© Illustration by Siiri Taimla

© Illustration by Siiri Taimla

Socio-economic inequalities in political engagement: the consequences of limited citizenship education within vocational education and training

by Bryony Hoskins



The 2016 review of the implementation of the 2010 Council of Europe Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship (EDC) and Human Rights Education (HRE) brought to attention the issue of disadvantaged youth and the inequalities in provision of EDC/HRE to this group across Europe. Although such inequalities can already be found earlier in a young person’s education experience (Hoskins et al. 2017), it was the lack of quality provision within the vocational education and training sector which was particularly highlighted. Typically across Europe, it is the most disadvantaged students (measured by socio-economic status, ethnicity and migrant status) who undertake the vocational routes in education (Hoskins et al. 2016),[1] and for this reason disadvantaged students are particularly affected by both the quality and quantity of HRE/EDC provision when undertaking these qualifications. At the same time, it is these young people whose voices are heard the least and who suffered the most during the recent economic crisis (ibid.).

The Council of Europe (2017) analysis of the summaries of replies from 40 member states’ ministries of education to the review of the implementation of the Charter highlighted the inequalities in provision of EDC/HRE between students who undertake vocational education and training, compared to students taking academic qualifications. In some European countries, this is referred to as different school tracks. Just over one-third of countries had either none or scarcely any reference at all to EDC/HRE in their education laws, policies and strategic objectives for their vocational education and training, compared to about 10% of countries who lacked these references for academic formal education. For those countries that had participated in the last two rounds of the review of the Charter (2010 and 2016) the situation was identified as getting worse, with 17 countries reducing or removing references to EDC/HRE within their countries’ vocational education and training.

The ministry responses help to explain the results of recent research across 24 European countries, which find that young people who have taken a vocational education pathway across Europe are much less likely to politically engage than students who have undertaken general/more academic education (van de Werfhorst 2007, 2009). Nevertheless, it is reasonable to ask how researchers are sure that it is the vocational education experience that is influencing these results and not their prior education experiences or socio-economic status. In order to establish whether this is the case, it is necessary to analyse longitudinal data. This means data that are collected from the same individuals at different points throughout their life-course, including their early experiences of education and later on into adulthood. We have analysed data like these for young people living in England in our recent research and found some nuances regarding the different education pathways that young people undertook and their effect on political engagement (voting and protesting).

© Illustration by Siiri Taimla

Before we look at this analysis, I will explain some of the details about the vocational education system in England. VET in colleges in England, in particular those offering Level 1 and 2 European Qualifications Framework (EQF) qualifications, has been held in low prestige and is undertaken typically by young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. The usefulness of these qualifications in gaining employment in the UK has been questioned (Wolf 2011). VET qualifications in England are focused on skills for specific employment and contain very little in the way of general education. It may well be that students taking VET qualifications may also take or retake general qualifications in English and maths but it is very unlikely that they are offered, or choose to take, a specific citizenship education qualification (Hoskins et al. 2016). Young people in England can choose to take VET qualifications from the age of 15 to 16.

To analyse the effect of undertaking academic and VET on voting and protesting we have used the English Citizenship Education Longitudinal Study dataset. The study includes data from a cohort of young people aged 11 and 12 (Year 7; first year of secondary school) when they were surveyed for the first time in 2003. This cohort was then surveyed every two years until 2011 (Round 5). The data were collected from a nationally representative sample of 112 state-maintained schools in England. We used data from Round 5, when pupils were aged 19 and 20, and thus when most had either started working or had moved into higher education. We also used the data from Round 2 (when respondents were aged 13 and 14) to identify the baseline of young people’s intentions for political engagement prior to selecting vocational or academic education pathways. We included in the model for the analysis measures of gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background and main activity of the individual (at university, other education and training, unemployed or working). Adding these elements to the analytic model makes sure that the characteristics of students do not influence the overall results. The analysis we conducted is called logistic regression (if you are interested in more details of the data or methods, please see Hoskins and Janmaat 2016).

© Illustration by Siiri Taimla


The results of our research show that young people’s choice of type of education pathway and the level of qualifications obtained had an independent additional effect on both their chances of voting in the 2010 general election and protesting in 2010. Our analysis showed that undertaking an academic qualification at EQF Level 3 (in England this is mainly A levels) appears to be the crucial pathway for developing an individual disposition to be an active citizen who will vote and protest (see the figures below). Both the type and level of qualification appear to matter for voting and protesting. Young people who undertook academic Level 3 qualifications had a 70% chance of voting in the 2010 general election compared to less than a 50% chance of voting if they had undertaken EQF Level 2 vocational qualifications or lower (see the first figure). Thus, those with the lowest level qualifications and Level 2 vocational qualifications were losing out the most in exerting their political right to vote. For protesting, only taking the route to academic EQF Level 3 qualifications really mattered, with over a 70% chance of protesting for those having undertaken this qualification. All other academic and vocational qualification routes had a significantly lower uptake of their right to protest, with those with Level 1 and 2 vocational qualifications less than a 50% chance of protesting, and vocational Level 3 and academic Level 2 just above a 50% chance of protesting in 2010.

How unique are these findings for England? The size of the differences between education pathways elsewhere in Europe may not be so large. The special character of England's education system which is market-led and focuses on developing job-specific skills may well enhance the differences. As such, it contrasts markedly with VET systems in other European countries where social partners play a much greater role in organising and providing VET and where the VET curriculum also promotes a more general body of knowledge and skills, including those relevant for active citizenship. Nevertheless, the research suggests that the negative effect of vocational education and training compared to academic education exists across many European countries (van de Werfhorst 2017). Researchers in Germany (Eckstein et al. 2012) also using longitudinal data analysis found that it was only the students in the academic tracks that increased their positive attitudes towards political engagement, whilst more qualitative research in the Netherlands found similar results for the development of social competences between the tracks (ten Dam and Volman 2003).

© Illustration by Siiri TaimlaThere is little in the way of systematic evidence at present (using control trials or use of longitudinal research) providing evidence of effective EDC/HRE or citizenship education in VET. The current literature on socio-economic inequalities and political engagement for general lower secondary students using longitudinal research identifies that voluntary and participatory opportunities to learn political engagement in schools and colleges, such as class councils, mock elections and school debates, are typically accessed by young people from more privileged backgrounds, whilst compulsory citizenship classes are not only equally accessible but have also been found to reduce socio-economic inequalities in political engagement (Hoskins et al. 2017).

There are several implications from research presented in this article. First, that policy makers need to re-evaluate and increase the importance of teaching citizenship within the vocational education and training education pathways. Second, instead of mainly teaching young people in VET the values of being loyal workers, young people also need to learn about, and how to defend, their rights in the workplace, the role of collective action and to find out about the function of unions. Third, that the field of vocational education and training is likely in some countries to benefit from the expertise of youth workers in teaching active citizenship. Youth workers often have experience of working with the target group of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and supporting their learning of citizenship and political engagement. This is not always the case for specialised VET teachers who have expertise in teaching specific skills for jobs and particular professions.

[1]. In Germany, with early school selection at the age of 10, many disadvantaged students have already been directed to undertake lower school tracks and as a result are not even able to make it into vocational education and training (VET). VET in Germany has a higher level of prestige than in many other European countries and is therefore also of interest to young people from more affluent backgrounds (Hoskins et al. 2016).

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