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

Updated: 17 July 2012

5. Who, when, and in what subjects do Australian students study about The Government?

We know that there is a lack of uniformity in the Australian educational system in the study of the government. Therefore we wanted to identify when and in what subjects the students studied about it. In the YES survey we asked students to give us information on up to five subjects in which they studied about the Australian government, and we asked them to give the years in which they studied it.

We found that 81.3 per cent answered regarding the 1st subject, 38.2 per cent gave a 2nd subject, 13.3 per cent named a 3rd subject, five per cent a 4th subject, and only 2.5 percent gave names for a 5th subject. However, we found that only 2996, or 61 per cent of all students, could give us the name of both the subject and the year in which they studied about the Australian government.

Figure 1 presents the per cent of the students in each year in which they said they studied about the Australian government. For convenience, we have grouped students in primary school into one category.

Figure 1: percentage of students in each grade they studied about the Australian government

Of the students who had studied about government, almost 60 per cent said they studied the subject in Year 9 or Year 10. Only 7 per cent said they studied the subject in Year 12, and 15.8 per cent in Year 11, which are the grade levels in which most secondary school students become 17 or 18 years old, and during which they become old enough to enrol.

It is generally argued that Years 9 or 10 are the ideal grade levels in which to study about the government because most students are still in school, given the age of compulsory schooling. Because the average retention rate to Year 12 in Australia is around 75 per cent, this argument has some merit.

Students gave the names of many subjects in which they studied about the government. In fact there were over 330 names of subjects written by the students when asked in which subject they studied about the government. However, it is obvious that the names for subjects vary considerably, for example History or Social Studies. When we combined the names of those subjects into more traditional discipline or subjects, we found that the following subjects is where the students say they learned about the Australian government.

Table 2: Subject Areas in which students said they studied about the Australian Government, ranked in terms of frequency (N=3883)
Subject % (N)
SOSE and Social Studies 28.0 (1089)
History 23.5 (913)
Legal Studies 12.5 (485)
Economics and Commerce 11.5 (445)
Australian Studies 07.5 (291)
English 05.3 (207)
Civics and Politics 04.1 (161)
Geography 02.9 (113)
Other (VET, Work Studies, Religion, etc.)* 02.3 (89)
Other (Don't Remember/Uncodable) 02.3 (90)

* There were 1040 students who did not answer this question.

From Table 2, it is clear that most students who could recall studying about the government, and could name the subject, did so in Social Studies and History courses. What is interesting, however, is the wide variety of subjects in which the political system is taught. When combined with the data in Figure 1, it is clear that the study of the Australian government or the political system generally, is not very uniform across the country.

How interesting is the study of the Australian Government? We asked this question, and the results are given in Figure 2.

How interesting is the study of government

The student responses clearly indicate that students do not perceive the study of Australian government to be interesting. Only 22 per cent say they found the study of government interesting, while 45 per cent find it not interesting, with 32.7 per cent saying that they are neutral. These figures are consistent with comments that we frequently heard in our group interviews.

In Frenchtown High School, for example, a student said, "I didn't remember anything – it was pretty boring". This type of statement was also mentioned by a student at Greenhill College. Another student, for example a student at Wickham College, said that he thought that learning about politics "would be wasted" on most students because they were not interested anyway. At Sancta Sophia College, a student remarked that many "hated" the subject and that it made the respondent "angry".

Occasionally we received positive views about the study of government. For example one student at St. Margaret's College said that "it cleared things up for me", and it helped her understand about voting.

In one "Independent" school, we were told that students took "civics" because it was an easy subject: "Civics was the one subject if you weren't smart …if you wanted the easy way out…not as many exams…no assignments and one exam." Also, we heard a student from Dampier High School say "…we didn't study Australia much at all anyway…I think that I come out of high school knowing more about the United States and how it works".

Overall, the group interviews suggested that the study of civics and the Australian government left a fairly vague impression with them. In the survey, we found that a few (2.3 per cent) could not remember having taken the subject, presumably because they had studied it several years beforehand (see Table 2).

Nevertheless, 60 per cent of our survey students were able to say when they studied about the government, and could name the subject in which it occurred. The next question we want to explore is whether the study about the government made a difference regarding the political engagement of these young people.

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