Minister vows boost to civics education, but will it work?

Minister vows boost to civics education, but will it work?

Victoria’s public schools are preparing to overhaul the teaching of civics and citizenship following a student-led campaign aimed at getting young people more engaged in politics.

Last week, the state’s education minister, James Merlino, asked the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) to work with students to improve civics and citizenship education, saying “if we want to get the best out of our students, we need to listen to them.”

The Victorian Student Representative Council – Victoria’s peak student body – has been running a program called “Politics 101”, where students from around Victoria come together to talk about issues affecting their education and brainstorm solutions.

Berwick Lodge Primary School principal, Henry Grossek, welcomed Minister Merlino’s announcement, saying the evidence presented for reform is most compelling with students disclosing a “worrying lack of knowledge about our political processes and even interest”.

However, Grossek told The Educator that the Minister’s instruction “raises several important questions that deserve consideration”.

“Firstly, in calling for the VCAA to ‘work with the state's peak student body, the Victorian Student Representative Council, VICSRC’, precisely what weighting will be given to the students’ input?” Grossek said.

“The last thing that we need would be for students to feel that their participation is little more than tokenism, an occurrence that is not uncommon in the adult world of decision-making.”

Grossek also questioned student input for curriculum change to civics and citizenship education.

“By extension, shouldn't they have input into all areas of the curriculum, for consistency's sake?” he said.

“After all, we hear repeatedly that our student learning outcomes could do with improvement in core subjects. More testing doesn't seem to be doing the trick. Maybe more student input will be the answer.”

Grossek questioned whether the lack of interest by students in Australia’s political system may stem from the feedback they receive from adults, which he said was “almost universal disenchantment with our political parties and players”.

“Clean up your act may well be good advice our students can give to our politicians,” he said.

“Better still, provide them with a more engaging civics and citizenship education curriculum and the hope that they are inspired to be the better politicians in the future.”

Southern Cross University (SCU) researcher David Zyngier told The Educator that current Civics and Citizenship Education (CCE) has caused many students to tune out.

“If we really want to get gets actively engaged in democracy then students should learn about these functions of democracy, the constitution, three levels of government and political parties through active participation in the classroom, the school and the community and not as ‘add-ons’ of student councils and perhaps open classroom dialogue where students play at being democratic,” Zyngier said.

“Schools need to teach CCE through and for democracy. Teaching about democracy is dull and boring to most students. Real active citizenship would be more inclusive of various social movements in society.”

Dr Zyngier said being active in this sense means being “socially engaged and committed to collective problems solving at all levels of the political community”.

“Civics related knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for becoming a competent democratic citizen. Participatory democracy has the potential to become a struggle for social justice and equity,” Dr Zyngier said.

“Producing better curriculum materials will not in itself deliver the results expected or intended".

'More education about political system needed'

John Paul, VicSRC Student Executive member who led the Politics 101 group discussion during out Congress 2019 event, said 'Politics 101' was identified as one of the top priorities for Victorian students.

"A lot of young people go into the voting process blindly and don't know how to vote, but more importantly, they don't know who to vote for and what they're voting for, leading to voting apathy," Paul told The Educator.

"It's clear that we need more education about our political system and how it works in order to make more informed decisions about our future. It is important for young people to be involved in these decisions made because ultimately we're the one's who are affected by these new changes." 

Paul said the VicSRC is all about including young people in these important decisions.

"We exist to enhance young people's capacity to change the world around us to a better future," he said. 

"We have received a lot of support from various stakeholders who are very keen to work with both Ambassadors and Executives from the VicSRC. VicSRC continuously works to make sure that young people are heard and have a say in all of their learning, whether it be small or big."

Paul said members of the Politics 101 action team from Congress 2019 recently met with stakeholders to talk about the current civics and citizenship program. 

In the past, the VicSRC have consistently promoted student voice in the education system, but more recently, the VicSRC has played a major role in the roll out of students on school councils, ensuring that young people's voices are heard in all aspects of education.

"Additionally, we have created the Student Voice Hub, an online platform for students and teachers all across Victoria to talk student voice," Paul said.

"Designed by young people for young people, it is a free and collaborative resource where students and teachers can talk, debate and discuss important issues, what is happening at other schools and best practice of student voice."  

Students talk in forums about successes at their schools in terms of student voice, leadership structures and controversial topics such as the mobile phone ban, Paul added.

"Within the past year, VicSRC has successfully campaigned for a young person to sit on the VCAA board, following the Congress priority 'Transforming VCE', ensuring that young people actually get a say in what we learn."