A lesson in citizenship: can it restore trust in politicians?

As the General Election draws closer the big question is: what will the turnout be? The views of first time voters could be a game changer for all parties but will young people vote? Distrust of politicians amongst the young is on the increase. So how can they become engaged with politics in the UK? Andrew Thornton of The Citizenship Foundation discusses the latest evidence from the Citizenship Education Longitudinal Study.

Photo credit: UK Parliament

Do today’s young people start to distrust politicians as they get older, or do they happen to have grown up in an era where distrust is rocketing? This new research from the LLAKES Research team at the UCL Institute of Education indicates that the growth of distrust from 51% at age 12 to 83% at age 23 is indicative of one or the other.

Citizenship 1

Source: CELS Waves 1-6 (2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2014)

If it is the latter, then we have to ask what will be the long-term effect of the growth of distrust in politicians in an era of increasing democratic complexity? The turn-off could be cataclysmic.

Similarly worrying: what is the remedy for this disconnection? In 2002 citizenship education was introduced as the universal offering to bring each emerging generation into a sound understanding of the world around them. The belief was that a world that empowers them as equal members of a democratically regulated community should equip them for it when at school.

This cohort-based research was initiated at that time and has gathered data from 2003 to 2014. It has followed through a generation of young people as they enter secondary school and now are in adulthood. The sample size is large and the trends are now noticeable.

Will young people vote?

Quite hearteningly the research suggests that distrust in politicians, often seen in this Russell Brand-watching social media era, does not equate to a universal turn off from politics. In fact some have recognised the need to galvanise against the rise of populism and use their vote just to keep out the extremists. This is demonstrated through the qualitative aspect of the study:

“Just because I’m apathetic doesn’t mean that other people are… and, well, I still think [voting is] important. I think it’s important to have your input because otherwise I don’t think you should complain about the government if you haven’t had an input through your own vote”.

In this new adult cohort (ages 22 – 26) 50% say they are likely and 25% quite likely to vote in the coming election. This might show a begrudging realism that even though politics is contaminated and non-trustworthy, it’s the best we’ve got: but by whom? The answer lies within these results. It is most likely those who have gone through higher education. In fact, if you did go on to higher education you are more than twice as likely to plan to vote in the next election.


Source: CELS, Waves 1, 3, 5, 6


Helpfully the research looks a little further into the trends of democratic awakening during adolescence. It shows that interest in politics also correlates to academic success. In other words if you perceive yourself to be en route to further academic study, then you become three times more likely to be interested in politics by the age of 23:


Source: CELS, Waves 1, 3, 5, 6

This is a worrying trend as it might indicate that only those who feel themselves to be doing well in ‘the system’ (academically) are more likely to take ownership of the system (democratically) as they reach adulthood.

This correlates with a growing back lash towards this ‘academisation’ of schools lately. See The Good Teacher research into character published last week, suggesting that the increased emphasis on academic success (where schools affirm and celebrate most those likely to stay longest in the educational setting) appears to give a sense of empowerment to the academic achievers, whilst leaving those who don’t succeed at school feeling like outsiders.

Although it ever was the case that those in social classes A&B are much more likely to vote (76% AB vs 57% DE), it’s hard not see this as becoming worse with the years. That 76% v 57% differential is quite small compared to 72% v 31% voting intention revealed in this new research among young adults.

It is similarly hard not to scream about the current climate for citizenship education: there is so much to redress when it looks like an emerging generation of lower educational achievers is further on the outside of social inclusion, and that schools themselves are actually contributing to that disenfranchisement.

The role of citizenship education

What the Citizenship Educational Longitudinal Study (CELS) has shown over the years is how good quality citizenship education is effective in increasing the desire for civic engagement, but good quality citizenship education has been systematically eroded over the last five years by a government with negligible commitment to it.

“discrete Citizenship classes of 45 minutes or more per week, if teachers have a hands-on role in planning their lessons, and if their learning is formally assessed (e.g. through a GCSE examination) and provided regularly and consistently throughout their school experiences.”

For teachers in academic schools the elements of the curriculum that support the social development of young people are increasingly seen as faddish: citizenship being introduced in 2002 but now subsumed into more recent hobbyhorses from state ministers like British values and character education.

This research shows, if anything, that such consistent education for social enfranchisement is necessary now in order to address the possible turn off from political engagement by those less likely to succeed academically.

But current ideologically driven trends in education have systematically worked not just against citizenship education but against civic participation in general.

It is as if young people should have a reason to distrust politicians…

Further information

Young Adults and Politics Today: disengaged and disaffected or engaged and enraged?, Keating, A., Green, A. and Janmaat, J.G. (2015) The latest findings from the Citizenship Education Longitudinal Study (CELS). LLAKES Research Brief. UCL Institute of Education.

Evidence from the CELS is being presented at an event tonight  (March 17, 2015) at the House of Commons, where the latest patterns of political engagement among young people will be discussed.