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Each quarter, our peer reviewed journal publishes up to six research- and practice-based articles on Australian youth. Find out more.

YSA September cover (thumbnail)

YSA September cover

September 2009 edition
Feature articles

Civic participation through the curriculum

by Rosalyn Black, Helen Stokes, Malcolm J. Turnbull & Josh Levy

Youth Studies Australia, v.28, n.3, 2009, pp.13-20.

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Young people’s civic participation has positive outcomes for their educational achievement, but is insufficiently supported by formal curricula and pedagogy in Australian schools. The ruMAD? (are you Making a Difference?) program encourages, educates and empowers young people to enact social change within their school and community. A recent evaluation of the program included a case study of two schools – one primary and one secondary – that are using ruMAD? to engage students and drive community change in highly disadvantaged areas of Queensland and Tasmania.

A significant body of literature suggests that young people’s civic participation is associated with social benefits such as greater social capital and stronger community networks. It also suggests that the experience of participation fosters the competencies valued by school systems. These include competencies with implications for young people’s wellbeing, such as resilience, self-esteem, efficacy and connectedness (Bradshaw, Hoelscher & Richardson 2007), and competencies with implications for young people’s ability to successfully navigate the requirements of schooling, such as literacy, analysis, communication, problem-solving and social competency (Edwards, Johnson & McGillicuddy 2003). As one study concludes,

... young people who feel connected, have opportunities to participate in meaningful activities, are included in decision making and feel safe and secure in supportive environments report better health and mental health. As a result they are more likely to be engaged in schooling, family life, positive peer relationships, civic activities, employment and contribute to the shaping and building of better communities (Burns et al. 2008, p.2).

Socioeconomic disadvantage is a significant barrier to this participation. Young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to be engaged in social movements (Spring, Dietz & Grimm 2007). They are less likely to have a strong sense of agency and control over their own lives (Baron 2009), less likely to believe that their actions can make a difference (Benton et al. 2008), less likely to engage in the behaviours that facilitate participation (Brown, Lipsig-Mumme & Zajdow 2003) and more likely to be excluded from opportunities to make key decisions in relation to their lives and learning (Wierenga 2003). Yet, once achieved, civic participation is a powerful vehicle for providing the basis of strategies to address young people’s exclusion (Burns et al. 2008). Participation both within and beyond the school environment is also a key element in ensuring engagement in school (Manefield et al. 2007), without which young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds are at particular risk of lowered achievement and early leaving, which leads in turn to further exclusion (Lamb & Mason 2008).

Strong programs of civics and citizenship education have been delivered in Australian schools since 1997. Recent policy statements such as the Melbourne declaration on educational goals for young Australians (Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) 2008) express an aim for all young people in Australia to be responsible global and local citizens able to work for the common good. Despite these encouraging policy trajectories, research warns that, “civic education programs and participatory experiences where young people have little or no control over the process or outcomes can be counter-productive” (Collin 2008, p.18). The same study shows that young people prefer opportunities for participation that give them an active role and where they can see tangible results. This is borne out by the most recent assessment of the national civics and citizenship curriculum, which found that schools that provide greater opportunities for young people’s active participation show higher average achievement in civics and citizenship education than other schools and that individual students who participate in a greater number of civics-related activities, including activities outside the school, show higher achievement within the curriculum (MCEETYA 2009).

Barriers to participation in schools

Despite their potential for positive outcomes, particularly for young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, curricular and pedagogical approaches that support active student participation have been slow in coming. One of the contributors to this situation may be the tendency of the culture of schooling to construct deficit views of young people. The current culture of schooling in Australia tends to reflect a view of young people as “adults in waiting” (Ridge 2003, p.5), as future rather than present citizens (Willow et al. 2004), as “apprentice citizens” (Owen 1996) or as “non adults” (Wyn 1995) who have “no value except in terms of what they will become” (Holdsworth 2001).

While many schools offer valid vehicles for student voice and decision-making, these structures tend to provide an opportunity for only a small number of students, including those who may already be recognised leaders within the school. As Collin (2008) notes, only four per cent of Australian secondary school students are members of their student representative council. It has been suggested that school systems operate in a way that values some students and their contribution above others (Fielding & Rudduck 2002) and that the most disengaged students are the least likely to be heard (Manefield et al. 2007). The challenge for schools, therefore, is, “to move beyond venerating exceptional young individual leaders to a system that empowers many students to lead change in their schools and communities” (Waters-Lynch 2008, p.71).

The widest definitions of student voice and participation recognise that young people have the power to influence change across a range of domains: in relation to their own learning, within their school and across the community. Yet students – particularly students from marginalised groups such as those from low socioeconomic backgrounds – are still typically perceived as the passive recipients or objects of education and educational reform rather than as active agents for change (Brennan 2000). As Bentley (2002, p.15) notes, “young people themselves are probably the greatest untapped resource in the process of educational transformation”. The question remains whether the strong models of youth participation emerging from domains such as social entrepreneurship can effect a cultural shift within Australian schooling whereby student voice becomes a recognised and integral part of educational decision-making, not just at the local school level, but also at the systemic level.

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