Disadvantaged pupils miss out on political activities and in-class debates

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There is a class divide when it comes to young people’s access to political activities in schools, such as student councils and mock elections.

Research from the University of Roehampton and the UCL Institute of Education warns that students from disadvantaged homes are much less likely to take part in such activities – leading to political disengagement in later life.

Disadvantaged students also feel less able to contribute to open-minded class discussions than their richer peers, the research warns.

The research investigates the part schools play in varying levels of political engagement in the wider population and has been published in a book – Education, Democracy and Inequality: Political engagement and citizenship education in Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).

Researchers Professor Bryony Hoskins and Dr Jan German Janmaat say that, internationally, the disadvantaged and the least educated feel “alienated, powerless and distrustful of mainstream politics” and that this is fuelling the rise of populist campaigns, such as Brexit and Donald Trump. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in England, they add.

The research draws upon survey results from more than 3,000 secondary pupils in England. While there are no significant differences in terms of access to citizenship education (on the national curriculum since 2002), the research finds that access to political activities and an open climate for class debate does vary by pupil background.

For example, 62 per cent of children who said they had more than 200 books at home had voted in student council elections. This figure drops to 30 per cent among those with fewer than 10 books. And while six per cent of children whose parents had left school at 16 had taken part in mock elections in the past year, this figure rises to 12 per cent among those whose parents had degrees.

The research says that political activities in school and an open classroom climate are strongly associated with students saying they are likely to vote, to join a political party or to engage in a legal political protest.

Part of the reason behind the problem, the research suggests, is that schools serving disadvantaged communities focus on the basics like literacy and numeracy, with democratic education confined to separate citizenship classes.

The research puts forward a number of solutions, including making political activities at school compulsory, encouraging less advantaged pupils to stand for positions in school councils, increasing the provision of school-based political activities in schools serving disadvantaged communities and making citizenship education compulsory for all students until the age of 18.


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