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17 March, 2015

Michael Gove's school reforms are alienating young people from politics, new research suggests

Research by UCL's Institute of Education (IoE), launching today in the House of Commons, suggests the Government's lukewarm attitude to citizenship education and its upheaval of the education system, both fostered by former Education Secretary Michael Gove, could be partly to blame for young people's disaffection for politics.

Eighty per cent of young adults say they have little or no trust in politicians. But Young Adults and Politics Today: disengaged and disaffected or engaged and enraged?, published today, also shows that young adults with lower levels of education are substantially less likely to vote and to be politically engaged than those with university degrees or A levels. 

More, the gap is apparent from a young age and widens as they get older. By age 23, less than a third (31%) of those who left school at 16 definitely plan to vote in future, compared with nearly three-quarters (72%) of young people with degrees. 

Despite this engagement gap, the study shows that all young people get more interested in politics as they get older, with almost 50% surveyed saying that ‘it is every adult's duty to vote in elections’. 

The data showed that students who reported receiving good citizenship education at school were more likely to hold positive attitudes to civic and social participation. They were also more likely to feel they could effect change in their communities and in politics generally. 

Furthermore, young people are more likely to report having had lots of citizenship education if their school provides discrete classes of at least 45 minutes a week, if teachers have a hands-on attitude to lesson planning, and if learning is assessed formally, such as through a GCSE or A level. 

This underlines the importance of strengthening citizenship education throughout schooling, and the need to ensure it is continued in post-16 education and training, say the researchers. 

However, says leading citizenship charity the Citizenship Foundation, citizenship education has been undermined severely in schools since Michael Gove took office in 2010. For a long time, they say, it looked like he would take take it off the curriculum altogether; even when he changed his mind, he never once encouraged teachers to take it seriously.

And even though it remains a national curriculum subject at key stages 3 and 4, more than half of schools are exempt from teaching it anyway because they are free schools or academies.

The signal from Government is that citizenship is not worth teaching, says the charity.This unsupportive climate has, they claim, led to the only A level in citizenship studies being withdrawn by its examining body, AQA, because it is deemed unimportant.

Citizenship Foundation chief executive Andy Thornton said:

'Historically, social classes A and B are 19 per cent more likely to vote than D and E, but here among young adults that gap is twice as wide! Many are worried that schools' preoccupation with academic success now gives a sense of empowerment to the high-fliers, whilst leaving those who don't succeed at school feeling like outsiders. We're worried too. Not only is the current climate for citizenship education poor, it looks like schools are actually contributing to that disenfranchisement.'

Research co-author Professor Andy Green said: 

'The findings of the study show that young people are engaged with the politics of this country. They view wider political issues as relevant to their lives and concerns and are interested in issues affecting their local environment. With the right classroom and political interventions focusing on young people’s concerns we may see a greater increase in political engagement in this country.'

Launched today by LLAKES and the Citizenship Foundation at the House of Commons, Young Adults and Politics Today: disengaged and disaffected or engaged and enraged? by Andy Green, Avril Keating, and Germ Janmaat draws on new data from the latest phase of the Citizenship Education Longitudinal Study (CELS), a long-running study of civic engagement and the role of citizenship education.

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