As a society, as educational systems; one of the core values we need to talk about right now is Civics and Citizenship. We observe democracies like ours under threat from populism. We read about rights, responsibilities, and power imbalances; and we observe the impacts of ignoring our health, environmental and political experts. In all of this noise, I worry that our young people don’t have the knowledge they need to listen wisely. I worry that our next generation cannot think critically about political issues that affect the fabric of our communities. I want to have confidence that our young people are able to develop critically-informed opinions on these issues. For the future of our democracy, I need to know they are equipped.
In 2019 we saw a decline in the results for year 10 students in the achievement in the National Assessment Program – Civics and Citizenship. The National Assessment Program in Civics and Citizenship, introduced in 2004, measures student competencies in the area of civics and citizenship. In the last 15 years, an average of only 52% of students tested are at a competent standard. In 2019 only 38% of year 10 students were proficient. This cohort will celebrate their 18th birthdays this year and will join the electoral roll. I am concerned that we have not prepared them to engage fully in our democratic processes.
Given that these young adults will soon join us in the voting queues; how confident are we that they are making a values-based decision. Are they able to decipher the sources of the political information they view online? When we have a proliferation of resources and lies spilling out all over the internet, are they equipped to untangle the information, and demonstrate accurate, factual content?
Students must learn about our democracy, and democratic values, well before they hit the voting age. As we have seen in other parts of the world, uninformed citizens are easily influenced when they cannot fully grasp the democratic process. Seeds of doubt are sewn in contaminated, uneducated soil. None of us want to see this trend continue. But, as it stands, I cannot be confident that our young adults are competent to recognise key functions and features of parliament, understand reasons for restrictions to free speech, or justify the importance of elections in a democracy. Most young people enrolling to vote cannot explain how governments can change laws. They can’t recognise that respecting the right of others to hold differing opinions is a democratic principle.
To be an active and informed citizen means to act with moral and ethical integrity, appreciate Australia’s social, cultural, linguistic and religious diversity, be committed to democracy, equity and justice, be responsible global and local citizens, and sustain and improve our natural and social environments. I call on, not just school leaders, but also our policy makers, departments and community leaders to take the lead here. These results give us an opening to start an overdue discussion about the responsibility we all have as a society to pass on this knowledge and prepare our young people. We cannot take for granted our democracy. We have an ethical obligation to raise the standards and improve our Civics and Citizenship engagement. “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education” - Franklin D. Roosevelt.