Citizenship: FE must play its part in bridging political inequalities

Citizenship education in FE could help bridge political inequalities that grow when girls and working-class students reach 16, explains Jan Germen Janmaat

Citizenship education in FE could help bridge political inequalities that grow when girls and working-class students reach 16, explains Jan Germen Janmaat

16 Jan 2023, 5:00

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Citizenship education plays an important role in fostering the competences and qualities that young people need in order to participate effectively in a democratic society. Extant research shows that it can promote political knowledge, skills and engagement both through the formal curriculum and through open discussions of political and social issues in class. Moreover, citizenship education also helps to reduce inequalities in political outcomes, with studies from different contexts showing that it is associated with smaller social gaps in political knowledge, political interest and voting intentions. These studies found that children from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit more from citizenship education than children from middle-class families.

Given these advantages, one would expect citizenship education to feature prominently in current discussions around the reform of vocational education and training (VET). However, it is conspicuously absent in the government’s white paper on post-16 technical and vocational education and training, which exclusively focuses on advanced technical skills.

This is a missed opportunity, all the more so as our current system of technical and vocational education does not offer any general courses such as citizenship education. As a rule, only practical, job-related subjects and training are provided.

Compared to other European countries, further education is highly specialised in England, meaning that not only students on vocational pathways but also many of those sitting A levels do not study any courses that prepare for democratic citizenship, such as citizenship education, history or social studies. By contrast, in France students in upper secondary vocational education also take ‘enseignement moral et civique’, history and geography.

This lack of citizenship education in post-16 VET may well explain why there is a marked difference in political engagement between those taking the academic pathway and those studying for a vocational qualification, as demonstrated by various recent studies. Taking family background and pre-16 levels of political engagement into account, A level students have significantly higher levels of voting and participation in demonstrations than students in VET.

A recently published report based on research funded by the Nuffield Foundation found that the branching out of post-16 education into academic and vocational pathways indeed had this inequality-fuelling effect. More specifically, it found that students doing A levels were not only more politically interested at age 16 (i.e. before this branching out) but also that their political interest rose significantly faster than that of students going for a VET qualification after the age of 16.

The report could not assess whether this was due to a lack of citizenship education in VET. But as students in VET are more often from disadvantaged backgrounds and tend to be less politically engaged to begin with, it isn’t a huge leap to suggest that the absence of citizenship from VET curriculums may well be amplifying pre-existing inequalities in political engagement.

The same report also found a marked genderdifference in the development of political interest between ages 16 and 30: while men already had a higher level of political interest at age 16, their level increased more than that of women after age 16, resulting in a much greater gender gap at age 30.  Looking more specifically at what might explain this divergence, it found that women with vocational qualifications were the only group that experienced a decline in political interest between ages 16 and 30. This suggests that tailor-made forms of citizenship education could be particularly effective in promoting political engagement in vocational pathways among girls, such as those focusing on care, hospitality or beauty.

There are strong indications that the pronounced specialisation in the English further education system, as exemplified by the absence of citizenship education, exacerbates inequalities in political engagement. We would need an international longitudinal survey of young people devoted to civic attitudes and citizenship education to draw a more definite conclusions, but there is no reason not to act now.

Whether or not the absence is driving class and gender inequalities, some provision will doubtless have a positive impact on closing the gap. Providers and reformers alike should care deeply about doing so.  

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