Skip navigation
8th Nov 2021 9:47am Blogs

When does the social gap in political engagement emerge in life and can citizenship education address it?

Recent research on young people's political engagement

When does the social gap in political engagement emerge in life and can citizenship education address it?

Jan Germen Janmaat and Bryony Hoskins

Despite decades of talk about equal opportunities and policies to promote social mobility, the family you grow up in still matters a great deal for where you end up in life. It is less well known that parents also profoundly influence their children’s engagement with politics. This lack of awareness is surprising as the strong imprint of parents on young people’s political participation is one of the most persistent and intractable problems of mature Western democracies. The problem is particularly serious in the United Kingdom: recent research found that the gap in voting between young adults from middle class backgrounds and those from working class origin is largest in the UK among 33 European states. This inequality is problematic because it reduces the voice of the disadvantaged and skews democratic decision-making towards the interest of privileged groups in society.

The strong parental impact raises questions about how and when it manifests itself during young people’s formative years. Using the Youth Survey of the British Household Panel Study and its successor Understanding Societywe have been able to track the development of young people’s political engagement from age 11 to 25. We looked at political interest and intention to vote for a particular political party as indicators of political engagement and chose parental education and parental political engagement as relevant family background characteristics.

We found that children from the most educated families hardly differ in their interest in politics from those of the least educated families at age 11, with children from less educated families actually showing a slightly higher level of interest (see Figure 1). However, differences soon start to emerge and by age 15 the political interest of children from the 50% most educated parents has hardly changed, whereas that of the 50% least educated ones has declined markedly. We also find a growing social gap on voting intentions, with children from the most educated families showing a steeper rise in their voting intentions than those from the least educated ones (see Figure 2). After age 15 the differences between the two groups remain stable. These patterns suggest that the effect of social background on political engagement emerges during early adolescence and is non-existent before that phase.

In contrast, parental political engagement seems to matter earlier in childhood as we already see a large gap at age 11 between children from engaged families and those from disengaged ones in levels of political interest and voting intentions (see Figures 1 and 2). This gap further widens during early adolescence for political interest but not for voting intentions. After age 16 the gap stabilises. Thus, while early childhood seems to be the crucial phase for politically engaged parents to pass their preferences onto their children, early adolescence is the key phase when the education of parents begins to matter.

Figure 1. The development of political interest during early adolescence by parental characteristics

* Based on a scale with the values 1=not interested, 2=fairly interested and 3=very interested

Source: Understanding Society

Figure 2. The development of intentions to vote during early adolescence by parental characteristics

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.