Sign In

Priority for Citizenship Education

Text Size a a a Print Print this page

 Citizenship education was very much in focus when public education was being established in the latter part of the 19th century. Hirst (2002, 66) quotes Parkes’ argument that the emerging nation required a common goal of citizenship to enable it to rise above the divisions derived from the separate worlds of the British (English, Scots, Welsh and Cornish) Protestants and the Irish Catholic minority. This emphasis continued through to the 1950s. The 1936 Curriculum for Western Australian Schools included civics as an essential part of the Social and Moral Education Syllabus.

Between the 1950s and the 1980s civics as such became lost in the development of an integrated Social Studies Syllabus with a focus on the community. The new syllabus contained units on State and Federal Government and political history but the adopted approach was analytical and essentially value free, or at least the values were never made explicit.  The word ‘civics’ disappeared from teacher talk (Moroz, 1999a). 


From the 1980s and as part of the development of a national curriculum, renewed emphasis was placed on civics and citizenship education within an historical context. The reasons for this renewal are many and in response to local and international trends. Davison (2000, 194-195) writes that the new demand for school history and citizenship seeks to reinforce a sense of common identity, group loyalty and national purpose. He believes it gains strength from fears that the focus on globalisation, multiculturalism and economic turmoil threaten national and community bonds. Davison further quotes from the Civics Expert Group in their 1994 report ‘that a knowledge and understanding of the history of Australians is an essential foundation for citizenship’. This history is to be taught as a narrative and not as fragmented themes.

A crucial factor to consider locally when seeking to support the direct teaching in schools of civics and citizenship is the non-racially based and multicultural immigration policy pursued since World War II and since 1970 in particular. If Australia is prepared to accept as migrants people from a range of societies exhibiting varying levels of economic and technological development and with histories that show little and only recent evidence of implementing liberal democratic values, then it would seem strange, if not foolish, not to insist that the schools introduce these migrants and their families to the history of Australian democracy and the practices of a civil society. Literacy in English needs to be supplemented with social and political literacy if such migrants are to take advantage of what an ‘open society’ has to offer.

It is interesting to note how the identification of shared core values (as in the Western Australian Curriculum Framework) and the promotion of citizenship is now linked administratively with immigration and multiculturalism and given a higher priority in the Ministries.

In Western Australia, the Premier’s portfolio includes citizenship and multicultural interests while, at the federal level, it was a former Prime Minister who started the push for citizenship education which has been continued by the current Government through the Department of Education, Science and Training, while the processing of citizenship is part of the Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs.   

If Australia is to allow multiple schooling systems then a core unit on civics and citizenship in all systems would seem to be as essential as the teaching of literacy in English and basic numeracy. Teaching about, and the practice of, multiculturalism in schools is often based on a misunderstanding of the concept of culture and is used to emphasise somewhat stereotypical differences rather than the attributes we all have in common (see Sandall, 2001). 

It would be helpful if the WA Curriculum Council could state that the WA Curriculum Framework’s shared core values of Australian society including active citizenship are being taught through all learning areas and in all schools in the State; and that new teaching graduates have been prepared to implement these. 

Australia’s social and political stability is one of the factors which attracts people to its shores.  Greenwood (1999, 91-92) identifies Australia as one of the seven oldest living democracies – Britain 1688, USA 1776, Sweden 1809, Canada 1840s-1867, Australia 1850s–1901, New Zealand 1854–1876 and Switzerland 1874. A liberal, democratic society and polity is the product of certain contextual factors: The seven are all developed industrialised nations, but also of particular historical factors; five of the seven are British born, and five are constitutional monarchies. 

It has to be understood that the knowledge, skills and values of democratic citizenship do not occur naturally in people. They must be taught consciously through schooling to each new generation. If democracy is to survive it requires the education of each new generation. In the past children did learn from the apprenticeships with parents and fellow workers, from both formal and informal organisations and the operations of the State. However, with so many citizens coming from different political and constitutional traditions, with the erosion of a good deal of community life through urbanisation and the impact of television and the decline of trade unions, it is increasingly important that curricula and teaching methodologies be developed to enable the young to learn civics, and to participate in active citizenship within a civil society. 

There are practical reasons why the teaching of civics, citizenship and participation in the civil society should be considered a core area in schooling. To bring this about governments have had to make the federal system work for them in what can be called ‘cooperative federalism’ and this will now be described in the next two sections.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Government of Western Australia acknowledges the traditional custodians throughout Western Australia and their continuing connection to the land, waters and community. We pay our respects to all members of the Aboriginal communities and their cultures; and to Elders both past and present.