“I Just Don’t Care”: Strategies to Promote Youth Engagement with Politics and Citizenship in Western Sydney

By Keith Heggart

‘I don’t really care about politicians. They seem to spend all their time arguing with each other. How’s that helping anyone?’  – David, 14, participant in Justice Citizens.

With the 2013 federal election only just over a week away, it seems an opportune time to reflect upon young people’s engagement with politics, and, more broadly, their involvement in civil society. At first glance, one could be forgiven for thinking that there is cause for concern: according to a number of recent studies, more than one million Australians are not enrolled to vote in the election, and of these, the majority appear to be young Australians, aged between 18 and 25 (see, for example: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-08-21/figures-show-25-per-cent-of-young-people-failed-to-enrol-to-vote/4903292). This fact raises some interesting questions: is this simply a matter of young people not bothering to enroll or is it reflective of a broader sense of dissatisfaction with Australian politics? Is this a relatively new phenomenon, or has young people’s participation in political life been decreasing over a long period of time? Is this lack of involvement confined to Australia or Western-style democracies, or is it broader than that? And how valuable is it to talk about a ‘lack of participation’ and thus frame the debate as a deficit model as opposed to describing the ways that young people do participate in society? These questions are worthy of further exploration, and this blog post aims to provide a brief overview of the intersection, in Australia, of young people, civics education and community and political issues, as well as outlining one project and its attendant research.

Greater Western Sydney is home to 1 in every 11 Australians. It is a highly diverse geographical location, with large numbers of immigrant and refugee families, and also Australia’s largest population of Indigenous Australians. In the context of the upcoming Federal election, Western Sydney has been seen by all parties as a ‘key battleground’, and it has been regularly visited by leaders of the major political parties. For example, the electorate of Lindsay, currently held by the Assistant Treasurer David Bradbury with a margin of less than 2%, has been visited both by Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd already in the month of August.  In nearby Rooty Hill, a people’s forum took place just last night (Wednesday 28th August).  Former prime minister Julia Gillard also used the University of Western Sydney’s auditorium to launch her crime initiative.

Citizenship education has long been a concern of democratic nations. With democracy, there is an emphasis on reasoned debate and political engagement, and formal schooling is seen as being crucial to developing this amongst citizens. As far back as the Ancient Athenians, various public figures called upon youth to be educated in political matters so that they could more fully take on their role as citizens in a democracy (see, for example, Aristotle’s Politics or Plato’s The Republic). Although the form and principles of this education, and indeed, who should receive this education, has changed over time, the ideal of a well-educated and politically conversant youth has continued into modern times, and survived the move from participatory democracy to a model that is based more on representation. Indeed, since Federation in Australia in 1901, there has been an element of civics and citizenship education in all Australian states, although it should be stated that the purpose and form of this education did change significantly to reflect the government’s concerns at that time in Australian history (Print and Gray, 2000).

The most recent example of a formal civics and citizenship curriculum is the ‘Discovering Democracy’ program of study, which was instituted in Australian schools in 1996. It was the result of two Senate reports (Education for Active Citizenship, 1989 and Active Citizenship Revisited, 1991) which identified that Australians, as a whole, were ignorant and apathetic about their parliamentary mechanisms and institutions, and that this was particularly true of Australian youth. ‘Discovering Democracy’ was intended to remedy this through a formal curriculum for all students between Years 3 and 10. Originally, the emphasis of Discovering Democracy was on a maximal, activist approach to citizenship education, but when the Howard Government came to power in 1996, the curriculum was changed to have less of an active focus, and more of an emphasis on the history of Australian democracy (Kemp, 1997).

Discovering Democracy was, for all intents and purposes, a failure. Although it did raise the profile of citizenship education amongst education systems and teachers, it did little, according to its own measure, to improve students’ understanding of civics and citizenship. In the final report, less than half of the Year 10 students reached the expected level in assessment (MCEECDYA, 2006).

There were lots of reasons why this was the case; some academics have argued that teachers were not sufficiently prepared, or that there was not enough professional development for teachers. Other criticized the nature of the curriculum, arguing that it was too teacher-centered, rather than student centered. Regardless of the veracity of these, and other criticisms, it is my contention that Discovering Democracy’s fundamental failure was based on a limited understanding of the way young people engage with their communities – both on a local and on a national level. This failure meant that Discovering Democracy tried to build political engagement from a top-down model, rather than from a bottom-up model. Any program of citizenship education must begin with the students’ own concerns, rather than what policy makers feel is important. This is something that critical pedagogues like Freire (1970) and progressive educators, like Dewey (1916) have understood but was conspicuously absent from the Discovering Democracy curriculum.

Fortunately, a number of educators in Australia have been aware of this, and have developed and implemented programs that do begin with the students’ concerns. An example of an extremely successful one is David Zyngier’s ruMAD? This program encourages students to explore local issues in a project-based, collaborative model, and by doing so develop the competencies required to be active citizens (Zyngier, 2007).

Another example is Justice Citizens, which is a project that I established and ran in 2012. Justice Citizens was a FilmVoice program that ran at Broadhills College in Sydney’s west. The aim of Justice Citizens was to help young people develop the skills, knowledges and attitudes required to be justice-oriented citizens. The term ‘justice-oriented citizens’ was drawn from the work of Westheimer and Kahne (2004) and describes a person who is capable of recognizing the structural causes of inequality, and working against them, rather than a citizen who simply works to raise money for charity. It was deliberately chosen in an attempt to negate the confusion about what is meant by ‘active citizenship’, a term that has become vague from overuse.

The mechanism for this development was the creation of a number of short films by the students that addressed issues that they felt were of importance to themselves and their community. Students worked with community members and media experts in order to create films about topics like domestic violence, teenage pregnancy, refugees, racism, the rights of indigenous students, drug and alcohol abuse and bullying. For each of these films, students had to engage in a process of research that involved the local community and then planning, shooting and editing the film, supported by film-makers and artists. The finished films were then presented to the community at a film festival sponsored by Penrith City Council.

Although this is not political education in the sense that students were learning about the bicameral system of government or the way legislation is passed, this approach to citizenship education is more effective than those ‘top-down’ approaches. Torney-Purta et al (2001) identified that young people who are involved in active citizenship approaches in schools are more likely to demonstrate a better understanding of citizenship issues and are more likely to be involved, politically, after leaving school. It is also important to recognize that, just because political party membership is slumping and young people exhibit a marked disdain for politicians, it would be wrong to think that young people are not involved in their local communities. This essentialisation of youth does them a disservice; one of the findings of the Justice Citizens project identified that not only are many young concerned about political issues in their local community, they are also involved in trying to find solutions to these issues.

The Justice Citizens project revealed some other interesting data about young people’s participation in politics and society. I classify these findings as ‘follow-up’ and ‘follow-on’ effects. Follow up effects can be explained in this way: when a young person takes part in a program like Justice Citizens, he or she is more likely to remain involved in that kind of activism in the future.  For example, a number of students at Broadhills made a film about the environmental degradation of the Nepean River. Although these students had no interest in making another film at the conclusion of Justice Citizens, they have joined a local branch of the Nepean Waterkeepers, and continue to be involved in environmental monitoring and campaigning.

‘Follow-on’ effects are slightly different; in this case, students have not chosen to continue pursuing an interest in the topic that they made their film about, but have instead become involved in other examples of community work. One good example of this are the students that made a film about dirt bike safety. Shortly after completing this film, they decided that they needed to make another film, this time about how to use machine tools correctly. Another example can be found in the students who made a film about bullying; these students expressed no great interest in being involved with that issue any more, but have all decided to run for membership of the student representative council. Both of these decisions were influenced by the students’ involvement in the Justice Citizens project.

It is my theory (and admittedly, this is a preliminary description of the work) that one can conceive of young people’s active citizenship in terms of cultural and social capital. It is an unfortunate fact, and testament to the inequality of Australian society, that the higher the socio-economic status of a child’s parents, the more likely they are to demonstrate a better understanding of citizenship in Australia. However, programs like Justice Citizens allow students to develop social capital of their own, manifested in the increased links between themselves and the school and community groups with whom they have worked. This social capital can then be leveraged in the form of increased participation in civil society.

These  examples highlight some interesting ways forward for Australian education systems. If one of the purposes of Australian education is to develop ‘an active and informed citizenry’ as stated in the Melbourne Declaration (2008), then it makes sense that policy makers should build into the new Australian curriculum opportunities for young people to engage, in a meaningful way, with topics of their own interest. This could be a way to combat the declining rate of participation in elections and political life.


Dewey, John. 1916. Democracy and Education. Toledo, Ohio, U.S.A:.

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Kemp, David. 1997. “Discovering Democracy: Ministerial Statement.”

Print, M, and M Gray. 2000. “Civics and Citizenship Education: An Australian Perspective” Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Torney-Purta, J, R Lehmann, H Oswald, and W Schulz. 2001. “The International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement Citizenship and Education in Twenty-Eight Countries: Civic Knowledge and Engagement at Age Fourteen [Online]”. IEA: ACER.

Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training. 1989. “Education for Active Citizenship Education in Australian Schools and Youth Organisations”. Canberra: AGPS.

Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training. 1991. “Active Citizenship Revisited.” Canberra: AGPS.

Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs, 2008. Melbourne declaration on educational goals for young Australians. Available from: http://www.curriculum. edu.au/mceetya/publications

Ministerial Council for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA). 2006. National assessment program – Civics and citizenship years 6 & 10 report. Canberra: MCEETYA

Westheimer, Joel, and Joseph Kahne. 2004. “Educating the ‘good’ Citizen: Political Choices and Pedagogical Goals.” PS: Political Science and Politics 37 (02): 241–247.

Zyngier, David. 2007. “Education through Elegant Subversion.” Professional Voice 6 (3): 51–56.


About tasayouth

Blog of the Australian Sociological Association's Youth Thematic Group
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2 Responses to “I Just Don’t Care”: Strategies to Promote Youth Engagement with Politics and Citizenship in Western Sydney

  1. I think, to a degree, we have lost our way in education. Primarily, your emphasis on citizenship is an important one, as it takes the students form a passive recipient of knowledge to engaged advocate of an informed perspective. The implication, however, is that somewhere in the 9-to-3 school day we as teachers are able to facilitate this kind of knowledge and understanding, along with the (arguably) superfluous knowledge that is disconnected and isolated from understanding and application in a real-world situation. I propose that programs like these can be used to teach a variety of understandings.

    In terms of the greater question – politics and social citizenship – I believe politics and the world are so greatly removed from our young people that even if they were to try, they wouldn’t understand it. Most assuredly it doesn’t come in the form of Snapchat, Instagram or Facebook. Students who find a passion in it will be connected intrinsically, but to connect them takes an integration of these concepts from a young age and a connection to citizenship from a sociocultural perspective rather than separating school from every other process in their lives.

    Great work Keith – a fantastic vision!

  2. Pingback: Student knowledge on democracy. | The Journalist

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