Students’ knowledge of Australia's system of government is lower than expected, with only one in three Year 10 students knowing what the Constitution is, reports Justine Ferrari in The Australian on 18 February, 2009.

The report demonstrates that after vast sums of taxpayers’ funds have been directed into civics education, education about one of the world’s most successful constitutional systems is still deficient. 

We can be certain about one thing. Knowledge about a key check and balance against the abuse of power, one which buttresses the other checks and balances and which provides leadership beyond politics, is next to non-existent.  I am referring of course to the Australian Crown. 

Yet this is the institution which our politicians –or some of them – want to undermine. Fearing they would lose if they chose the legitimate and constitutional path, they are planning to shake and damage the whole constitutional system through  the shady device of a plebiscite.

Every Australian who is interested in the future of our country will be seriously concerned by Ms. Ferrari’s report.  

She reports that the national assessment of civics and citizenship in Years 6 and 10 found about 54 per cent of primary students and 41 per cent of high school students met the proficiency standards for their year. About one in five Year 10 students failed to meet the Year 6 standard. 

…and education about the constitution?

"This was especially the case in relation to information about the constitutional structure of Australian democracy," the report says. "Lacking such fundamental information will restrict the capacity of students to make sense of many other aspects of Australian democratic forms and processes, and they may, therefore, be disadvantaged in their capacity to engage in meaningful ways in many other levels of civic action or discourse." 

At Year 6, students are expected to recognise the division of governmental responsibilities in a federation, identify a link between a change in Australia's identity and a change in the national anthem, recognise the benefit of different political parties and the federal budget. 

By Year 10, students are expected to recognise key functions and features of parliament, analyse the common good as a motivation for becoming a whistleblower, explain the importance of a secret ballot, and recognise how the independence of the judiciary is protected.

On the Constitution, Year 10 students were asked "what is the Australian Constitution?" and given four possible answers: the rules about how the major Australian political parties are run; the policies of the Australian federal government; the framework for the ways Australia is governed; all the laws that Australian citizens must obey. 

Only 34 per cent identified the correct answer, the framework for the way Australia is governed. 

"Given that it is a definitional question, requiring only knowledge with no interpretation, it is clear that students have not been taught or at least have not learned this most basic information," the report says. 

The test was held at the end of 2007 among more than 7000 Year 6 and 5500 Year 10 students in state and non-government schools. 

The results are a slight improvement on the last test, in 2004, reports Ms. Ferrari. 

The report says: "The content and conceptual grasp required for these items included understandings about international agreements, about how a nation's identity is reshaped over time (in part by demographic changes resulting from immigration) and also principles of democracy." It says the findings suggest many schools are failing to include teaching of civics and citizenship.

Ms. Ferrari says the report claims that  other activities, including giving students the opportunity to participate in decision-making at school or in civics-related activities, can overcome the shortfall.

It says that out-of-school activities, such as listening to the news on radio, not television, and discussing political and social issues with family and friends also led to a greater knowledge.

This is obviously true. Television news can only convey limited information, and  radio and  newspapers are  important.  (The internet versions of newspapers are an inadequate substitute for the print version.)

But students should also be taught about campaigning journalism, when journalists turn  themselves into political players with their own agendas, rather than reporters of the news.