Promises of tax cuts and increased spending attracted a huge amount of media attention in the run-up to the General Election. So it seems only sensible that young people should know how to take an informed and critical view of such matters.
The key stage 4 study programme for citizenship education asks us to teach "how the economy functions". But a survey of just over 1,000 Year 10 and Year 12 students, carried out by the Centre for Economics and Business Education at Staffordshire University, underlines how ambitious this goal is.
Most Year 12, as well as Year 10, students have rather odd and mistaken beliefs about taxation and government spending. Just over a third of them believed that the Government had to spend the same amount of money that it raises in taxes and that it is not allowed to borrow. Nearly three-quarters agreed that "everybody should pay less tax" even though 90 per cent felt that the "Government should spend more money to provide better services for all".
Only a minority of students knew that the Government did not provide their electricity (33 per cent) or water (25 per cent). Nearly three-quarters believed that they paid no tax, apparently unawar of taxation levied on their spending. They were most likely to cite petrol tax and road tax as sources of government revenue, probably reflecting the impact of the fuel protests last autumn, as the questionnaires were completed in December and January. However, more than three-quarters of students believed that everyone would be better off if the Government were to reduce tax on fuel.
Year 12 students did appear to be slightly better informed than those in Year 10, but the level of misunderstanding remained high. Even Year 12 students, with an average GCSE grade for English, maths and science of A or A*, were more likely than not to believe that the Government provided some electricity and water. This group of students also appeared to be no more informed than others about taxation. It might be, of course, that young people shed this misunderstanding once they leave school, but it does seem that many approach voting age unable to interpret political debate on tax and spending. The task of imparting this knowledge may take a substantial slice of the time allotted to citizenship education in KS4.
Peter Davies is director of the Centre for Economics and Business Education, Staffordshire University. Contact: p.i.davies@ staffs.ac.uk