Youth Electoral Study (YES) - Report 2: Youth, Political Engagement and Voting

Updated: 20 January 2011

5.The Students Speak Out About School Elections in Group Interviews

Discussions about school elections were directly addressed in the group interviews. Most (but not all) schools that participated in our group interviews seemed to have had some form of student officers for a student association. There were a number of titles or names for the student associations, but ultimately the function was the same.

Student elections seem to be conducted in many different ways in schools. The Australian Electoral Commission, through its electoral divisions, will come into a school upon request and will conduct the school election in a formal (and educational) manner. But we do not know how frequently the AEC is called in. For the most part, it seems that teachers oversee elections in most schools.

We mentioned in the previous section (Section 3.4, Figure 10) that democratic practices in schools, especially school elections and student governments, have been considered "hands on" opportunities for learning about democracy and voting (Verba et al., 1995). It is practices such as these which, according to de Tocqueville, can make academic schools into "schools of democracy" (cited in Verba et al., p. 425).

We found that schools varied widely in the practice of student elections. For some schools, student elections involved all students, and the students held them in high regard. However, in other schools the students regarded them with indifference, but at the same time saw them as fair. But not all schools held student elections, even though the students seemed to be favourably disposed toward them. This variety of student experiences with student elections is presented in Exhibit 4.

Exhibit 4: The Positive Side of School Elections* (From the YES Group Interviews)

At Mallory College, students participated in elections for the Student Representative Council. All students were required to participate in these elections.

One female student felt that "…the fact that everyone had equal input is good. I think people appreciate that and think that it is fair."

This 'fairness' caused by equality of input was generally seen as important with many chiming in with agreement to this comment.

Despite this, there was a general feeling that teachers manipulated the elections and prevented certain students from getting elected.

At Holy Cross College, students were neutral towards the idea of elections, expressing neither excitement nor negativity. Although they said that these elections were a bit of a popularity contest they were also seen as reasonable and fair.

At The Lakes High School there were no school elections, and all but one student expressed the view that they would like elections. Involvement on the student representative body was voluntary.

* The names of the schools are pseudonyms.

Unfortunately our group interview students had many disparaging things to say about elections in their schools. Their disenchantment was multi-faceted, but generally focused on lack of effectiveness. Some school experiences related through the group interviews are found in Exhibit 5.

Exhibit 5: The Negative Side of School Elections* (From the YES Group Interviews)

In many cases (Grania High School, Pinehill High School and Wickham High School, for example) school elections were described as a "popularity contest".

At Grania High School a participant complained that "our representatives do nothing". At this school, representatives had tried to change the school uniform to no avail. Students commented that "the teachers run the school".

At Wickham College one student who had been on the SRC complained that the student representatives "never really got to do anything".

* The names of the schools are pseudonyms.

Students are quick to recognise when practices such as school elections are genuine or not. The sentiment which came through comments about school elections in the group interviews was often one of cynicism. However, as we have found in Figure 10, participation in these elections does have a positive relationship with the intention to vote as an adult.

The link between school elections and government elections was only sometimes expressed by students, as is apparent in Exhibit 6.

Exhibit 6: School Elections and the Link with Government Elections * (From the YES Group Interviews)

At Grania High School, a female student made a direct connection between school elections and elections more broadly. She was the only student to draw this direct link. Most students saw student elections as a "school thing".

However the student expressed the view that (with regard to elections more broadly) "in the end it is the people who you vote for who make the decisions" just like the way that teachers and school captains "got the final say" at school.

* The name of the school is a pseudonym.

If school elections are to help make "schools of democracy", then they must be run in a democratic manner. Research has shown that political knowledge alone is insufficient in learning about democracy and active citizenship. The experience of democracy is considered by some to be far more important. (See Youniss and colleagues (2002).) Unfortunately, many students in our group interviews did not believe that their school elections were "democratic".

Some of this sentiment is found in Exhibit 7.

Exhibit 7: School Elections and Democracy * (From the YES Group Interviews)

At St Jude's College, students thought it was mainly due to teachers' influence who would be elected, since the teachers' votes outnumbered the students', and unpopular candidates, from the teachers' point of view, were often vetoed anyway.

Describing the elections, Louis said: "I see it as just a waste of time". Aaron said: "why give us the vote if it is not going to count anyway".

Students at Trenton College expressed concern that the voting process was not very democratic. Unease was expressed regarding the lack of a secret ballot. Miranda, Debbie and Dara complained that "the teachers watched us voting".

* The names of the schools and students are pseudonyms.

Insofar as schools do have student governments of one form or another, and they have elections to determine which students hold office in those governments, then the failure to hold proper democratic elections, and the failure to treat the student governments seriously, represents a serious missed opportunity. Given that the experience of democracy can be a more important agent of political learning than the academic knowledge about democracy, suggests that some practices in some schools at least, may be undermining efforts to effectively produce active and participatory adult citizens.

In this respect, student elections in school, and participation in student governments, can be seen as part of the informal and possibly the hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum, according to Gordon (1997), "…refers to learning outcomes that are either unintended …or if intended, are not openly acknowledged to the learners" (p. 484). The hidden curriculum is not part of the manifest curriculum, but as Gordon states, under certain circumstances the hidden curriculum can be more effective and more powerful than the manifest curriculum. Print (1993) has pointed out that the hidden curriculum can be seen as positive or negative, but which is which "depends on one's point of view" (p. 11).

The manner that teachers allow students to conduct an election for the SRC, or the function of the SRC itself, can generate positive or negative views by students of democracy, and by extrapolation, of the way government elections are conducted and how the government functions in adult civil life. Thus the predispositions that school students acquire about their adult lives as citizens, might in part be related to their experiences of citizenship and democracy in schools. Where the opportunities for democratic experience in schools are undermined, the ensuing student cynicism and disenchantment may remain into adulthood and be related to adult participation in politics and elections, including the processes of enrolment and voting

Key Points:

  1. At least in some schools, there is considerable cynicism by students about the effectiveness of student elections and student governments.
  2. Students do not seem to see the link between student elections and student government, and what goes on in adult political life. On the basis of what we know from research, this experiential side of student life might be more important than the academic side in producing adult active citizens.
  3. In some schools at least, school elections are not perceived to be democratic, and student governments are not taken seriously.