Cross-Examination: Education, Education ... What Education? - Civics Education in New Zealand

Elizabeth Murray, Leading Contributor

Civics education provides students with a bare minimum of knowledge of how our political and judicial systems work, allowing them to form their own opinions on how much they want to participate in politics and what issues they want to look into. At best, it provides a forum to foster a genuine interest in the political system among young New Zealanders. It informs them of their rights, roles, and responsibilities, while giving them the space to discuss serious social justice issues and how change can take place without our government.

In order to participate meaningfully in society one must first know about the institutions that govern it. New Zealanders must be able to think independently and critically about the issues facing society, and be able to evaluate which they think is the best solution. However, New Zealand does not offer a comprehensive civic education system despite parties across the political spectrum having expressed the wish to increase youth participation in politics. It is unreasonable to expect all young people to be able to engage critically with a political system when some have only a limited degree of knowledge about that system.

At its most basic, civic education focuses on the rights and duties of citizens.[1] In its report on the role of schools and communities in supporting civic education, the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS) made an important distinction between “civic education” and “citizenship education”.[2] While the former focuses on the formal institutions and processes of civic life (the voting system, parts of government), the latter emphasises how citizens participate and interact with others in order to shape their communities and society as a whole.[3] While New Zealand already does a good job at promoting citizenship education, we are sorely lacking in comprehensive civics education.[4]

The New Zealand Curriculum currently does not offer any formal direction as to the teaching of civics education in our schools. Rather, the New Zealand curriculum merely refers to the importance of keeping in mind political “conditions”, “factors” or “practices” in the teaching of other subjects such as English, Social Sciences, Technology, Health and Physical Education.[5] There is no requirement that students learn about the process of government, voting, or other forms of democratic participation. Whether lessons contain any such content is up to the discretion of the individual teacher.[6] The Ministry of Justice provides some suggestions and guidance on its website about teaching civics, but this is not enough to ensure that students receive a comprehensive education on the institutions and workings of our political system.[7]

As civics education is not taught as its own standalone subject, the level of understanding of civics which students are equipped with when they leave school varies widely. Importantly, the curriculum does require that students learn about the Treaty of Waitangi and how it impacts on the way New Zealand society is constructed.[8] However, students do not learn about the Treaty’s significance as part of New Zealand law, or its significance as a subject of political debate. In fact, significant discussion is given to these concepts only in university courses in law, politics, and other social sciences, not at the more accessible secondary school level. The consequence of the Treaty of Waitangi and other important civic topics being taught mostly at university rather than secondary schools is that there is an unequal distribution of knowledge by virtue of those who have ready access to tertiary education. Those from lower socio-economic groups who) are less likely to attend university are less likely to have a full understanding of the workings of government. This may result in their political and social aims not being as prevalent in policies and other government action.[9] Moreover, it may lead to a society where wealthier and more highly educated citizens have a completely different understanding of society than those who are from poorer working class backgrounds.

Due to the discretion teachers have in the teaching of civics education, it may be the case that the issues they think are less important could be given less emphasis. Thus, if a teacher does not think that particular institutions of government are very important, his or her students may be taught less about them than other students. This means that this particular group of students leave secondary school with a differing knowledge of how government works to other students; thus lessening the ability of individuals to work together to effectively change law. Equally, a teacher may neglect teaching how the voting system works and thus, when it becomes time for this particular group of young people to vote, students may not understand how to best cast their vote to achieve their political aims. As a result of such discrepancies, our young people leave school not only with an inadequate knowledge of some areas of civics, but also disparate foundations for their practices of citizenship.

A model of civic education applied nationally across New Zealand would help rectify this inconsistency. This would ensure that all students are exposed to the same civics topics and have proficiency in them up to at least a base level. This sort of civics education has been implemented successfully in Australia.[10] Civics education is a compulsory part of the curriculum in Years 3, 5, 7, and 9 and in Years 6 and 10 students are formally assessed on their knowledge of civics.[11] The compulsory incorporation of ‘civics’ as its own standalone topic requires schools to give students a certain amount of learning time devoted to the topic, rather than incorporating it in various levels through other subjects as is done in New Zealand. Also, by testing students formally, the government is able to assess levels of civics knowledge in differing areas amongst the population and make sure that it is up to a certain level. Such a system, if implemented in New Zealand, may prove an effective way of ensuring that all students have the basic level of civics knowledge required to participate effectively in democracy, and that all citizens have the same foundation from which to act as citizens. This could be done by making civics a new subject that must be incorporated among others, or by taking time out of Health or Social Studies to create a formal, assessed ‘civics’ topic that must be taught within schools’ existing timetables.

The government, having introduced civics education along such a model, would be in a position to ensure that New Zealand students are learning about the political and civic institutions that govern society and social discourse. The ICCS study of civics education in New Zealand found that our curriculum’s focus was on promoting critical and independent thinking among students. [12] The report shows that the NZ curriculum promotes many aspects of increasing students’ citizenship and participation in civic thinking and life, but does little to codify a commitment to promoting understanding of government and the way civic life actually works.[13] The focus is more on social justice issues, which while very important, do not engage students in the political process or the institutions which govern them.[14] In the ICCS’s studies of what New Zealand teachers thought was important in civic education, promoting knowledge of social, political and civic institutions was only identified as one of the top three aims by 19% — well below the ICCS average of 33% — and preparing students for future political participation at a measly 4%.[15] The problem with this approach is that New Zealand students are thus taught to be able to think and articulate opinions and ideas on current political and social issues, but are not given the basic knowledge of the institutions necessary to meaningfully apply this mind-set to current political issues. Such a reform would give students the tools to implement their ideas in practice.

There is an emerging consensus among academics that in order to make reasoned political decisions just such a basic knowledge of the political system is required.[16]Elections Canada (a non-partisan government agency) found that lack of knowledge of the electoral process and interest in politics was the biggest barrier to youth political participation in the Canadian General Election in 2011.[17] Citizens cannot be expected to vote and participate in public discourse in an informed manner if they do not know how their actions can effect change and the mechanisms by which change are effected. This would involve a basic knowledge of the branches of government, how a law is made, other methods of political participation, the role of political parties, and the way the MMP system works. It may even involve knowledge on the basic policy positions and platforms of the political parties (although incorporating this aspect into a civic education system in schools could be difficult to achieve in an unbiased fashion).

This type of focus on the political system and its institutions in civic education has been made mandatory in England.[18] ‘Citizenship’ is a compulsory subject in English secondary schools in Years 9 – 11 (it is an optional subject at primary and intermediate schools).[19] Although this approach has been criticised because it does not address the other structural barriers in place that stop youth participation in politics, it still helps to address the problem of not knowing how to effectively participate.[20] Since the New Zealand curriculum has already shown its dedication to teaching students about thinking about political and social issues critically and independently, it could be that the teaching of political institutions is the missing piece that will allow for further political involvement by New Zealand’s youth. They already possess the tools to think critically about politics. Now they must be equipped with understanding of the mechanisms to help create political change. Doing so will allow schools to produce students who have the ability to effectively participate in politics.

Knowledge of our political structure is vital to a full understanding of how New Zealand society operates. By failing to properly include it in the curriculum, New Zealand students are not receiving the tools necessary to participate in politics effectively. If the government and political parties want to encourage youth participation, they would do best to implement a system where young people are informed on how they can participate by giving them relevant knowledge in addition to critical thinking skills.

This article was written with the kind assistance of the EJP Pro Bono team in providing research they completed in 2014. You can find a copy of their report in our 2014 Publication


[1] “civics” The Free Dictionary by Farlex <>.[2] Rachel Bolstad Participating and contributing? The role of school and community in supporting civic and citizenship education: New Zealand results from the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (Ministry of Education, July 2012) at 7.[3] At 7.[4] At 11 - 12.[5] The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) at 20, 25, 32, and 34.[6] The New Zealand Curriculum, above n 5.[7] “Overview for teachers” Ministry of Justice <>.[8] The New Zealand Curriculum, above n 5, at 32.[9] NZ Uni Grad Stats (NZ Vice-Chancellors’ Committee, 2008) at 1; The Auckland Study: An assessment of the tertiary education needs of school leavers in the Auckland region (Tertiary Education Commission, 2010) at 24.[10] “About Civics and Citizenship Education” Civics and Citizenship Education <,9625.html> at 59.[11] At 59;  Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) “Civics and Citizenship” National Assessment Program < citizenship/napsa-civics-and-citizenship.html>.[12] Bolstad, above n 2, at 11.[13] At 11 - 13.[14] At 20.[15] Bolstad, above n 2, at 12.[16] William A Galston “Political Knowledge, Political Engagement, and Civic Education” (2001) 4 Annual Review of Political Science 217 at 218.[17] “National Youth Survery Report” (20 September 2011) Elections Canada Online <>.[18] Department for Education “Citizenship programmes of study: key stages 3 and 4” (September 2013) GOV.UK <>.[19] Department for Education “Citizenship programmes of study: key stages 3 and 4” (September 2013) GOV.UK <>; Department for Education “Citizenship programmes of study: key stages 1 and 2” (September 2013) GOV.UK <>.[20] Nathan Manning and Kathy Edwards “Why Has Civic Education Failed to Increase Young People's Political Participation?” (4 September 2013) Sociological Research Online <> at [1.4].

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