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The Knowledge. How can we close the political engagement gap?

A new study reveals inequalities in the development of political engagement and offers policies to close the gap

A new study reveals inequalities in the development of political engagement and offers policies to close the gap

6 May 2024, 5:00

With local elections this week and a national election this year, turnout will once again become a focus of media attention. A new study by UCL’s Professor Jan Germen Janmaat and I funded by the Nuffield Foundation sheds light on inequalities in political engagement  and schools’ role in tackling them.

The study finds that university-educated parents adopt behaviours that lead their children to become significantly more politically engaged between the ages 10 to 16 than their peers. And because this age period is critical in developing future political behaviour, the parental behaviour of those with degrees during these years gives their children disproportionate electoral influence as a group as they get older.

Intriguingly, there are no social differences in political interest at age 10, but by the time adolescents reach age 16, those with university-educated parents show a 10 per cent-higher level of political interest than those with less well-educated parents.

In other words, early adolescence is a crucial stage for the emergence of social differences in political engagement, and parental access to education is a determining factor in the development of democratic knowledge, habits and skills in the next generation.

As figure 1 shows, there is a linear correlation between the amount of parental education and the level of young people’s political engagement.

<strong>Figure 1 The development of political interest by parental education level Source Understanding Society youth survey<strong>

Addressing this inequality in schools could well be key to boosting turnout at elections where there are pronounced differences between social groups. In 2019, for example, electoral turnout was 43 per cent for voters aged 18 to 34 from semi-skilled and unskilled occupations as opposed to 59 per cent from young adults in managerial and professional classes.

Analysis of data from two national longitudinal surveys – the Citizenship Education longitudinal study and the Understanding Society youth survey – show why this is happening. University-educated parents ensure that their children are becoming politically engaged through trips to museums and art galleries, their influence on friendship groups and, crucially, their choice of school.

School choice typically leads to educated parents selecting settings where other more educated parents’ children will attend and which undertake more activities in which young people learn to politically engage: more discussion in class, more active student voice activities and student councils.

In addition, university-educated parents raise their children to feel confident in taking part in political discussions, whatever the setting: the classroom, the school’s debating club or mock political events. Through participating and receiving positive feedback from their engagement in these activities these children develop their levels of political interest even further.

Our research shows that schools unintentionally participate in the process of reproducing these social inequalities. Children from higher-educated families tend to have more opportunities to become politically-engaged citizens than children from parents without degrees.

Our research includes recommendations that could help to reduce social inequalities in political engagement.

These include the need for government to provide more support and resources to schools with more deprived student intakes so that these schools can organise the kinds of school trips to cultural and other venues that promote democratic engagement. Such support should also encourage them to organise more activities which lead to political interest.

As to schools, it is crucial that when organising such civic engagement activities, they ensure fair access to them. As with work experience, the subject of last week’s column in these pages, it is too late to notice a gap when UCAS applications come around.

And there is plenty to do in the classroom too. To that end, government should prioritise and support teacher training on methods for inclusive citizenship education to support wider participation in politically engaging activities.

A greater focus on oracy is a useful first step in rethinking the kinds of classroom practices that value and promote young people’s voices. But if we are to reverse an intergenerational trend it is necessary to consider which voices are being heard in the classroom and how to redress this balance.  There is a lot more to be done. 

Read the full open-access study here

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