Youth Electoral Study (YES) - Report 5: Youth, schools and learning about politics

Updated: 17 July 2012

4. Schools and the formal curriculum

The situation in lower secondary schools (Years 9 and 10) is that some democratic and civic education exists, well embedded within broad fields of school subjects such as SOSE and HSIE. In many cases this material is so deeply embedded that students were unable to recall if they had studied civic education. As for electoral education, almost none exists, except in passing when mention is made of electing a government.

In upper secondary years the situation is different. Most states offer a unit of study invariably called Political Studies or more recently, Australian and International Politics. However, as elective subjects they compete with higher prestige subjects which are nominally elective but in reality are almost compulsory, either by the school or from university entrance requirements (e.g. science, mathematics, history or geography). Consequently few students have studied politics subjects at senior secondary level. Subjects offered vary by State, and for example include:

  1. WA – Political and Legal Studies – elective – modest status and modest popularity accordingly. Of around 12 000 studying the TEE, nearly 1 000 sat for Politics and Legal Studies, compared with 2 500 in Economics, 3 000 in Geography as well as History.
  2. Victoria – In 2006 two units exist – International Politics and Political Studies. Neither had been very popular with students. In 2005 out of more than 50 000 students, Political Studies attracted nearly 1 000 students compared with Geography (3 000), Economics (3 000) and History (>6 000, but various forms).
  3. Other states – Queensland – Political Studies (25 students in a trial course); South Australia – Australian and International Politics. No political studies course exists in NSW, the most populous state.
  4. History is a common elective subject but it does NOT address democratic, civic and electoral education. Individual teachers may address some issues but this is unlikely.

Therefore, by the time students leave school, many are able to vote as they have reached 18 years, yet they are seriously under-prepared for that task. In the case of an election held very late in the year, as in the case of 2007, most will vote while still at school or in the year they complete school (many Year 12 students 'leave' school in October). Comments like the following were common.

yeh … I didn't know I could vote at school…didn't cross my mind."
Really? Knew I had to enroll, but somehow voting this year …mmmmm"

Interestingly, international studies (Niemi and Finkel 2006; Torney-Purta et al. 2001) show that students who have studied about the government at school are more likely to be engaged than those who have not studied it. But, the evidence indicates that participatory pedagogy is weak. Instruction is characterized by textbooks, rote learning and non-participatory, non-critical strategies, exacerbated by low levels of teacher preparation in civics related subjects (Niemi and Junn 1998; Hahn 1998; Torney-Purta et al. 2001). Furthermore, a recent Canadian study found that different forms of citizenship education had a positive effect on the knowledge and behavioural patterns of young people (Claes, Stolle, and Hooghe 2007). Similarly, we know that different types of schools have different levels of success in instilling civic values in students (Wolf 2007). However, the first question we want to address is whether the subject in which the Australian political is taught, does make a difference with political engagement, in particular enrolment and voting.