Source: Understanding Society
The findings on parental political engagement are consistent with family socialization theory, which holds that children at a very young age learn from their parents by imitating them and by internalising the norms and values that their parents are cultivating. Those on parental education are more difficult to interpret in light of existing theories as they seem to neither support family socialization theory nor status transmission theory. The latter claims that parents have an indirect effect by influencing the educational attainment of their children. Educational attainment, in turn, will then have a strong effect on political engagement. However, if parents had mainly influenced their children’s political engagement in this indirect way, we should have seen the influence of parental education emerge only in late adolescence as young people only start to vary meaningfully in educational levels at this stage.
We propose that the effect of parental education could indeed be indirect but more through shaping the educational experiences of teenagers than through educational attainment. We already know that parents largely determine the school for their children. In turn, aspects of the school, such as opportunities for student voice and offering free discussions of politics and issues, are helping children to become more engaged. If educated parents send their children to schools providing more of such ‘learning through participation’ opportunities than less well educated parents do (and existing research does find this), then it is easy to see how the social gap in political engagement can widen during early adolescence. Also within a school children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to seize these opportunities as they lack the skills and confidence to participate in them. They can opt out of such opportunities as participation in them is usually voluntary.
These findings suggest that the education system in the United Kingdom plays a critical role in amplifying social inequality in political engagement. We thus need to think of ways in which we can reform the system to prevent it from showing such undesirable and unintended effects. Reducing parental choice is one option, but perhaps a more feasible one would be to equalise civic learning opportunities both across and within schools, for instance by making participation in these opportunities compulsory. With existing research showing that children from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit more from citizenship education and from participating in open discussions than middle class children in terms of becoming more politically engaged, there is every reason to focus on the latter.
Jan Germen Janmaat is Professor of Political Socialization at UCL Institute of Education
Bryony Hoskins is Professor of Comparative Social Science at the University of Roehampton
Nb1: This blog is based on a paper recently published by Social Forces
Nb2: This work was supported by a Nuffield Foundation Grant for Research, Development and Analysis (Grant number 44157). The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.