Improving Youth Political Engagement and Citizenship
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Liverpool
Unit of AssessmentPolitics and International Studies
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Studies In Human Society: Political Science, Sociology
Summary of the impact
This case study refers to the research/publications of Tonge on youth
civic engagement since 2007, which dovetailed with his government
appointment as Chair of the Youth Citizenship Commission (YCC) in 2008-9.
The research agenda examined what citizenship means to young people;
considered how to increase young people's participation in politics;
assessed how citizenship can be promoted through community and political
engagement and led a consultation with young people on whether the voting
age should be lowered to 16. Of 17 policy recommendations arising from the
research, 16 were approved by the government, improving opportunities for
young people to volunteer, become politically engaged and receive better
The underpinning research was developed via Tonge's research agenda and
academic publications undertaken following the Governance of Britain
Green Paper (2007) on youth citizenship and political engagement, and via
the reports and recommendations of the Youth Citizenship Commission,
chaired by Professor Tonge. The research involved extensive qualitative
interviews with young people and groups attempting to promote youth
political engagement and volunteering and quantitative (n2200+) survey
The research insights and findings from the quantitative and qualitative
analyses undertaken between 2007-10 can be summarised as follows:
- There was acknowledgement amongst young people themselves of
non-engagement in formal political activity, reflected in, e.g. only a
minority of 18-24 years olds voting in elections since 1997, but that
this should not be construed as apathy.
- Social class was a significant variable in levels of youth political
- Young people's perceptions of what constituted good citizenship did
not normally include political activity, such as voting. Instead,
obedience to the law or apolitical volunteering were seen as good
citizenship, not political engagement. The research highlighted the need
to empower citizenship and develop it to include political activity.
- The barriers which exist to the development of youth political
engagement are social, institutional and knowledge-deficit based.
- There is a particularly low level of knowledge amongst young people of
- Most innovations to bolster political engagement have previously been
technocratic (e.g. experiments with voting methods) - an approach
rejected by young people who are sceptical of experiments such as text
voting and insufficiently ideological.
- The research found that citizenship education does improve civic
engagement and political capacity. Young people respond positively on a
range of indicators, provided it is properly taught. The research
discovered that citizenship education has been uneven in delivery and
content, ranging from excellent to unsatisfactory, since becoming a
statutory part of the English curriculum (and taught under other titles
elsewhere in the UK). Crucially however, the research found that,
controlling for demographic and social class variables, properly
delivered citizenship education does have a beneficial impact in terms
of political knowledge and engagement, offering a clear rationale for
its continuation within the school syllabus. A positive independent
effect was yielded by citizenship education in terms of knowledge,
propensity to volunteer and likelihood of voting.
- Young people (16-17 year olds) are almost evenly divided on whether
the voting age should be lowered and the issue is not seen as a priority
by many. A majority of 18-25 year olds were opposed to any lowering.
Most 16-17 year olds opposed to a lowering felt they had insufficient
knowledge to vote.
- Non-registration of young voters - as high as 28 per cent of those due
on the electoral register- is an acute problem which needs to be tackled
via registration in schools/colleges.
- A programme of National Citizen Service for young people as a means of
boosting civic engagement could have utility, provided that it avoided
errors highlighted in the comparative examples studied in the research
e.g. the privatised `poor corps' United States model and the compulsion
and indeterminate ambitions of the German model of civic service. The
research highlighted the need for any such programme to move beyond
civil volunteering to also adopt civic, i.e. political, knowledge
acquisition or engagement.
Overall, the research found that where there was a lack of civil and
civic engagement among young people it was often caused not by apathy but
by a lack of information or opportunity. This tended to lead to engagement
amongst young people being largely confined to immediate social spheres of
family and friends and not extending to institutions and political actors.
The research found a lack of prioritisation of young people's civic needs
amongst policy-makers, leading to the absence of holistic programmes of
reform designed to boost civic engagement. Policy-makers needed to develop
new methods of engaging with young people to connect better and to
re-orientate institutions to be capable of adapting to the desires of
young people, otherwise youth civic non- engagement could worsen.
References to the research
• Tonge, J. `The
Future of Citizenship', in A. Russell and G. Stoker (eds) Failing
Politics? A response to The Governance of Britain Green Paper,
Newcastle, Political Studies Association, 2007, 18-21
• Tonge, J. `Revitalising Politics: Engaging Young People', Representation,
2009, 45.3, 237-46. DOI: 10.180/00344890903129418.
• Tonge, J. and Mycock, A. `Citizenship and political engagement amongst
young people: the workings and findings of the Youth Citizenship
Commission, Parliamentary Affairs, 2010, 63.1, 182-200. DOI:
• Mycock, A. and Tonge, J. `A Big Idea for the Big Society? The Advent of
National Citizen Service', Political Quarterly, 2011, 82.1, 56-66.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-923X.2011.02166.x Winner of the 2011 Children's
Identity and Citizenship European Association (CiCea) - a network of 100
HEIs across 30 European countries - best
research publication of the year award.
• Tonge, J. Mycock, A. and Jeffrey, R. `Does Citizenship Education Make
Young People Better- Engaged Citizens?' Political Studies, 2012,
60.3, 578-602, DOI. 1111/j.1467- 9248.2011.00931.x. Fast-tracked after
acceptance by all three peer reviewers as important research of clear
policy salience. Peer review comments included: "clearly well
placed...some interesting data...an evidence based response to what is a
key contemporary issue"..."well written, structured and argued...a good
addition to the journal"..."an excellent and very timely piece and I
strongly recommend its publication"..."It can be published almost exactly
as it is"..."Given the topical importance and policy relevance of its
findings, ideally the article should be published as soon as possible".
• Tonge, J. and Mycock, A. `The Party Politics of Youth Citizenship and
Democratic Engagement', Parliamentary Affairs, 2012, 65.1, 138-61.
Plus the research report and recommendations of the Youth
Citizenship Commission e.g.
the Connection: Building Youth Citizenship in the UK, 2009.
Enough to Make A Mark: Should the voting age be lowered to 16?
and the government's positive response: An
Agenda for Youth Engagement
Details of the impact
- In order for the above research to achieve maximum impact, key
findings, ideas and recommendations were `road-tested' via a range of
potential beneficiaries and stakeholders, such as the British Youth
Council, the Prince's Trust, the Hansard Society and the UK Youth
Parliament, to formulate how practical and workable policies could be
developed to reflect the thrust of the research. These stakeholders thus
met with Tonge to discuss the research and prospective policy
outworking. These groups were also involved in dissemination of the
research into the public domain, mainly via websites and forums (e.g.
the Hansard Society ran a `Heads Up' interactive discussion blog in
2009-10, to which Tonge regularly contributed) and helped promote some
of the findings to influence adoption by the government. Other processes
of dissemination included promotion and discussion of the research and
outworking at public events, ranging from ESRC Festivals of Social
Science (2008, Sheffield, 2012 Birmingham); via the chairing of local
youth councils, e.g. Bridgend's in 2009); and via television and radio
programmes (e.g. `Tell it Like it Is' and `Dragon's Eye' on BBC Wales,
2009, with the research findings also featured on BBC Radio 4's
Westminster Hour in 2013).
- Research findings have been presented directly to government
ministers; Tonge was invited to present research and recommendations to
the Prime Minister, the Cabinet Office and to the government's
Democratic Renewal Council of senior ministers. Research findings on the
value of citizenship education were sent directly to the Education
Minister, Michael Gove, in 2012 and the government reversed its initial
intention to abolish citizenship education from the school curriculum.
Tonge also presented his research to Dail Eireann (the Irish Parliament)
and at the National Assembly for Wales. Young people responded to the
research in a series of interactive discussions with Tonge in the
Hansard Society's Heads Up Forum.
The research has had the following impacts, benefitting stakeholders and
young people, evidenced in the written testimonials provided from
government ministers which show how recommendations arising from the
research have been put directly into effect.
A dedicated Minister for Youth Citizens and Youth Engagement was
established in October 2010 to bolster youth civil and civic engagement
and to coordinate youth engagement initiatives, which the research
highlighted as hitherto too piecemeal and uncoordinated.
A youth online hub was created by the government in 2010,
allowing young people to access information concerning citizenship
opportunities and funding for youth engagement projects and informational
networks, such as the Ministry of Justice's Youth Network programme.
The Children Schools and Families Bill 2011 placed statutory
responsibilities upon schools to give pupils `voice', in line with
The research highlighted that young people were knowledge-deficient in
terms of how to interact with local authorities. Consequently, the
government placed a statutory duty upon local authorities to consider
permanent arrangements for consultations with local populations on
the delivery of services, reflective of all ages, to include
permanent advisory and scrutiny panels.
The research made a very clear case for the retention of citizenship
education and for improvements in the consistency and effectiveness
of its delivery. It demonstrated the gains evident in terms of civic
engagement, literacy and knowledge of how decisions are made at local and
national levels from citizenship classes. Significantly, the
Conservatives moved from a position of opposition to citizenship
education prior to taking office in 2010 to one of retention as the
subject was clearly shown to be of considerable value in bolstering
citizen engagement, as shown in the Citizenship
Foundation report February 2013.
The research did not advocate a lowering of the voting age for
Westminster elections and the current government has cited its evidence in
this respect (Hansard
col 523, 24/01/13). It argued that there was no case in this respect
and that public opinion could not act as a clear guide, as the research
demonstrated that those aged 18+ strongly opposed change whilst those
younger were (marginally) in favour of change. The research highlighted
the considerable variation in terms of ages of responsibility. It did
suggest that the age of franchise in devolved nations could be determined
by the governments of those nations, a feature accepted by the SNP (which
commented on the research) in government. The research suggested that
ensuring that young people are registered to vote is a bigger
priority than examination of the voting age and government/Electoral
Commission advertising campaigns have reflected this.
A pilot programme of civic service, National Citizen Service, has been
introduced, on a voluntary basis. The research, whilst supportive of the
idea in principle based upon existing national and international
comparative evidence (USA and Germany), highlighted the difficulties of
introducing compulsory schemes (cost issues), privately-run programmes
(motive issues) and also stressed the need for clear definition of the
purpose of such schemes. Volunteering opportunities have been expanded
under the previous and current governments and the expectation is that
citizen service, if pilots are successful, will be expanded.
Overall, the significance of the research has been to shift governmental
agendas towards a much clearer and far more focused approach towards youth
civil and civic engagement. Prior to the research, there were fewer
opportunities for volunteering and no national programme, no statutory
engagement with young people at local level, no dedicated minister for
young people, and a focus on voting age, rather than young voter
registration and engagement with the political process. All of this has
changed, whilst citizenship education has been retained, as the research
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Testimonial from the former Secretary of State for Justice to HM
Government corroborates the theoretical and empirical prior research
which led to Prof Tonge's appointment as Youth Citizenship Commission
chair; the research which underpinned the Commission during its life;
the specific proposals for improving youth political engagement and the
recommendations on the voting age.
- Testimonial from the former Minister for Democracy to HM Government
(Department of Justice) corroborates the research which led to Prof
Tonge's appointment as Youth Citizenship Commission chair; the research
which underpinned the Commission and its specific proposals for
improving youth engagement and how they made a difference.
- Testimonial from the former Cabinet Office Minister (Young
Citizens/Youth Engagement) to HM Government corroborates the value of
the research and the impact proposals developed in respect of improving
youth political engagement - in particular the recommendations for
institutional change to improve political opportunity structures for
- Testimonial from the Programme Executive of The Prince's Trust
corroborates the evidence-gathering which underpinned the research and
informed the proposals; the road-testing of recommendations arising from
the research; and the data which underpinned research and
- The Researcher and Project Manager at the Hansard Society can be
contacted to corroborate that outcomes from the Heads Up forum had a
direct impact on young people's understanding of politics. The forum can
be seen here.
- Publication of the Government's
formal response to the Youth Citizenship Commission report, `An
Agenda for Youth Engagement' which accepts the research and
findings and indicates how the government is implementing its
recommendations, overwhelmingly accepted. The original research and
report is described as `informative and challenging' and `invaluable'
and this government report `focuses on what has been achieved in
- Oral evidence given by Prof Tonge to the Joint Committee on the
Constitution, Dail Eireann (Irish Parliament), on young people and
voting is mentioned in a Press
Release from the Houses of the Oireachtas and cited in the Joint
Committee's report from July 2010 (3.163 to 3.170, pp.79-82).
- Findings and recommendations from the Youth Citizenship Commission are
cited by the House of Commons Justice Committee, Constitutional
Reforms and Renewal (e.g. paras 80-81 p. 26).
- Direct advocacy of research ideas of empowerment of youth in the joint
report of the Local Government Group and National Youth Agency: `Valuing
Young Voices, Strengthening Democracy'. This report cites
the Youth Citizenship Commission's (pp. 11, 13, 15, 16, 21) research
regarding how to improve political opportunity structures for young
people and strengthen links between schools and communities.
- The School Councils of the UK highlighted the importance of the
research research regarding school councils in a School
Councils UK blog (May 2009).