Citizenship education could slip into indoctrination without critical, independent thought and personal judgment, Lachie McCallum, HMI, told heads.
The broad-based Scottish approach that avoided the set lessons south of the border was attracting interest in other European countries. It was a topic of high relevance to politicians and decision-makers from Norway to the Balkans who were drawn to the Scottish strategy of "thoughtful educational pragmatism".
Mr McCallum said that Scotland had two almost unique features: the focus on the development of critical thinking and values and the emphasis on cultural participation. This went much further than ensuring that young people were encouraged to vote.
The Scottish approach was not a civics lesson but a means to encourage young people to analyse and react critically.
"It does not happen by accident," Mr McCallum said. "It takes encouragement and practice. Schools have to consider very carefully just how they do that and whether the curriculum structure they are offering actually provides that sort of experience for all pupils." The approach involved the curriculum, classroom experience, school climate and engagement with the community.
Young people had rights and responsibilities that were fundamental to the process of education. "The atmosphere and ethos of the school is therefore vital in allowing young people to feel involved and to want to be involved in the life of the school. It is not just a matter of ensuring everyone has the chance to do work experience or community involvement.
"The school itself is a community in which the attributes of active citizenship can be developed. If pupils feel excluded, if no one listens to their views - on the school or on the issues of the day - they are being patronised and sold short."
He believed that the focus on culture, the arts, creativity and enterprise set Scotland apart.
"Young people should feel that they can contribute and be able to express themselves orally through writing, poetry, drama and debate; visually through art and design; musically; and in physical education and sport; and in so many other ways," he said.