Futurelearning

Political engagement starts at school

If civics education is too important to be left to chance, New Zealand shouldn't leave curriculum decisions up to individual schools, writes Victoria University's Mike Taylor

In the general election, two notable occurrences presented mixed evidence about the state of young people’s civic engagement.

First, and focusing on a positive particular, is the rise of Chlöe Swarbrick, who enters Parliament as seventh on the Green Party list. Swarbrick is 23 years old and has emerged on the national stage after making a significant impact in attracting the youth vote via social media in last year’s Auckland mayoral election. Her campaigning and media appearances suggest an engaged, articulate, values-led young person with a vision for Aotearoa New Zealand.

Second, and focusing on a negative universal, is the continued challenge of getting young people to engage with national politics. Although data from the Electoral Commission will not be available for a couple of weeks, the results of the election do not suggest a significant upturn in young people voting, much less a ‘Youthquake’.  

Swarbrick argues that one way to tackle low youth turnout is by improving civics education in schools.

Civics education has existed in the New Zealand school curriculum for many years. For example, it is expected that primary school children “understand how groups make and implement rules and laws” as well as “understand how people make decisions about access to and use of resources”. Meanwhile, secondary school students in Years 9–10 “will understand how systems of government in New Zealand operate and affect people’s lives and how they compare with another system”.  

Inbound Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick (centre) says improved civics education could improve NZ's youth voter turnout. Photo: Tim Murphy

While these objectives fly under the banner of ‘social studies’ rather than ‘civics education’, their intent to develop the knowledge, skills and commitments of political literacy is transparent.

But these curriculum statements notwithstanding, the policy context of high autonomy for individual schools means there is little desire to ensure all students in all schools receive an agreed civics education entitlement. Curriculum decisions are left to individual schools.

While the Electoral Commission and Parliamentary Education Services have excellent resources available for teachers, primary school social studies is at risk of being squeezed by an emphasis on literacy and numeracy. In a curriculum stocktake report of 2003, well before the advent of National Standards, a primary school principal said “parents are more concerned about core curriculum subjects such as reading, writing, mathematics … social studies is merely a vehicle to help promote this”. Despite the notion of a broad and balanced curriculum, some curriculum areas are seen as more equal than others.  

The problem, then, is not that civics education does not exist, but that young people may be subject to the idiosyncratic curriculum decisions that can prosper in a devolved education system.

In my many visits to secondary schools, where timetable structures are typically subject-focused and social studies is often a ‘core subject’ at Years 9–10, I have noticed very different approaches to local curriculum-making during this election period.  

In one secondary school, students connected the policies and statements of the 2017 political parties and their candidates to overarching political ideologies. This involved closely examining arguments connected to issues that dominated the campaign, such as economic growth, taxation, poverty and dirty rivers. Students appreciated that party policy was sometimes coherent, while at other times there were ideological tensions. They reported being able to follow debates in the media and join in discussions at home.

In another school, I saw students create their own political party and try to woo their classmates to vote for them. The party theme was typically frivolous, including design of a party symbol, a party song, with a few soundbites of what they would do if they were elected. Teachers indicated that this hypothetical approach was an attempt to avoid controversy and mollify parents who wanted to keep politics out of the classroom.

Both these approaches to civics education were responding to the perceived need of their community, yet far more substantive political engagement was evident in one than the other. I have little doubt which approach is likely to be most successful in ensuring young people grapple with political ideas and in encouraging civic participation. That participation is an important outcome of social studies teaching, and often requires students to engage with society’s contested thinking. This is the heart of democratic education.

The problem, then, is not that civics education does not exist, but that young people may be subject to the idiosyncratic curriculum decisions that can prosper in a devolved education system. If civics education is too important to be left to chance, perhaps it is time to formulate a universal curriculum core.

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