All secondary school pupils should be required to take part in political activities to counteract the disengagement of disadvantaged communities from the democratic process, academics have said.
Researchers found that while compulsory citizenship classes help even out socioeconomic differences in political engagement, voluntary political activities within school widen them, as children from better-off families are more likely to take them up.
They called for activities such as debates, the student council and mock elections to be made compulsory for all secondary school pupils.
The research, by Bryony Hoskins of the University of Roehampton and Jan Germen Janmaat of UCL Institute of Education (IOE), is being presented at a conference held by the IOE-based LLAKES Research Centre (Centre for Learning and Life Chances) today and tomorrow.
They analysed the responses of 6,155 young people who were asked about their involvement with activities in school which could help them become engaged with the political process.
They found that there were no significant differences in access to citizenship education by socioeconomic background.
However, both the voluntary “political activities” and “classroom climate” categories were significantly related to pupil backgrounds, with those from more disadvantaged homes being less likely to participate in the former, and less likely to report an open climate for debate under the latter heading.
“Disadvantaged youth…have significantly less access to these highly important ways of learning political engagement compared to their more advantaged peers,” the study concludes.
On the question of participation in “political activities” within school, it said: “One reason for different levels of access to political activities in school is that these opportunities are likely to be voluntary.
“For example, participating in debates or student councils may be a choice and be influenced by an individual’s existing levels of political efficacy, political skills and interest.
“These qualities could already be higher amongst students from more privileged social backgrounds.”
The study says there is, therefore, “clearly a case for making political activities at school compulsory for all students, across all classes and all schools”.
The study also recommends making citizenship education compulsory to the age of 18, now that all young people have to be in some form of education or training to this age.