Trust must be rebuilt in the young

22nd April 2005 at 01:00
Few politicians, as May 5 draws nearer, are taking the long view of citizenship education and its importance, writes David Kerr

As election day looms, so the focus of politicians and the media remains on how the public will vote. Not surprisingly, there is little interest in the longer term, in young people in schools - the voters of the future. They are cast as bystanders - detached and uninterested.

But what is the truth? Where do pupils stand in terms of their trust in politicians and the media, their intentions to vote and knowledge of political processes?

It is these and other questions that the citizenship education longitudinal study, conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research, is seeking to answer. It is almost three years since citizenship was introduced as a new statutory subject in secondary schools to increase students' "political literacy" - their knowledge, interest and active engagement with political and public life. But how has it fared? The latest report from the study affords important and timely insights into young people's attitudes to and experiences of citizenship in their schools and communities.

Listening to young people: citizenship education in England is based on a survey of 6,400 12 to 18-year-olds in 238 schools. The findings spotlight a generation of pupils who are anything but uninterested in the political process - who are interested at all levels; who make regular use of the media, both old and new; who say they will vote, and who are increasingly aware of citizenship education.

However, they also highlight a generation struggling to find meaningful ways to engage with the political process on their own terms in their schools and communities and, as a result, who lack trust in those who are involved in and report on politics. Perhaps most striking is the low levels of trust in politicians (fewer than one in five students does so) and of political institutions, notably the European Union (trusted by just under a quarter).

This, coupled with a lack of interest in politics and in conventional forms of political participation, raises some awkward questions for the parties in Westminster and in local government. More than two-thirds said they were not interested in politics, while 72 per cent said they did not support any political party.

There was real interest in voting, however, with 48 per cent of 13-year-olds saying they would vote in a general election, rising to 78 per cent of 17-year-olds.

If conventional politics fails to enthuse many students, the survey reveals high levels of engagement with the media. More than two-thirds of 17-year-olds read national and local papers, while over four-fifths watch television news. Use of new media is higher still, with more than three-quarters of 13-year-olds - rising to virtually all (91 per cent) of 17-year-olds - using the internet. Despite this, faith in the media is lacking, with just under half saying they trust television and only 14 per cent trusting newspapers.

The survey reveals important findings about students' knowledge and understanding of citizenship. Between 2002, when the subject became compulsory, and 2004, students' scores in citizenship knowledge actually fell, while they reported being taught relatively little about parliament, government and the EU. They tend to define citizenship as more about rights and responsibilities, identity and belonging, than about formal political processes such as voting and elections.

While there is now greater awareness of citizenship education - with more than two-thirds of students reporting being taught it - there are only moderate opportunities for active student participation through discussion, debate and use of new technologies. Mostly, the subject is taught using traditional teaching and learning approaches. School councils are now commonplace (nine in 10 of the schools surveyed have them) but schools report themselves only "moderately democratic" in terms of opportunities for student participation.

Engagement with citizenship is influenced by students' personal, family and community circumstances. There is also a clear relationship between home literacy resources and children's feelings of empowerment and levels of trust, engagement, community attachment and commitment to participation.

Together, these findings provide a health warning about the future of democracy in Britain and a wake-up call for action if citizenship is to succeed in raising students' interest in and active engagement with the political process. They highlight the need for the next government, in tandem with schools and the media, to ensure that more is done about citizenship:

In society:

* to improve home literacy resources;

* to give access to new media;

* to listen to and engage with young people on their own terms in communities;

* to increase levels of trust and engagement in the political system.

In schools:

* to teach more about the political process - voting and political institutions;

* to raise students' political knowledge;

* to provide more active teaching and learning approaches in citizenship;

* to involve students as active partners in running their schools.

In the media:

* to listen to and involve young people;

* to build their trust in newspapers, radio and television;

* to recognise the power and influence of new media, particularly the internet;

* to treat young people and their views on issues with respect.

This might not make headlines and guarantee votes on May 5, but it might be the only guarantee of ensuring future motivated, engaged voters. Come the next election, don't say you weren't warned.

book of the week, friday magazine David Kerr is principal research officer at the National Foundation for Educational Research and director of the citizenship education longitudinal study. The latest report is available at:

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