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Voter turnout: how the education system widens the social class gap

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 10 December 2019

Jan Germen Janmaat and Bryony Hoskins.

The low turnout of young people in elections is a persistent problem in many Western democracies. In the UK, turnout among  18 to 24-year-olds in the last two general elections was almost half of that of pensioners.

Although there has been a surge in voter registrations among the under 35s for the 12 December elections, we don’t know if this will translate in actual votes. 

Amidst all the debate about youth participation, few scholars look at differences among young people. In our new book we focus on social class differences in political involvement among young people. We argue that the education system only widens these disparities. 

Evidence from previous elections shows that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are the least engaged. In the 2017 general election, 18 to 34-year-olds who were either unemployed or doing unskilled and semi-skilled labour had a turnout of 35% – lower than any other group. 

The second lowest turnout levels were among young people doing skilled manual labor at 49%. All other social groups according to gender, age, social class and ethnicity had a turnout of more than 50% and the overall turnout was about 63% (IPSOS Mori 2017). Thus, the intersection between social class and age was the crucial factor amongst the myriad of ways in which people differ that defines the likelihood that they will turn out to vote. 

One of the main factors that led to socioeconomic inequalities in political engagement is education. This learning process starts at home with young people arriving in school with different levels of skill and efficacy in discussing and putting forward their points of view. Our data shows that at the age of 12, children of various social backgrounds in England already show marked differences in their intentions to vote (see Figure 1). These differences then increase significantly up to the age of 20, which suggests that secondary and further education only exacerbate these inequalities. 

Figure 1. The relation between social background and intention to vote among English teenagers

NB: The figure shows the correlation between parental education and intention to vote at several ages. The higher the bar, the stronger the correlation, and the larger the difference between children of disadvantaged and more privileged backgrounds in their intentions to vote. Source: the Citizenship Education Longitudinal Study (CELS)

This increase occurs because young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have less access to political learning as they progress through education. Students develop political engagement at school by participating in school councils, mock elections, debates and classroom discussions. It is mainly middle class children who take part in these activities. For example, using the number of books at home as an indicator of social background, we found that 62 per cent of children who said they had more than 200 books at home had voted in student council elections, while this figure dropped to 30 per cent among those whose homes had fewer than 10 books.  

While six per cent of children whose parents had left school at 16 had taken part in mock elections within the past year, the figure was double that among those whose parents had degrees. Overall, children of parents with degrees were 50 per cent more likely to take part in political activities at school than those whose parents left school at 16, and 40 per cent more likely to do so than those whose parents left school at 18. 

Rather than trying to compensate for this disparity, we find that schools with a lower socioeconomic student intake organise much less of these types of activities than schools with a higher social intake. 

We found that the subject of citizenship education was more open to all – at least during the early years of the introduction of this subject from 2002-2006. We also found that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds benefited more from citizenship education in terms of becoming more politically engaged than middle class students. 

If all children had citizenship education as a mandatory subject it could shrink the social gap in political engagement. However, academies and free schools don’t have to follow the national curriculum, so it is not clear how many students still receive citizenship education. 

Further education does little to help undo the inequalities consolidated during lower secondary school. To the contrary, we find that doing A levels makes young people even more engaged while experiencing vocational education does not make relatively disengaged youth more involved. In a sense this is not surprising as vocational education is dominated by practical, job-related courses that don’t provide learning opportunities that would increase political engagement.

In order to reduce the social gaps in political engagement we need to rethink the priorities and purposes of education, and place the learning of democracy at the heart of the education agenda. 

We need all schools – including vocational colleges, academies and free schools ­– to teach citizenship education and to make it compulsory up to 18 for all students. All students should be required to take part in political activities in school, such as debates and mock elections. Then we might be able to start tackling social inequalities in political engagement and protecting our democracy for the future.

Hoskins and Janmaat, J.G. (2019) Education, Democracy and Inequality: Political Engagement and Citizenship Education in Europe. London: Palgrave Macmillan. https://www.springer.com/gb/book/9781137489753

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