Citizenship's crucible: too cool for comfort

Who is responsible for developing the civic capacities and political knowledge of our young people? Most people would probably consider it the responsibility of schools to impart relevant citizenship skills and dispositions. Certainly the development of active and informed citizens is a core element of the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians. The Declaration was adopted in 2008 by all state, territory and Commonwealth education ministers meeting as the Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs. The Declaration provides the framework within which education authorities and schools construct their policies, programs and curricula.
According to the Declaration, being an “active and informed citizen” includes, among other things: 
  • acting with moral and ethical integrity
  • having an understanding of Australia’s system of government, history and culture
  • being committed to national values of democracy, equity and justice
  • participating in Australia’s civic life
  • being responsible global and local citizens
The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) recently carried out its third triennial assessment of student performance in Civics and Citizenship. This national assessment, which focuses on students in Year 6 and Year 10, included a questionnaire designed to measure students’ perceptions of citizenship, their attitudes towards a number of civic-related issues, as well as report on their civic engagement. The results are somewhat depressing for anyone who places a high value on the induction of young people into their role as citizens and participants in a democratic political culture.
Nationwide, only 49 per cent of Year 10 students—and only 17 per cent of Year 10 Indigenous students— were at or above the Proficient Standard for Civics and Citizenship. Year 6 students were marginally better, with 52 per cent achieving proficiency and beyond—although only 16 per cent of Year 6 Indigenous students did so. The report described the wide gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous student achievement as ‘an area of significant concern’.

The ACT and NSW were the only jurisdictions where the mean student achievement at Year 10 was above the national average. Nationally, female students out-performed male students in both Year 6 and Year 10.

Students from metropolitan schools had the highest scale scores and those from remote schools had the lowest scale scores. Students from parents with higher occupational and educational status achieved higher scale scores than students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Students with parents who were senior managers or professionals had scores that were significantly higher than those with parents who were recorded as unskilled labourers, office, sales or service staff.

The citizenship behaviours that were rated as the most important by students were:
  • taking part in activities to protect the environment
  • learning about Australia’s history
  • taking part in activities promoting human rights, and
  • participating in activities to benefit the local community.
Citizenship behaviours that were generally viewed as least important by students were:
  • discussing politics and
  • participating in peaceful protests about important issues.
When comparing results across year levels it was apparent that the importance of supporting a political party, discussing politics and participating in peaceful protests about important issues were rated considerably lower among Year 10 than among Year 6 students. When it came to trust in political institutions, 57 per cent of Year 6 students reported trust in political parties compared with 32 per cent of Year 10 students. Both the Australian and state or territory parliaments were trusted by more than two thirds of Year 6 students and only by about half of Year 10 students. This suggests students' decreasing engagement with civic and political institutions and activity as they approach voting age.

The report showed that student participation in school activities is an indicator of civic engagement during adolescence. When it came to obtaining information on political and related issues, only small numbers of students indicated that they had at least weekly talks with family or friends about political or social issues. Weekly newspaper reading was reported by around half the students. There were notably higher percentages among Year 10 than among Year 6 students when reporting weekly use of the internet to obtain news of current events. Few students reported participation in internet-based discussions about political or social issues.

Only about one third of students at both year levels were found to be interested in Australian politics, suggesting that aspects of political debate in Australia do not reach the attention of young people and also that “politics” may have negative connotations for young people in general.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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