Global citizenship education: the needs of teachers and learners

This qualitative research was built on the work of the West Midlands Commission on Global Citizenship, and took place at six primary schools, six secondary schools, thirteen LEAs and three initial teacher training institutions in the area.

The vast majority of students, teachers, teacher educators, teacher trainees and LEA personnel that we interviewed saw global citizenship education as an area of high importance. For teachers this might be predictable, yet it is significant that it is confirmed by the students of all ages and levels. The research in these schools has countered the idea that students are insular or egocentric in outlook, or have little interest in politics. In contrast, they are puzzled by world events, and feel short-changed by schools if these are not given attention in depth.

Curriculum emphases

Students and teachers shared many views on what sort of areas should be in a global citizenship curriculum.

"We don't get opinions from other people around the world, it's just like we get it straight from Tony Blair on TV or some of the teachers they just tell you plain facts without any opinions and how they feel about it"  13 year old student

  • Learning about 'others': Firstly, in different ways, both students and teachers talked about the need or desire to learn about other cultures and religions, although only for the teachers was this need seen to derive from the problem of insularity of some students and communities; for the students it was driven by curiosity. Questions of identity were recognised as important by both students and teachers as needing to be talked about, particularly in order to tackle racism.
  • Global injustice: This leads to the second joint need, to explore and understand the big political issues of injustice and variations in wealth and poverty, as well as environmental degradation. Teachers in particular mentioned preparation for 'participation' as part of global citizenship education. Students wanted more political literacy, in the sense of understanding why things do or do not change as a result of political argument, thus how government actually works.
  • War and conflict: This leads to the third - and in some ways most outstanding need - which was the need to know more about war and conflict. Admittedly, this was in the context of the Iraq war and the continuing and huge media exposure; but it raised the important and continuing issue of learning about current and controversial events generally. Students of all ages and both sexes wanted to understand the reasons for war, for hate, for hypocrisy - and wanted to know about them in the current, real time context, not just in the safe area of history.

Key constraints and gaps

We outline four major problems which have emerged from this research. They confirm but also extend the findings from the DFID [2003] study on teachers' needs.

  1. National Curriculum
    The National Curriculum was seen almost uniformly as an actual or potential barrier to any decent global citizenship programme, both by teachers and pupils. This was in terms of focus [eg National Curriculum being Eurocentric], time, mindset, resources and assessment.

  2. Fear of indoctrination
    Global citizenship education by definition means tackling political issues. Some teachers are constrained by the interpretation of guidance that they should not 'impose' their political views or 'indoctrinate' their students. Interestingly, students very much wanted to know what teachers thought personally about global issues or conflict situations, and were frustrated if teachers refused to tell them. Students indeed did not want to be indoctrinated, but felt they were able to tell the difference between a teacher expressing their own political leanings and actively prescribing those views for others.
  3. Lack of confidence to teach current controversial issues
    This was raised by teachers, teacher trainees and LEA personnel. This issue has been a long-term concern in moral or religious education, but global citizenship education highlights or extends it in a number of ways. There is the linkage of global issues or events to the multicultural composition of the classroom or community, which requires extreme sensitivity.

    There is the fact that much global citizenship education will arise from current events and happenings, which are unpredictable, and for which there is no 'script'. There is the reality that many current global issues are about disaster or conflict and have disturbing images, which means teachers possibly having to deal with a range of emotions from students. There is the perceived need for a strong personal information base about global issues in order to deal with students' questions and challenges.

  4. Fear of agency
    The rhetoric of participation in global citizenship issues was apparent, and this was indeed a reality for some schools. Charitable activity was popular. However, political participation was more problematic. As we saw, there were contradictory positions or policies on students joining demonstrations, with punitive measures sometimes for students who were categorised as truanting or leaving school without permission.

    It is not our job to say that students should or should not be allowed to demonstrate, and we recognise the dilemmas involved; however it would seem that there needs to be a larger policy discussion of where students do make decisions and where students can exercise agency, and that this needs linking into discussions of student rights as well as responsibilities.


However, the study has revealed a number of 'enablers' or prerequisites which can start to tackle the above constraints and can provide a meaningful global citizenship programme in the schools to meet identified needs.

  • Creativity: As we saw in looking at what is happening in curriculum, teachers can and do exhibit a range of creative practices and lateral thinking in order to ensure that global citizenship education does take place. We saw many cross-curricular initiatives, with examples in a range of curriculum subjects from the expected history and geography to the less expected maths and music. Teachers are not necessarily any more indoctrinated by the National Curriculum than are students, and resistance and ingenuity can be alive and well. This does not however detract from the point that other teachers are going to need support and legitimation for such creativity. There should be structured and regular opportunities for teachers to work more creatively, share their work and thoughts with others and debate the complexity of the issues, as part of their continuing professional development.
  • Management: Teachers can work individually, but it is tiring and sometimes thankless. The research confirmed the second obvious point that global citizenship education is better when it is part of a whole school policy and has the backing of an informed headteacher. This then enables a proper curriculum progression, allocation of suitable time and a sense of co-ownership.
  • Resources: A third obvious enabler comprises suitable resources for global citizenship. Comments at this point would relate to the need to network within and across schools or NGOs to find and share resources, so that individual teachers or co-ordinators are not reinventing the wheel every time, nor overwhelmed, ironically, by too much information [or blatant advertising] coming in to the school about possible materials or packs. LEA advisors and NGOs would be highly important here.

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For further details about the research  see CIER web-site: