moral responsibility

Pupils learning – from the very beginning – self-confidence and socially and morally responsible behavior both in and beyond the classroom, towards those in authority and towards each other.

2. Community involvement

Pupils learning about becoming helpfully involved in the life and concerns of their neighborhood and communities, including learning through community involvement and service to the community.

3. Political literacy

Pupils learning about the institutions, problems and practices of our democracy and how to make themselves effective in the life of the nation, locally, regionally and nationally through skills and values as well as knowledge – a concept wider than political knowledge alone.

Children develop skills of enquiry, communication, participation and responsible action through learning about and becoming informed and interested citizens. To achieve this we need to create links between children’s learning in the classroom and what is actually taking place in the school, the community and the wider world.

So how are we going to achieve good teaching in this essential area of the curriculum? You could plan a series of lessons and discussions based on the eight components from Developing a Global Dimension in the School Curriculum. You could then put these components into practical use in your classroom by emphasizing them throughout the day.

Discussion and debate are paramount in learning about global issues. Collins (2007) encompasses this within a framework of sessions for younger and older primary children under six themes: basic needs, environmental issues, fairness, exploring various cultures, democracy and global issues. These are used as starting points for further work with activities and stories to create a platform on which to debate.

Starting points for discussion and debate

Basic needs Ask the children to tell you what they think are the basic needs of all children and make a list of these. Carefully consider what they have told you; are all the words on the list all really ‘needs’ or are some of them ‘wants’? Talk about the difference between needs and wants. Have they included the right to a home, clean water, food and healthcare? Discuss each of the needs on their list and how they are met in this country before talking about children in other countries where these needs may not be met. How do your children feel when they realize this? How will children in other countries feel when they realize that our children (in the main) are benefiting from having their basic needs met?

Environmental issues Start with the immediate area and help the children to explore your school environment; discuss their part in keeping this clean, tidy and beautiful. Take the children out of school to explore their wider, local environment, looking at who keeps this clean and tidy and what their part is in this. Discuss the worldwide environment, using information from local and national newspapers as well as TV and explore what people are doing to damage the planet and what can be done to save it.

Identify plants and animal species that are already extinct and which are at present being allowed to die out. Birds, butterflies and other small mammals are being lost as well as the more exotic species.

Explore how recycling is being encouraged in your area. What do you do about this in school? Discuss what happens to things that are recyclable and what happens to the rest. Do you separate waste materials in your classroom to make recycling easier? Can children encourage their parents to join in? What about litter and graffiti? Discuss what you and they, in a small way, can do to avoid spoiling the world.

Fairness Help the children to focus on the ways you are fair in your school. Do the children think that you always act in a fair way when deciding rules and policy? How do you make sure that you avoid gender discrimination and that you include all children in all activities? Discuss how the roles of male and female have changed over the last 100 years in this country and how there has been little change in some other countries.
Talk about fairness in games, that adhering to the rules is vital and what could happen if players worked to their own rules. Can the children make up some board or word games to play in the classroom that depend on cooperation, perhaps by paired children, rather than single winners? Can they devise playground games such as ‘statues’ where ‘frozen’ children can be released by other players and share these with younger children?

Ask the children what they think is meant by ‘respect’. How do we and they show respect to others? Link their responses to the wider world as well as family and school issues. If you are fortunate to have a rich diversity of cultures in your school capitalize on this and ask for help from families of all cultures. The younger the children are the easier it will be to embrace the richness that we get from so many different cultures.

Exploring various cultures Focus on the rich diversity that we have in Britain and help the children to find out about what we have gained by embracing other cultures. Identify what has been brought to Britain from other countries long ago as well as in more recent times, for example foods. What are their favorite meals and where have these foods come from? Find out about the games that children in other countries play, the toys they have and how in many cases these are similar to those played in this country for many years. Read stories about children who live in other countries – developing as well as developed countries.

Democracy Explore with the children what democracy is and how it works in Britain; discuss which countries are democratic, which have a monarchy, and how other countries are governed. How did the British democratic parliament evolve? Give the children voting experiences in the classroom, explain how the ballot system works and what happened years ago in the UK when only rich and powerful men were allowed to vote.

Global issues Help the children to learn about peace and poverty at home and abroad; where we fit into the general pattern and our part in trying to make the world a better place to live in. Discuss world poverty and child labor using newspaper and TV reports as resources. Organize debates about local or worldwide disasters; could these have been prevented; if so why were they not? Focus on the many positive ways that developed countries help others when there are disasters.

Some schools form links with schools in other countries, many through church or religious contacts. Organizations such as ‘Link’ offer opportunities to do this and to exchange teachers. Contact, even if only at a distance, between children in schools in other countries can only help understanding.

Comenius is a program that targets schools and further education establishments. It is made up of three broad types of activity, all of which provide opportunities for schools and colleges to introduce or strengthen a European dimension in their curriculum.

  • Comenius 1 supports a range of school partnerships that enable pupils, students and staff from across Europe to work together on joint projects.
  • Comenius 2 provides European in-service training for staff involved in school education and opportunities for trainee and intending teachers and the opportunity to develop teaching resources.
  • Comenius 3 supports European networks of organizations involved in Comenius that share expertise and good practice.
    See: www.britishcouncil.org/home/learning/socrates/ socrates-comenius.htm

For other kinds of involvement, visit these websites:

The International School Award (ISA)

Supported and funded by the DfES since 1999, this scheme provides recognition for teachers and schools working to instill a global dimension into the learning experience of children. By December 2005 awards had been granted to 670 successful schools. The school’s international coordinator will be helped to find opportunities for professional development, including study visits, while the whole school is supported as the international dimension is established. See www.globalgateway.org.uk/Default.aspx?page=359

A planned global citizenship education program can give primary children the knowledge, understanding and skills to play an active part in society as informed, empathetic and critical citizens who are socially and morally responsible. It will give young children the confidence and awareness they need in order to act with others, to influence and make a difference in their communities and to realize their potential as adults of the future.

Collins, (2007) Global Citizenship for Young Children London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

Fountain, Susan, (1994) Learning Together, Global Education 4-7, WWF UK (World Wildlife Fund for Nature), Panda House, Weyside Park, Godalming, Surrey GU7 1XR.

Every Child Matters (DfES publication).

The Advisory Group on Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools, see www.qca.org.uk/libraryAssets/media/6123_crick_report_1998.pdf



Margaret Collins is a senior visiting fellow in the School of Education, University of Southampton.