Consensus imperative for civic education

John Hall

Transparency International New Zealand (TINZ) recently commented on the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) Review conducted as part of the national Education Conversation | Korero Matauranga.

TINZ advocated an important attribute of any transparent and accountable society is that its citizens have the literacy to actively participate in routine social and democratic activities.

Divergent understandings

However, a major obstacle is the lack of sufficient common platforms for public discourse. This could lead to different civic and political conversations developing within different communities.

There is a risk that this might eventually be reflected in legislation leading to a divergence in different communities’ understanding of the law.

The lack of a sufficient consensus on the definition and standards of civic literacy may have led to the confusion concerning what constitutes basic civic literacy.

Uncertainty over values

On the one hand, uncertainty about what values lie behind our institutions could lead teachers to focus on only the most mechanical of civic processes (such as voting). This leads to risks, leaving students without an understanding of the rationale for these processes.

On the other hand, leaving the scope of civics too broad may allow teachers to focus solely on issues of interest to them, at the expense of explaining the processes.

Without a common approach across socio-economic demographics to the teaching of civics, there is a risk that students’ literacy with social systems may correlate with decile backgrounds. The International Civic and Citizenship Study (ICCS) study of 2008 identified a disparity in civics knowledge between students from European or Asian ethnic groups and those from Maori or Pasifika backgrounds.

There are serious repercussions for society if demographic or geographic communities are developing diverging understandings of society itself.

The case for robust civil literacy

A robust civics education needs to be of benefit to the individual, the community and society in general.

An important outcome is that an informed and engaged polity is one where robust integrity systems can develop that are strong antidotes for corruption.

TINZ, therefore, supports the broadening of the literacy requirements to include compulsory civics literacy standards.

We hope that the Education Ministry recognises civic literacy as the process whereby citizens can name, analyse, and take effective action on a social or political issue.

John Hall is Director of the Wellington-based Transparency International New Zealand (TINZ) Director (Civic & Human Rights), Open Government Partnership and Auckland Events. The above article appeared in the December 2018 issue of Transparency Times.

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