But citizenship classes may boost civic awareness and help them catch up with international peers. Julie Henry reports
ENGLISH teenagers are less likely to be flag-waving patriots and have a proper understanding of democracy than many of their international peers, most of whom have citizenship education.
A study published this week of 90,000 14-year-olds in 28 countries has confirmed that most young people do not think that politics are important.
Political apathy was particularly pronounced in England where the teaching of citizenship from next year is seen by the Government as a way of stimulating pupils' interest.
Four-fifths of students questioned in the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement study did not intend to join a political party.
English teenagers knew less than pupils of many other nationalities about how government works. However, they were more able to interpret political messages in election leaflets or cartoons.
Teenagers of all nationalities were moderately trusting of government institutions, courts and the police but political parties were held in low esteem.
English students (of both sexes) expressed particular support for women's rights but were less well disposed towards immigrats.
Students were open to the idea of doing "good works". Nearly 60 per cent said they expected to collect for a charity and just under half said they would go on a protest march.
David Kerr, principal research fellow with the National Foundation for Educational Research, which carried out the English study, said that schools needed to tap into the elements of citizenship that engaged young people.
"Citizenship education in schools, in partnership with communities, can encourage young people to switch on to political and civic life.
"Schools with strong elements of democratic practices, such as student councils and classroom discussion, produce active citizens."
Teachers questioned in the study accepted the importance of citizenship but there was conflict between the vision and the practice. Teachers wanted to emphasise critical thinking and values, but citizenship classes involved teaching facts through textbooks.
The report coincides with the on-going debate over how best to teach citizenship from September 2002.
Schools minister Jacqui Smith said: "It is encouraging to see that schools with student councils and classroom discussion produce active citizens."
For details of how to obtain the report go to www.nfer.ac.uk