Home | In The Classroom | “Bewildered by the ballot box”: should civics be taught in schools?
AEC staff count votes at a vote counting centre on October 14, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia.

“Bewildered by the ballot box”: should civics be taught in schools?

AEC (Australian Electoral Commission) data from the October Voice to Parliament referendum shows a record number of people registered to vote; however, many felt they didn't know enough to make an informed 'yes' or 'no' decision.

As of July 2023, the AEC estimates 90.3 per cent of 18-25 year olds are enrolled to vote, up from 84.5 per cent in June 2021; although these numbers include enrolled 16-17 year olds who cannot vote until they are 18.

Education Review spoke to Dr Claire Golledge, a lecturer in education at the University of Sydney and Human Society and its Environment (HSIE) curriculum coordinator, about how and when civics is taught in schools. Dr Golledge said that teaching civics (how the Australian government operates and how its laws affect our lives) to any age is tricky.

She explained there can be issues teaching primary and high school students how to vote, because that knowledge is "use it or lose it".

"One of the challenges we face with electoral education is that we don't do it very frequently; every few years between state and federal elections and, obviously incredibly rarely, in referendums," she said.

"It's pretty typical for people of all ages to need to be reminded of the key details, and that's where I'd say ... making sure in the lead up to elections there's really good public education campaigns [is important].

"It's not just young people that feel bewildered by the ballot box."

Although there is interest in expanding civics content in curriculums, the humanities space is so tightly packed, there isn't much room for movement.

"We would really welcome a focus on voting and electoral education, but at the expense of what other learning?" she asked.

Curriculums are developing documents, and they can change depending on how different teachers interpret and implement them, and can also be revised when education authorities formally update them.

"Curriculum choice is really, really important. It's not possible to write a curriculum that works in every school in every context," she said.

"And [NSW] already has a really full and prescriptive curriculum, so the answer is not to be more prescriptive." She added that it's not the role of schools to develop political identity, and there is little room in the curriculum for more coursework about it

Dr Golledge said in the NSW curriculum, students are taught political history, which "requires students to get a sense of our political spectrum", but there is not one prescriptive subject that can grow students' political identities and teach them to decide where they sit on that spectrum.

"Students should be finishing school with a broad understanding of the history of Australian political parties and where they came from, and some of the really significant political moments in Australian history," she said.

"That helps inform a sense of political identity, but developing [that sense] isn't something that happens in one lesson, or one classroom.

"That's a really holistic experience that [teachers] hope students are getting through formal education, but also through their connection in communities and involvement in their local area, because different things are going to matter to different students."

Overall, Dr Golledge said, we all have a responsibility in our democracy to be active in politics and support each other through that learning experience.

"We live in a whole society. Not everything is the responsibility of schools," she said.

Former teacher and chair of education at the University of Sydney Dr Murray Print said students would benefit from a stand-alone class focused on civics, instead of spreading the learning throughout history and commerce classes.

He said the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration called for active citizens who make "informed decisions based on evidence", which could be delivered through civics as a curriculum priority in schools.

"In a democracy you want active, informed citizens," he said.

"Life experience is obviously going to be a factor later on, but [currently, students] have nothing to base it on.

"That's why we teach literacy and numeracy, we don't wait until people pick it up later in their life, we need those basic skills throughout primary and secondary school."

Dr Print said there is an issue with civics learning being present only in small, spread out units throughout younger years, and non-compulsory electives in senior years.

However, he acknowledged it would almost impossible to teach politics in school without touching on party values or staying completely nonpartisan.

"Almost all of [civics units that are currently taught] try to avoid any semblance of partisan politics in the course," he said.

"It's inevitable [the teacher] will talk about party politics, because political parties have dominated politics in Australia for over 100 years."

Dr Print said curricula are so densely packed, its authority bodies have to 'fight' over which subjects are important enough to make the cut.

"Some argue there should be two compulsory subjects in the [final exams], one would be called English and the other would be called Civics and Citizenship; because everyone is going to be a citizen, so they need to understand what that means," he explained.

"If children don't learn about it, how are they expected to become democratic citizens?"

He said questions like 'why didn't the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory count in the overall referendum vote?' arose among young voters, and why Australia has strict such voting rules with relatively little education about voting or its government.

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