The importance of education for the development of youth into active participatory citizens is widely accepted (Saha 2000). However, in a democratic society this process is not straightforward, nor is it without problems, largely because schools are not democratic institutions (Tse 2000). Many factors can account for how young people acquire knowledge and learn about participating in their democracy, including the usual list of important socialization agents – parents, media, siblings, peer groups, more recently the internet and of course, the school. This report explores what the YES research found in terms of the ways schools influence student political engagement. While political engagement is a complex construct composed of multiple variables, one key measure of engagement and participation, often regarded as the minimal level, is voting.
The assumption is made that voting is important for sustaining democracies. Voting in an election is an important contribution to maintaining the principle of popular sovereignty, a cornerstone of representative democracy. It is also the legitimate manner by which citizens can change their government. Of the various forms of political engagement, voting has a special role as it is the only form of political participation in which each citizen has an equal voice. While in principle the right to vote is a great equalizer of political influence, in practice it is only shared by those who make the effort to exercise that right. Furthermore voting in an election provides legitimacy for the elected government and for the democratic system as a whole.
Even in a country like Australia, where voting is compulsory, these concerns are relevant. First, not all eligible Australians actually do vote, and second, debates about the withdrawal of compulsory voting need to keep these concerns in mind.
Nie, Junn and Stehlik-Barry (1996) noted a strong positive relationship between formal educational attainment (measured in years of completed schooling) and political behaviour, cognition and attitudes:
Well-educated citizens display substantially greater levels of understanding of the principles of democratic government, have a much better ability to identify incumbent local and national leaders, … pay much closer attention to political life… More likely to participate in political life, including those difficult activities of contacting public officials, working on political campaigns, serving on local boards… are also more likely to vote in both local and presidential elections than their less educated counterparts (1996, p 31)
Much learning of political engagement is incidental, idiosyncratic and frequently superficial. Niemi and Junn (1998) acknowledged that even students in the later years of school developed most of their knowledge of government and politics from parents, friends, the media and even through direct contacts with government agencies. "Indeed, political scientists have largely ignored the high school civics curriculum, having concluded that efforts to teach civic knowledge in the schools are largely redundant and therefore ineffectual." (1998, p 62). It is in this context that we have written the present report. What did we find in terms of school influences on Australian students?