News Culture Comment Video



The state of civics education

Monday 17th February 2014

As a nation, we pride ourselves on our democratic history. Many of our national milestones are examples of democracy in action: mass protests against apartheid during the Springbok Tour; our collective decision to become nuclear free in the 1980s; and Foreshore and Seabed hikoi in 2004.

However, in the last decade, New Zealand has had less reason to celebrate its democratic record. In 2011, it recorded its lowest voter turnout in history. While in 1984 nearly 94 per cent of all eligible voters voted, only 74 per cent of eligible voters voted in the 2011 general election, meaning 800,000 eligible voters opted not to turn out on election day. In 2013, the local body elections recorded the lowest turnout ever, with about 60 per cent of eligible voters not doing so.

The apathy isn’t just evident in the voting stats: the Constitutional Review has been met by a resounding blank stare; governments of all colours have denounced referenda and claimed to know better; legislation is pushed through under urgency with ever-increasing frequency; governments disregard expert advice and enact legislation contrary to the Bill of Rights, and the checks and balances on excessive government power continue to weaken. Here in New Zealand, democracy seems all but broke.

Parliament illustration

The Wireless/Meg Howie

A well-functioning democracy needs informed and active citizens. Civics and citizenship education is often seen as a way to ensure citizens have the ability to participate not only in theory (for example, with the right to vote) but also in practice (using the same example, by ensuring citizens understand the voting process so that they exercise this right). Civics is the study of formal institutions and processes of civic life (like voting), while citizenship education involves the study of how people participate in society and how citizens interact with, and shape, their communities and societies. If taught the right way, they have the potential to inspire a life-long commitment to building a stronger, more cohesive democracy and nation.

Amongst all of the hand-wringing about voter disengagement, improving civics education seems to get everyone’s head bobbing with enthusiasm

Calls for civics education in New Zealand are by no means new. In 2005, one of the major recommendations from the Constitutional Arrangements Select Committee (a cross-party review of New Zealand's constitutional arrangements) was “the fostering of greater understanding of our constitutional arrangements through improved civics and citizenship education in schools, in order to give young people the knowledge of skills to become responsible and engaged citizens”. With the historic low voter turnout in 2011, the current Constitutional Review slowly chugging along, and now a general election in 2014, the debate about civics education has reared its head yet again.

Or, rather, the non-debate. Amongst all of the hand-wringing and finger-pointing about voter disengagement and citizen apathy, improving civics education seems to be the one solution that gets everyone's head bobbing with enthusiasm. And yet, nearly 10 years on from the clear recommendation by the Constitutional Arrangements Select Committee, it seems as if everyone is still just sitting around nodding emphatically without anything being done.

It was upon reading perhaps my tenth think piece about Why New Zealand Needs Civic Education that I finally stopped. “Wait”, I said to myself. “What already exists?”. It's a question few people lamenting the lack of civics seem to have stopped to ask. However, it’s one that has been the subject of a significant international study, the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCES), the findings of which were published in a three-part series by the Ministry of Education. Currently, civics and citizenship education is a broad-based topic that is embedded in the principles, values and key competencies of the New Zealand school curriculum. So while civics and citizenship education are not taught as separate subjects, as it is in 21 of the 38 countries participating in the ICSES study, it is integrated into several of the different “key learning areas” – primarily, within social sciences. Further, within the school community, civics can be embedded in many ways – from road safety monitor rosters to school vegetable gardening to class visits to the local rest home.

The research is, in light of the constant cries for civics education, surprisingly optimistic about the current level of civics education in New Zealand. Students are considered to be “generally well-prepared for their roles as citizens in the 21st century compared with many other countries participating in [the ICCES study]”. In fact, the mean score for New Zealand in terms of civic knowledge was significantly above the ICCES average. In terms of students' perceptions of New Zealand and its institutions, or our civic arrangements, the large majority of Year 9 students sampled had a “positive view of New Zealand and its key institutions and symbols”.

So why has civics become the new buzz word, the catch-cry for those bemoaning political disengagement and democractic decay?

The research shows that principals and teachers of Year 9 students see “promoting students' critical and independent thinking” as one of the most important aims. They viewed the school experience as a whole to be a significant factor in developing students' civic and citizenship education (for example, through forms of student representation that allow students to participate in the election of peers to the school council or board of trustees). On the surface, civics education in New Zealand is doing well. It's certainly not failing and it most definitely exists.

Within the ICCES findings, New Zealand had an unusually wide distribution of civic knowledge scores. While our mean score was significantly above the ICCES average, that score obscures the fact there were a number of students with a very sound civic knowledge but also a number of students with a very poor civic knowledge. That gap – between the top and bottom in terms of civic understanding – was wider than any other participating ICCES country. We also had some of the highest scores of all countries, but also some of the lowest scores – especially when compared to those with similar mean scores to New Zealand. What this means is that while some New Zealanders are thriving in civics education, and well on the way to becoming engaged, participating and active citizens, others are preparing instead for a life of disengagement and civic exclusion.

The story of civics education, and who's performing and who’s not, mirrors a number of trends across the education sector and New Zealand society in general. In the ICCES study, the mean scores for students identifying as European or Asian were considerably higher than those of students identifying as Māori or Pasifika. Māori and Pasifka boys' civic knowledge was particularly weak, and well below the average for boys across all ICCES sampled countries. Socio-economic background was strongly associated with student civic knowledge across all ICCES countries, but for New Zealand students, civic knowledge was even more closely tied with a student's socio-economic background. This is not a new story, and yet it's one that we're ignoring when we blindly call for civic education without first questioning who needs it most.


The ICCES study uses a methodology that broadly divides people into three types of citizens. The first is the “personally responsible citizen” – the kind of person who pays taxes, obeys the law, recycles and volunteers to lend a hand in times of crisis. The second is the “participatory citizen”, who is an active member of community organisations, and looks to organise community efforts to care for those in need, or clean up the environment. The third and final category is the “justice-orientated citizen”. This citizen critically assesses social, political and economic structures to see beyond surface causes. They seek out and address areas of justice, and believe in effecting systemic change. Put simply, the personally responsible citizen contributes food to a food drive; the participatory citizen helps organise a food drive, and the justice-orientated citizen explores why people are hungry and acts to solve root causes.

Essentially, we're growing a nation of recyclers who don't question why we recycle or the problem that recycling seeks to address. 

Perhaps one of the most interesting things to come out of the Ministry's work around civics in schools is that, for the most part, schools’ views of civic and citizenship education in New Zealand align most closely with the goal of developing personally responsible citizens and, to a lesser extent, participatory citizens. Essentially, we're growing a nation of recyclers who don't question why we recycle or the problem that recycling seeks to address. We’re not raising thinkers who will ask why and how, instead of looking only as far as the way in which the problem manifests at a surface level. In a world of increasingly complex and intertwined problems – problems that don't have just one solution but require systemic change – we are setting up another generation to fail.


Most conversations about voter apathy and political disengagement place the onus of re-engagement on the disengaged. Rarely are questions asked about the role wider society and its institutions play in creating that disengagement. With Māori and Pasifika men showing the lowest levels of engagement – a group that our system is failing left, right and centre – there needs to be a concerted effort to look at how civics and citizenship can be taught to this group in a way that is relevant and important to them.

The ICCES study showed that Pasifika students reported higher rates of participation in cultural and religious organisations than any other group, while Asian and Māori students also had high involvement in cultural or ethnic organisations. However, Pakeha students were “noticeably less likely to be involved in cultural/ethnic or religious organisations”.

There's a clear opportunity to engage young Pasifika and Māori who are not performing within the framework of traditional civics education instead through community groups with which they already connect. More than ever, we can't pretend young people – or citizens in general – are a homogeneous group for which one form of civics education will work. Instead, we need to work to engage those who are disengaged, rather than waiting for them to engage in the existing model.


We pretend the issues around voter disengagement and wider political and community disengagement are spread across the population in a representative way; that each area, each socio-economic bracket, each ethnic group, and each household has the same level of engagement – or disengagement. Instead, civic disadvantage mirrors, in many ways, wider advantage and disadvantage – a disparity in experience that we're not seeing a political will to address in a meaningful way. Until that wider disadvantage is addressed, we can expect our democracy to continue in its steady decay. New, improved civics education isn't going to change that, as much as we may wish it could. There is no silver bullet, no quick fix. What we really need to see is the political will to truly address civic disengagement; a meaningful effort to address the deeper, more systemic issues that underpin not only civic disengagement but wider issues of disadvantage. Until that day, New Zealand’s fine democratic record will continue in its decay – the effects of which may be felt for many generations to come.