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Room for improvement in civic education

Media release 5 minute read

There is much more Australian students can learn about civic and citizenship education which will assist them in their adult life to participate actively in the nation’s democratic process, according to a report released today by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) and the University of Canberra.

The report also found that schools have an important role in ensuring that civic education is a rich and engaging experience for students.

Citizenship and Democracy: Students’ Knowledge and Beliefs, Australian Fourteen Year Olds and the IEA Civic Education Study, interprets the Australian data collected during the IEA Civic Education Study which was released internationally in March 2001. A total of 28 countries (including United States, England and Switzerland) and 90,000 students took part.

In Australia, the Commonwealth Government contracted ACER and the University of Canberra to work on the Australian component of the study, in which approximately 3,300 Year 9 students and 350 teachers from 142 government, Catholic and independent schools participated in the national study. Testing took place between September and November 1999 in three areas considered the knowledge base of civic education: democracy/citizenship; national identity/international relations; and, social cohesion/diversity.

The Executive Director of ACER, Professor Geoff Masters, said the release of the detailed Australian data from this study will be a valuable resource for policy makers and teachers in planning future directions for civic and citizenship education.

"The study provides an excellent indication of what young Australians understand as citizens, what are their skills and attitudes, and how they feel about civic issues," Professor Masters said.

Australian students performed similarly to the international average in the study. They showed a substantially greater success with interpretative skills items than they did with knowledge items. The study also found that participation in a school council and the more books students reported in the home the better they performed on the civic knowledge test. On average, female students were more positive than males in their levels of support for civic attitudes and in measures of engagement.

Highlights of the Australian report were:

Australian Students’ Civic Knowledge

  • Only half of the Australian students have a grasp of the essential pre-conditions for a properly working democracy. The Civic Knowledge items with which Australian students had the greatest difficulty were those asking about the forms and purposes of democracy.
  • Australian students do not have a strong grasp of the impact of economic issues in the functioning of a democratic system, i.e., the role of trade unions in a modern economy, the key characteristics of a market economy.
  • Television news is the preferred source of information for 80% of Australian students, though about two-thirds of them also read about what is happening in this country and internationally in newspapers, and 62% listen to the news on the radio.

Australian Students’ Civic Engagement

  • Australian student scores revealed a low level of support for civic engagement, compared to their international peers.
  • Australian students believe a good citizen votes and shows respect for government representatives. But they regard knowing the country’s history and following political issues in the press are relatively unimportant.
  • 80 per cent of Australian students believe in the importance of a good citizen participating in "activities to benefit people in the community". Three quarters think taking part in protecting the environment is important and two thirds support the importance of promoting human rights. Just over 50 per cent think it is important to participate in peaceful protest against a law they believe to be unjust.
  • The overwhelming majority of Australian students do not intend, when adults, to participate in conventional political activities, other than voting.

Australian Students’ Civic Attitudes, and other Concepts

  • 89 per cent of Australian students agree that immigrants should have the right to equal educational opportunity and 77 per cent agree that immigrants should have the right to maintain their customs.
  • Four in five Australian students are "very sure" they do not want to live anywhere else, and believe Australia should be proud of what it has achieved. The Australian flag is "not important" to a quarter of them.
  • Between two thirds and three quarters of Australian students trusted the police and the courts. Two thirds of Australian students trusted local government. The least trust was afforded to political parties.
  • 90 per cent of Australian students agreed "women should get equal pay" and "should have the same rights as men in every way". This was among the strongest support of all countries.
  • 55 per cent of Australian students said they learnt in school about the "importance of voting in national elections".

Australian Teacher and School Approaches to Civic Education

  • Although only a quarter of the teachers surveyed had initial training in civic education, almost three quarters of them have since undertaken professional development.
  • Teachers acknowledge weaknesses in their capacity to teach civic education indicating that explicit training and curriculum materials are needed to support learning in these areas.
  • 98 per cent of the teachers thought that "teaching civic education makes a difference for students’ political and civic development" and that "it matters a great deal for our country". They believe "schools have had a very important role in developing student attitudes and opinions".

Professor Masters said that while Australian students have indicated they already know a good deal about their democracy, there is room for improvement and a need emphasise the worthwhile benefits of democratic engagement.

"The future of Australia democracy belongs to our young people. It is important we enhance their understanding and commitment to civic education, and support practices of social inclusion and the development of a real sense of community," Professor Masters said.

Mellor, S., Kennedy, K. & Greenwood, L. Citizenship and Democracy: Students’ Knowledge and Beliefs, Australian Fourteen Year Olds and the IEA Civic Education Study. ACER: Melbourne.

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