History and Citizenship

Please note: this guide was written before the 2014 National Curriculum and some of the advice may no longer be relevant.
For more up-to-date guidance see:

History is an irreplaceable resource for critically examining the human condition and the ways in which societies work. Through history, you can lead children to understand why people act as they do, and to appreciate and respect those who lived in the different, foreign country of the past. As such, history makes a crucial contribution to citizenship education, in that it can help pupils to understand and respect our common humanity and diversity, and can provide the conceptual means to make sense of their lives.

History provides the imaginative teacher with many opportunities for fostering citizenship. The skills, concepts and processes involved in learning history can help to develop thoughtful, principled and confident citizens

Citizenship opportunities
Good history teaching will offer many opportunities for young children to start developing the knowledge, understandings, attitudes and values essential for citizenship.

Specifically, learning history can result in children developing a sense of:

  • identity - through developing knowledge and understanding of self and others and their place in the community
  • security - through understanding change over time
  • tolerance - through a respect for, and acceptance of, difference
  • discrimination/judgement - through developing a critical attitude to opinion and a respect for evidence.
    (With thanks to Peter MacNamara).

Medium and message
Teachers have a powerful role in ensuring that all children feel included, that they feel that they, their beliefs and their culture, are respected. Such respect is a crucial component of their development as people and as citizens. In other words, telling children what democratic citizenship is will not help produce good citizens on its own.

The teaching must be underpinned by democratic principles, that is, an ethos based on the principles of respect for pupils, of their autonomy and of justice.

The most powerful learning combines experience (doing) with cognitive challenge that encourages children actively to question, to speculate, to debate and to listen (thinking), within a secure, safe and fair environment. Within such an ethos citizenship values can be practised.

Societies different from their own
Children will be much better helped to develop as citizens with a respect for diversity, and tolerance for others' attitudes and beliefs, if they are also encouraged to understand and respect societies different from their own in time as well as place. Such understanding needs to be from the perspective of those past people (that is, understanding from the inside) as well as from our perspective now.

Key moral concepts
At primary school, what are the key moral concepts that children need to grasp in order to develop into good citizens? They need:

  • to understand that 'different' does not mean 'inferior'
  • to appreciate that we are all worthy of being valued
  • an understanding that we have shared human needs.

In the Ancient Greeks case study, we addressed these concepts.



Ancient Greek Government
Sumerian mystery
Gunpowder plot (KS1)

Case Study

Citizenship in Ancient Greece

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