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Positive messages for Active Citizenship and Social Purpose Education in Social Attitude Survey

September 22, 2013

 I’ve been reading British Social Attitudes 30 and found much of interest and encouragement for adult educators interested in active citizenship and social purpose.

The survey has been done annually since 1983, allowing us to see change over time, and it probes attitudes on a number of subjects. I’ve mainly looked at politics but there is fascinating material too on gender, welfare, devolution, lifestyle and other topics.

 The results confirm the decline in voting in elections and affiliation to a political party. Voting in both General and Local elections is falling along with the number of people who feel it’s ‘everyone’s duty to vote’ (down from 76% in 1987 to 62% in 2011) and -no surprises here- there is a growing scepticism about politicians.. The number of people who identify with a political party has gone down too, from 87% (1983) to 76% now. There is interesting material also showing how the alignment of social attitudes with party identification is weakening. In the last 25 years, for example, the proportion of Conservatives agreeing that ‘government should redistribute income’ has increased whilst the proportion of Labour supporters agreeing with this has fallen. There’s still a significant gap but it’s narrowing.

But this is not the whole story by any means. The evidence of the survey points to an increased interest in politics, greater participation in non-voting political activity (such as contacting an MP, signing a petition, going on a protest or demonstration) and a stronger belief in ‘personal efficacy’ (that is the individual’s capacity to influence events, in this case the political process).  It’s particularly encouraging  that there is a significant fall (from 1986 to 2012) in the proportion of respondents agreeing ‘people like me have no say in what government does’ (down from 71% to 59%) and ‘politics is too complicated to understand’ (69% to 57%).

 The evidence does point to a growing and worrying age gap; younger people being less likely to particpate in electoral and non-electoral politics although the point is made that the survey doesn’t pick up on some forms of informal political action such as consumer boycotts. Growing engagement in politics has been stronger amongst people with fewer educational qualifications although this may partly relate to age (older people having fewer formal qualifications than younger ones).

Another interesting question is how far attitudes are changing particularly as a result of the onset of the ‘Age of Austerity’. Here the data on attitudes to welfare are relevant. There is some tentative evidence to support the view that declining public sympathy for supporting the unemployed (clearly evident between 1983 and 2007) is beginning to reverse. For instance, between 2007 and 2012 there was an increase (from 7% to 11%) in the proportion of people considering benefits for the unemployed one of their two main priorities for extra welfare spending. Not all the evidence on attitudes to unemployment pointed in this direction though.

In my mind this raises the question of the relationship between experience and attitudes: is a greater awareness of unemployment (self, friends, family, neighbours) leading to attitudinal shifts?

The emerging picture then is complex; a shift from the big picture of elections and political parties to a more fragmented and individualistic one. There are though grounds for optimism and points of connection for adult education.

 Firstly the greater interest and confidence in being able to make a difference must provide some sort of springboard for an educational response. There is room for classes and discussion groups specifically on current affairs, U3A often run these as do some WEA regions.

The previous Government had a commitment to political or civic education supported most notably through  funding ‘Take Part’, ‘a distinctive approach to learning that enables people to make an active contribution to their communities and influence public policies and services’. Much valuable and innovative work arose from this, involving WEA regions and other adult education organisations. There remains a legacy of experience and practice from this and other projects that can be drawn upon. The current government has launched a ‘Democratic Engagement Fund’ although the funding for this is quite modest.

There are many opportunities to introduce elements of political education into many community learning programmes identifying ways to take up issues that arise on courses for instance by signing or initiating a petition, contacting a councillor or MP, organising a local campaign or joining a local pressure or interest group. It would also be interesting to run short activities based on some of the survey questions and contrast responses of students with the survey outcomes. Most importantly, adult education can explore the relationship between students’ experience and  attitudes to social and political questions.

None of this is new of course. I’ve written the blog mainly to highlight the findings that suggest that we are not living through apathetic and apolitical times. On the contrary, there is plenty of interest and confidence; the challenge is connecting with it.

If you have time, have a look at the survey report yourself.

 Link to Survey report

bsa-30.natcen.ac.uk

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