Civic education in Australia

Guest post

We talk a lot about citizenship education in the UK, but it’s by no means unique. Countries all over the world want their citizens to be educated for effective civic life. Australian visa agency Auvisa.org tells us how they do it in Australia.

Image: 'Australia Day' by marragem (Flickr; (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Image: ‘Australia Day’ by marragem (Flickr; (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Auvisa.org is an Australian visa agency. In this guest post, an employee explains how Civics and Citizenship Education has developed in Australia.

The Australian approach to Civic Education takes its distinctive traits from Australia’s governmental system and its historical and geographic contexts. Australia is a constitutional monarchy with a representative parliamentary process based on the Westminster system. Voting is compulsory; that is, all eligible Australian citizens must enroll and appear at voting stations for federal elections, by-elections and referendums, although casting a null vote is possible. 1

The Australian Curriculum: Civics and Citizenship‘ describes Australia as a ‘multicultural, secular, and multi-faith society, governed through a well-established representative parliamentary process and based on liberal democratic laws, values, principles and practices.’ Based on the 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, the current Australian Curriculum directs special attention to three cross-curriculum priorities: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and cultures; sustainable living; and Asia including Australia’s engagement with Asia. Its stated goals read in part: ‘…all young Australians should become active and informed citizens [who] act with moral and ethical integrity; appreciate Australia’s social, cultural, linguistic and religious diversity, and have an understanding of Australia’s system of government, history and culture; understand and acknowledge the value of Indigenous cultures […]; are committed to national values of democracy, equity and justice, and participate in Australia’s civic life […]’ 2

Civic Education in the 20th century

At the turn of the century and early 1900s, civic education was not treated as a discrete subject in the Australian educational system, but was incorporated into history and moral training. By the 1930s and 1940s it had become explicitly included as a component of social studies. 3 The late 1980s and early 1990s saw rising perception of a deficit in civic knowledge and participation by the public, especially among people between the ages of 15 and 35 4, and the federal government conducted inquiries in 1989, 1991, and 1994. 3

As a result, in 1997 the government initiated the Discovering Democracy program, which made lessons in civics and citizenship compulsory for all students in years 4 to 10. 5 Delays in receiving and implementing curriculum materials dogged the program at first: in 1999 only 80 per cent of teachers were aware of the Discovering Democracy program and 69 per cent of teachers had no significant experience in teaching the program. Despite these drawbacks, the report stated that among those familiar with the program, ‘the aims of the program are generally seen as sound and among the most important and valued learning experiences for their students.’ 6

The National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty-First Century, commonly known as the Adelaide Declaration, followed in 1999. One of its goals specifies that graduating students should be ‘active and informed citizens with an understanding and appreciation of Australia’s system of government and civic life.’ 7

Still, major challenges persisted. A 2003 study identified two major issues: teachers’ lack of preparation and students’ lack of motivation. 7 Only three per cent of teachers surveyed had studied civics as part of their pre- or post-graduate degree, and up to one-third of the teachers surveyed reported they did not feel confident in teaching a number of the twenty topics the Adelaide Declaration laid out as essential to civics education. Another 2003 study found that Australian students scored average when compared globally in terms of overall knowledge of civics, but lagged behind in civic participation: 83 per cent felt that joining a political party was not important; 55 per cent felt that knowing about the nation’s history was important; and 50 per cent felt following issues in the media was important; additionally 66 per cent of regarded engaging in political discussion as unimportant. 8

The Melbourne Declaration and today

The Melbourne Declaration of 2008 superseded the Adelaide Declaration and laid out two goals: ‘Australian schooling will promote equity and excellence,’ and ‘All young Australians will become successful learners, confident and creative individuals and active and informed citizens.’ 9 Besides making civic education an explicit central goal, it seeks to improve on the Discovering Democracy program by emphasizing political involvement and civic responsibility in addition to civic knowledge. 10

The Australian Electoral Commission plays a major role in supporting civic education, with dedicated staff to provide teacher trainings and public education programs on request. These efforts have been found to have a positive effect, as a 2009 study found a boost in percentage of students who intended to vote (if it were not mandatory) after having taken a course about government (62.5 per cent) versus those who had not (52 per cent). 10 The gains may be more pronounced, as young people are more likely to engage in forms of civic participation other than electoral voting, including signing petitions or attending protests. 11

However, civic knowledge doesn’t necessarily result in civic action, as structural barriers to civic engagement also remain. Aspects of gender, ethnicity, and class affect individuals’ time for and access to means of civic engagement; for example, a person can’t participate in voting without a stable address. Stereotypical or tokenistic representations within civic discourse can increase alienation. 11

Overall, the effectiveness of the current curriculum remains to be seen as it continues to develop. Most recently, on 18 September 2015 the Education Council endorsed the Australian Curriculum in eight learning areas. 12

Auvisa.org is a professional Australian visa agency, established in 2011 by migration lawyers. Auvisa.org has ‘helped thousands of applicants to get the visa to Australia and always provides the most efficient and suitable migration solution to the clients’.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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