Citizenship lessons are not good enough in a quarter of secondaries, with some schools barely teaching the subject, Ofsted said in a report published this week.
Despite recent improvements, most citizenship teachers remain non-specialists and many are unclear about the standards they should expect from pupils, according to inspectors.
Only a minority of schools have embraced the subject with enthusiasm since it became part of the national curriculum in 2002 and some are either opposed to its inclusion or are waiting for it to go away.
Schools which believe their religious ethos or the positive demeanour of their pupils means they are meeting citizenship requirements "have missed the point that national curriculum citizenship is now a subject that is taught, learned, assessed and practised", inspectors said.
The report is the last to be published by Ofsted before Christine Gilbert takes over as chief inspector next week. Ms Gilbert is chief executive of the borough of Tower Hamlets in east London.
Ofsted found the best citizenship lessons were in schools with strong leaders and specialist teachers, and those that offered pupils a short GCSE in the subject.
It called on the Government to increase the number of training places for citizenship teachers and to introduce a full GCSE and post-16 courses in the subject as soon as possible.
Miriam Rosen, Ofsted director of education, said: "Citizenship is still seen as the poor relation of more established subjects but it requires teachers to be highly skilled and able to deal with contentious and sometimes difficult issues.
"Urgent attention is needed to make sure it is a central part of the school curriculum and ethos.
"We have seen enough good practice to know that citizenship education can be successful.
"This good practice needs to be replicated more widely. It is important that lessons learned over the last four years lead to improvement."
Royton and Crompton school in Oldham was praised in the Ofsted report for entering all Year 10 pupils for the short GCSE course. Pupils are taught about subjects such as fair trade and refugee awareness and Parliament.
During the last topic, pupils ran their own election campaign.
Helen Lloyd-Higham, an assistant head at Royton and Crompton, said: "We believe that citizenship should permeate all aspects of the school, including the culture, the community and the curriculum. We believe there is a strong link between being a good citizen and being a good learner, consequently having an impact on attainment and future possible life chances."
But the school, which sends Year 7s on residential teamwork exercises and teaches citizenship as a separate subject for all year groups, is in a minority.
The report said: "Despite the very positive example of Royton and Crompton school, relatively few schools have provided time for citizenship as a subject in its own right. The majority of schools laced a core of citizenship within personal, social and health education and, although in almost half of the schools this was adequate, in others the time allowed was too limited and the distinctions between citizenship and PSHE were unacceptably blurred." Ofsted cited examples of schools where lessons on friendship and relationships were citizenship as well as PSHE because they were about conflict resolution.
Inspectors said these schools failed to meet the national curriculum requirement that this part of citizenship should include the role of bodies such as the United Nations, national governments and pressure groups.
Towards consensus? Citizenship in secondary schools is available from www.ofsted.gov.uk