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Why Australia needs to get serious about civics education


Why Australia needs to get serious about civics education

Civics education has long been crucial for teaching young people about democracy and citizenship, yet this subject is being bizarrely neglected in Australian schools. What’s more, experts say this worrying oversight puts the future of Australia’s democratic values at risk.

Data from the National Assessment Program – Civics and Citizenship shows that in 2019 just 38% of Year 10 students and 53% of Year 6 students achieved the ‘proficient’ standard. Yet, surveys show the current generation are more politically and socially aware than perhaps any before it.

So, why is civics education on the decline?

To find out, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters held the first public hearing for its inquiry into civics education, engagement, and participation in Australia on Thursday 23 May 2024.

The Committee will not only investigate how civics forms part of the Australian curriculum, but will also examine the importance of media literacy, and listening to the voices of young people about how best to improve civics education.

Stewart Riddle is Professor of Curriculum and Pedagogy the University of Southern Queensland’s School of Education. His research examines the democratisation of schooling systems, increasing access and equity in education and how schooling can respond to critical social issues in complex contemporary times.

Professor Riddle says the problem isn’t so much civics education in terms of the curriculum, as there is plenty of civics education curriculum available to schools. He says the issue is how schools prioritise and engage with civics education within a crowded curriculum.

“In many schools, this is driven by the NAPLAN effect of focusing on basic literacy and numeracy to the exclusion of other things, including the arts and civics education,” Professor Riddle told The Educator.

“I also don’t think the headline percentages of students at or above the proficient standard nationally is particularly useful.”

Professor Riddle says if one looks closely at the data, there is a much more interesting set of things playing out.

“For example, students who participate in school-based governance [e.g., student council], volunteering or civic action, had much higher levels of achievement on the NAP-CC,” he said.

“Similarly, students who talk about political and social issues at home or with their friends also performed really well.”

Professor Riddle says this constitutes a real-life effect, where the level of engagement in civic life beyond the classroom has a powerful effect on young people’s understandings and attitudes towards civics and citizenship.

“Another consideration is that poor performance on NAP-CC correlates strongly with well-known factors of educational disadvantage, including geographic location, Indigeneity and other socioeconomic factors,” he said.

“Basically, students who go to well-resourced metropolitan schools with high-SES populations, do better on NAP-CC [the same as NAPLAN] compared to students who go to regional, rural and remote schools with more complex factors of disadvantage at play within the community.”

A problem that goes ‘well beyond the school gates’

So, what should be done? And how likely is it that the new inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters will improve the state of civics education in Australia moving forward?

Professor Riddle says while he expects the committee will recommend a greater emphasis on civics education in Australian schools, the problem is much bigger than addressing this subject in the curriculum and requires acknowledging issues that transcend school education.

“The problem stems from the broader inequities in Australian schooling, which affects the access, resourcing and capacity for schools to meaningfully connect all young Australians to civics education, regardless of their location or background,” he said.

“I hope that the inquiry does help to bring about change, but for it to be engaged and sustained change, will need to acknowledge that the problems with civics education go well beyond the school gates.”

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