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

Updated: 17 July 2012

6. The study of Australian Government and voting intentions

The important question regarding the link between schools and whether or not students studied about government is whether it made any difference regarding future political behavioural intentions. In Figure 3 we see that students who could remember studying about the government, and also could remember the name of the subject and the year in which they took it, are slightly more likely to say that they will vote at 18, even if they did not have to.

The difference in voting intention between those who have and have not studied about government seems small, only a little more than 10 per cent, but this difference is statistically significant and therefore could not have occurred by chance. The study of government does make a difference for students' commitment to voting when they turn 18.

Does the study of government affect the intention to vote?

Although it is comforting to know that the study of "civics", in whatever form, does make a difference in voting intention, a more relevant question is whether the timing of the study of the government makes a difference. Would the schools be more effective in promoting political engagement among students, especially voting, if they taught about the Australian government in Years 11 or 12, closer to the time that the students will actually have to vote?

In actual fact, we found very little difference between the grade level in which the students studied about the government, and their intention to vote. We found no correlation between the grade level of the study of government and intention to vote; the main significant correlation is between those who studied government and those who did not, the correlation (Pearson r) being 0.14.

Thus the main issue regarding the study of government seems to be whether the students studied it, not when the students studied it, at least in terms of intention to vote.

However, the one final question concerns the students' interest in the subject. We saw in Figure 2 that there is considerable variation in the level of interest that students reported regarding their government subject. To what extent does interest in government affect the extent to which students are committed to voting? These data are found in Figure 4.

Interest in the Government subject and intention to vote

Clearly, the figures in Figure 4 show that the more interesting the study of government is to the student, the more likely the student is committed to voting. The Pearson correlation between interest in the "government" subject and commitment to vote is r = .30, which is reasonably strong.

We further found that when the grade level of taking a government course is included in a regression equation, with interest and whether the student takes such a subject, the level of interest is by far the most important. The relative importance of these three variables is shown in Figure 5, which displays the standardized regression coefficients for each variable.

relative importance of study variables on commitment to vote

R2 = .09
** p > .000
*  p > .01

In this simple model, it is clear that having taken a government subject, and being interested in government study are important in the student's commitment to voting in the future. Whether the student studied government in primary school, or any of the high school grade levels, is not related to commitment to vote. Finally, because the figures represent standard units, they are comparable. Therefore it is possible that being interested in the government course is four times more important than whether the student took such a subject. Clearly the implication in these figures is that it is more important to teach about the government in an engaging manner, than to teach it at all. However, the figure also indicates that simply teaching about the government, interesting or not, is still beneficial.