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UKCES Masterclass: Does education do enough to make young people vote?

In our latest guest blog, Dr Jan Germen Janmaat, reader in Comparative Social Science at University College London Institute of Education, discusses the key points from his latest UKCES Masterclass on the influence of educational pathways on active citizenship.

You can watch the session in full on our Youtube channel, and find more information on past and future UKCES Masterclass’ on our website.


Britain has the dubious reputation of topping the league table on the generation gap in voting. In no other western country is the difference between old and young people so large, according to data from the 2012 European Social Survey. While no more than 43% of the 18-24 year olds voted in this year’s general elections, the turnout among pensioners was almost twice as high (78%).

Obviously this is not good news for democracy. Politicians will not be inclined to pay much attention to the interests of young people as there are few votes to win among these groups. Consequently, government policy will become slanted in favour of older generations and other influential groups in society. This, in turn, might discourage the young from casting their vote still further.

Have young people’s low voting rates not alarmed politicians in Britain? Yes they have. In fact concern about declining political participation among youngsters prompted the then Labour government to introduce citizenship education (CE) in schools and make it a statutory subject in lower secondary education (ages 11-16) in 2002. This has been a step in the right direction as there is evidence that CE indeed helps in raising political engagement and in diminishing inequalities in engagement.

But the problem is that it ends at age 16. When the Coalition government decided to extend the period of compulsory education stepwise to age 18 it forgot to take CE along. This is disappointing. We know from previous research that young people start taking up an interest in political matters in their late teens . So that is the time they are most receptive to input on political issues and thus the phase when CE is likely to be most effective.

The Coaliton government launched a new initiative in November 2014 to prevent radicalisation and cultivate democratic engagement: Fundamental British Values (FBVs). FBVs according to the government include democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and tolerance. Although you can debate the choice of values – equality is missing for instance – promoting the values and dispositions that underpin democracy is a good thing. Yet, again the government seems to ignore the post sixteen group as FBVs are intended to be promoted as part of Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development (SMSC), which only schools are required to provide, not further education and sixth form colleges.

Are other subjects perhaps standing in for CE in upper secondary? No, not really, and certainly not if you compare English 16-19 education to that of other European countries. The vocational courses offered in further education colleges focus on job-specific skills and disregard wider civic dispositions. Due to the extreme specialisation in A-levels, with many students not taking more than three subjects, the situation is little better in the academic track. If you do, let’s say, English, Maths and Chemistry as A-levels you won’t have much opportunity to learn about and discuss socio-political issues. Only if you take social studies, history or general studies will you be exposed to a curriculum that is relevant for fostering political participation.

My own research also shows that the gap across tracks in political engagement only widens in England during late adolescence, with students in the vocational track showing much lower levels of engagement than those in the academic track. This is more than likely due to the complete lack of curriculum input that could enhance engagement levels in the vocational track. So aside from not promoting overall levels of engagement, the upper secondary system in England also only exacerbates the participation gap. While education should play a compensatory role for the students in the vocational track it actually does the opposite.

The situation is quite different in other countries. Not only do students who take the academic track do exams in many more subjects, those who enter vocational tracks are usually exposed to a broad curriculum that includes CE or social studies. This, for instance, is the case in Germany. In addition to doing apprenticeships, which is quite institutionalised and receives a lot of praise outside Germany, students in the vocational track spend time in the Berufsschule where they take a range of general courses.

Critics might argue that we don’t need extra citizenship education as young people are not disengaged. They simply prefer other ways of participating in politics, such as partaking in demonstrations, petitions, or online campaigns etc, which they find more adventurous, more sociable and less formal than voting. Russell Brand even calls on young people to stop voting altogether, saying it only encourages “the money grabbing … [censored].” .

Yet it would be naïve to think that young people can influence politicians to the same degree in these alternative ways. The number of people engaging in these forms of participation is still very small by comparison to those voting in elections, and British governments tend not to be very responsive to demonstrations and the like (unlike the French government!). Moreover, there is the risk that young people become so detached from conventional parliamentary politics that they no longer care about democracy as such. We already see a steady decline among young people in the United States in their support for democracy as system of government, to the point where they express almost as much support for some authoritarian alternative.

This is a scenario we most definitely want to avoid. So let’s introduce citizenship education for the 16-19 year olds in all tracks and make sure young people see the value of casting their vote.


The UKCES Masterclass sessions are run in partnership with the Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies (LLAKES). Each session is hosted by a guest speaker - a specialist in their chosen field - and offers an in depth discussion on the latest research, ideas and talking points on a particular topic

This post gives the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of UKCES or Commissioners.

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