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

Updated: 18 July 2012

11. The Informal and the Hidden Curriculum

The informal curriculum is recognized as including those learning experiences not part of formal school subjects and which are characterized by low status and low perceived value. Many areas of the informal curriculum, such as volunteering, participation in clubs and raising funds for charities, have long been undervalued or ignored as sources for building student civic and political engagement. Our study has found that students do not value these experiences highly largely because the school does not value them. Furthermore, most aspects of student government, for most students, are inconsequential for the same reasons. The most common student comment in relation to student government was that the results were 'rigged' by teachers and not to be taken seriously. Furthermore students had little influence over important decisions, their opinions were not valued and student government had negligible power, unlike some Scandinavian countries (Print et al. 2002).

Yet, more than twenty years ago Beck and Jennings (1982) found in the United States that extra curricular activities (or the informal curriculum as we know it) are better predictors of adult political participation than attendance at civics classes. Similarly, international research has found that participation in both student government and school interest groups, such as clubs, is strongly related to adult engagement in political and civic life as voters, members of voluntary associations and as contributors to the common good (Youniss et al. 1997). In large measure this contention is supported by the research studies of Verba, Schlozman and Brady (1995) as well as Putnum (2000). As Patrick (1999) argues

Participation in democratically run student organizations, and especially in student government activities, provides opportunities to practice the habits and skills of democracy." (p 53)

Previous research has also found that participation in student government is positively related to later adult political behaviour. Verba and his colleagues (Verba et al. 1995) argued that institutions in which individuals have an opportunity to practice democratic governance are 'schools of democracy'. In their study of over 2000 American adults, having participated in student government while in high school was the most important school variable in predicting adult political activity, stronger even that taking a civics course (1995, p 424).

11.1 Student Government

We included a number of questions about student government in our questionnaire. We asked both about voting and about standing for office in various types of student government, such as the student representative council or a school parliament. We combined these to form two variables, namely whether the student had ever voted or stood for office in a school. Our figures show that 81.2 per cent of the students had voted, and 54.1 per cent had run for office, in a school election.

The important question is whether participation in student government is related to a higher level of political participation.

First of all, let us look at the students 17 years old or older, and ask whether having participated in school elections is related to enrolling. These figures are given in Figure 14.

The relationship between standing for office and voting in school elections, with having registered by those students 17 and older

Figure 14 indicates that there is a small but significant effect of participation in student government and registering for the electoral roll while in high school. The Pearson correlation coefficients for "having stood for office", and "voting in school elections", with enrolment is .07 and .04 respectively. These correlations are small. It is clear that other mechanisms for getting young people on the electoral roll at 17 years might be more effective than participating in student elections while at school.

Is participation in school elections related to the intention to vote? In YES Report 2 we already briefly examined this question and concluded that it did (See Saha, Print, and Edwards 2005, Figure 10). Here we want to examine the effects of student government on potential voting more thoroughly. Figure 15 presents the same school election variables, but related to the commitment to vote. Although the pattern looks the same as in Figure 14, the relationship between the school election variables and commitment to vote is stronger. The Pearson correlation coefficients are .16 and .17, for voting and standing for office respectively.

The relationship between standing for office and voting in school elections, with intention to vote

The data in Figure 15 indicate that for those students who have stood for office, 65 per cent say they will vote when 18, compared to 48 per cent who have not stood for office. Similarly, for those who have voted in school elections, 60 per cent say they will vote when 18 compared to 40 per cent who have not voted in a school election.

These data make it clear that participating in school elections have a beneficial positive effect on both electoral enrolment behaviour and the voting intentions of secondary school students. The relationship with enrolment behaviour is weaker than the relationship with voting intentions. But the pattern is very clear, school elections are strongly related to voting related behaviour, which is consistent with the findings reported by Verba and his colleagues, using retrospective data on a sample of American adults (1995).

Summary:

  1. Around 81 per cent, or four-out-of-five, of our student sample said that they had voted in a school election at some time in their school career. A little more than half (54.1 per cent) said they had run for office in a school election at some time in their school career.
  2. Having participated in school elections is positively related to both enrolment and the intention to vote.
  3. Students who had run for office were more likely to both enrol and intend to vote, and students who had voted were more likely to both enrol and intend to vote.
  4. For students who are 17 years old, the relationship between voting and standing for office are much more strongly related to intention to vote than for actually having enrolled at the time of the survey.