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Does Studying Politics Make a Difference? The Political Knowledge, Attitudes and Perceptions of School Students

  • David Denver and Gordon Hands

There has been considerable debate in recent years about the effects of the teaching of Politics upon levels of ‘political literacy’ – the knowledge and understanding of the political process and political issues which enables people to perform their roles as citizens effectively. Almost everyone receives some form of political education. For most people, however, the process of political education is informal: political knowledge, as well as opinions and attitudes, is picked up from the family, friends and the media. Informal political education also takes place in schools. In primary schools, children acquire elementary information about the political system, parties, leaders and so on. In secondary schools, subjects such as History and Geography and courses in General Studies frequently involve topics that are relevant to politics.

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1 Crick, B., ‘The Introducing of Polities’ in Heater, D. B., ed., The Teaching of Politics (London: Methuen, 1969), pp. 45.

2 For an example of such an argument, see Scruton, R., Ellis-Jones, A. and O'Keeffe, D., Education and Indoctrination (London: Education Research Centre, 1985).

3 See, for instance, Crick, , ‘The Introducing of Polities’ and Crick, B. and Porter, A., eds, Political Education and Political Literacy (London: Longman, 1978).

4 Stradling, R., The Political Awareness of the School Leaver (London: Hansard Society, no date (1977?)), p. 62.

5 Langton, K. P. and Jennings, M. K., ‘Political Socialization and the High School Civics Curriculum’, American Political Science Review, 62 (1968), 852–67. See also Jennings, M. K. and Niemi, R. G., The Political Character of Adolescence (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974), ch. 7.

6 Langton, and Jennings, , ‘Political Socialization’, p. 863. It should be noted, however, that Langton and Jennings did find some limited effects of the civics curriculum among young black people.

7 Westholm, A., Lindquist, A. and Niemi, R. G., ‘Education and the Making of the Informed Citizen: Political Literacy and the Outside World’, paper presented to the Workshop on Political Socialization and Citizenship Education in Democracy, Tel Aviv, 1987.

8 Mercer, G., Political Education and Socialization to Democratic Norms (University of Strathclyde Survey Research Centre, Occasional Paper No. 11, 1973).

9 Stradling, , Political Awareness, pp. 36, 38.

10 This research project has been funded by the ESRC, the Nuffield Foundation and the Research Committee of Lancaster University. Essential assistance in making contact with Politics teachers was provided by the Politics Association, to whom we are very grateful.

11 As noted in the text, 52 per cent of respondents in the first wave were Politics students and 48 per cent were not. A small majority (52 per cent) were in the first year of a two-year course, 41 per cent were in the second year and the rest were following a one-year course. In terms of age, most of the respondents (94 per cent) were between 16 and 18 years old. In the second wave there were 2,194 respondents, in the third 2,300 and in the fourth 1,958.

12 Mardle, G. and Taylor, M., ‘Political Knowledge and Political Ignorance: A Re-examination’, Political Quarterly, 58 (1987), 208–16.

13 Detailed figures for the holders of each of the offices and for each of the public figures are given in Denver, D. and Hands, G., ‘The Effects of A-Level Polities’, Social Studies Review, 4 (1988), 3740.

14 Permitted responses were ‘true’, ‘false’ and ‘don't know’.

15 As with the question on democracy, it is worth remembering here that the nature of the question asked and response requested (ringing one of a number of possible answers) mean that a number of respondents will have given correct answers purely by guessing.

16 Butler, D. and Stokes, D., Political Change in Britain, 2nd edn (London: Macmillan, 1974), pp. 331–4.

17 Langton, and Jennings, , ‘Political Socialization’, p. 856.

18 These ask respondents to agree or disagree with the following statements: ‘Sometimes politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can't understand what is going on’; ‘Voting is the only way that people like me and my parents can have any say about how the government runs things’.

19 The index of cynicism was based on seven questions such as ‘How much do you trust British governments (of any party) to put the needs of the country above the interests of their own party?’, and ‘How much of the time do you trust the Police to act fairly and honestly?’. The index of tolerance was based on five questions such as ‘Groups with extreme views on race should never be allowed to hold public demonstrations’, and ‘During an international crisis the government is quite entitled to censor the news reported on television and in newspapers’.

20 By ‘issue knowledge’ we mean the accuracy with which policy positions were assigned to parties.

21 We have excluded ideological awareness, participation and political efficacy because the construction of these variables involves questions from the second, third and fourth survey waves and these were confined to either first-year or second-year students.

22 We refer to ‘voting’ and to respondents as ‘Voters’ in this section of the article. Strictly speaking, the analysis is based on respondents' answers to a question asking how they would vote if there were a general election ‘tomorrow’, if they were old enough to vote.

23 With the exception of class, it is in fact necessary to calculate three sets of each of the predictor variables. Thus, when we analyse Conservative party choice, we use indices of Conservative socialization and an index of closeness to Conservative issue positions; and similarly for Labour and the Alliance.

24 Beta weights for the equations involving the two socialization variables and the issue indexes were as follows for Politics students: on the Issue Index – Conservative, 0.530; Labour, 0.485; Alliance, 0.292: and on Family Socialization – Conservative, 0.218; Labour, 0.267; Alliance, 0.183: and on Friends' Socialization – Conservative, 0.135; Labour, 0.149; Alliance, 0.160. Beta-weights for non-Politics students were as follows: on the Issue Index – Conservative, 0.399; Labour, 0.345; Alliance, 0.254: on Family Socialization – Conservative, 0.301; Labour, 0.347; Alliance, 0.244: on Friends' Socialization – Conservative, 0.175; Labour, 0.186; Alliance, 0.186. There is, of course, considerable debate in the voting behaviour literature about the nature of the causal link between policy preferences and party choice. Our analysis shows that there is a strong correlation between the two, which is at least prima facie evidence for issue voting.

* Department of Politics and International Relations, Lancaster University.

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British Journal of Political Science
  • ISSN: 0007-1234
  • EISSN: 1469-2112
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-of-political-science
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