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Active citizenship and identity in education

Problem statement

Underlining it as one of the key competences for lifelong learning, the European Union defines active citizenship in the context of responsibility and participation in civic and social life, based on the understanding of socio-economic, legal and political structures[1]. The importance of civic engagement is confirmed by the priorities of the new Commission, which stipulate the closely related needs for the strengthened involvement of Europeans in the decision-making process and in protecting the core values of the rule of law, social fairness, equality and tolerance that form European identity[2][3]. However, researchers question the concept of common values, as well as what it means to be an active citizen. Although they agree on the significance of the topic, they note both the obscurity and dubiousness of such notions[4][5].

Implications for education

The growing importance of the link between identity, active citizenship and education is emphasised in the current academic and policy debate at EU level. Notable examples include the 2015 Paris Declaration[6]; Council Recommendations on promoting common values, inclusive education, and the European dimension of teaching[7] as well as on key competences for lifelong learning1. In the light of these, education is seen as a potential catalyst for the development of critical awareness and to encourage more active civic engagement. Promoting common values at all stages of education, making it more inclusive, and encouraging a European dimension in teaching, are seen as core measures for strengthening social cohesion and fighting xenophobia, divisive nationalism and the spread of disinformation. Nevertheless, researchers indicate the problematic nature of both the notion of active citizenship and of common European values – underlining the context-dependent nature of the former5, and the vagueness often used to achieve political balance in terms of the latter[4].


Reflecting on some of these issues, researchers note the role of teachers in the educational process, indicating that practitioners require enhanced training in terms of civic education, including the provision of clear methodological guidance that involves authentic teaching resources and examples of good practice[8]. This issue is connected with the findings of a Eurydice survey (2017)[9] which revealed that while citizenship education is in the spotlight in many European countries, nearly half of them still lack policies linked to the inclusion of citizenship education in initial teacher training. Teachers should therefore be supported and empowered, via measures that create an open and diverse learning environment, to teach civic competences, promote critical thinking, transmit Europe’s shared intercultural heritage, and act as role models for learners.

The development of intercultural, social and civic competences among both teachers and students may also be encouraged by further advocating participation in Europe-wide projects such as Erasmus+ programmes, virtual exchanges, eTwinning, and the promotion of volunteering that enhances interpersonal and collaborative skills. Having emphasised the role of teachers in this context, it is nonetheless necessary to underline that citizenship education can only be effective if it involves all of the interconnected actors, namely: students, teachers, parents, school administrations and external stakeholders (e.g. municipalities, local organisations)[8].