As part of our Next Gen program, Aria Pape asked Australians of all ages if they believed activism during school hours was a worthwhile pursuit.
The recent reaction from political leaders about school students protesting against the lack of action for climate change was widely reported in the media. Current federal and state leaders all disagreed with student participation, especially during school hours. Did this political rhetoric against student activism echo society’s values?
Passionate about student activism, I constructed a questionnaire aimed to uncover Australia’s views on student activism and if students should be allowed to skip school to participate in activist movements. I used as an example the student climate action protest on March 15, 2019, where 150,000 Australian students headed to Student Strike for Climate Action rallies across 65 locations nationally. After posting the questionnaire it received 69 responses in less than six hours before it was withdrawn. Data analysis showed a strong sentiment supporting kids skipping school to participate in activist movements.
The data also showed a lack of support for the government’s position on student activism.
The political views expressed about anti-student activism identify a misalignment between society’s values and government concerns. Despite the then-NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes warning students they would be breaking the law if they missed school to campaign for climate action, and the NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian expressing concern about missing school, the number of students participating in the March 15 protests suggests that the views of society and its political leaders are not aligned. This is further demonstrated by 78.3% of respondents from my questionnaire agreeing with the statement that they would support school kids if they chose to protest for climate change (see Figure 5) and 72.5% agreeing with them protesting during school hours (see Figure 10).
These statistics portray the conflict of opinions between individuals and political leaders. The Australian Youth Climate Coalition further supports this, as the results from a survey they conducted found 62.7% thought “school students had a right to demand action from the government on climate change”. Overall, this demonstrates support for student activism.
As the majority of respondents were female (72.5% female versus 27.5% male), the final results may be skewed as both genders are not equally represented. This limitation shows, at a macro level, that women are more supportive of student protest than males.
The report found that the majority of respondents have been politically active in the last twelve months—21.7% had attended a protest, 46.4% had boycotted a product, 87% had signed a petition and 23% had contacted a politician. This level of engagement and participation in various forms of activism could well have influenced support for student activism. Notably, the majority of respondents, 53.6%, were between the ages of 35-54 years which is the age cohort most likely to have children at home and therefore, at school (See Figure 2).
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s report, Australia’s mothers and babies 2013—in brief, confirmed the continued rise of women holding off having children until their thirties. The survey findings suggest that this age group is more likely to be supportive of active student participation in rallies and demonstrations. Not all age brackets were equally portrayed. Single non-children groups such as 18 to 24 were underrepresented (see Figure 2).
On November 26, 2018, Prime Minister Scott Morrison blamed student protests for disrupting school work.
“We don’t support schools being turned into parliaments. What we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools.”
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When asked about this statement only 8.7% agreed and 88.4% disagreed with the Prime Minister (see Figure 4).
Then-Federal Resources Minister Matt Canavan continued this rhetoric. He wanted children in school learning.
“The best thing you’ll learn about going to a protest is how to join the dole queue. Because that’s what your future life will look like, up in a line asking for a handout, not actually taking charge for your life and getting a real job.”
The survey responses show a different point of view—91.3% believe that protests about an issue such as climate change should be recognised as “teachable moments”, that is, an opportunity to turn an event into a learning experience. And 78.3% of respondents would enrol their children in a school that supports youth activist movements, thereby clashing with the Minister’s point of view and supporting activism as part of the school curriculum.
The involvement and participation in social and environmental protests is seen as beneficial to youth. The two key benefits identified in the questionnaire showed that for kids, participating in an activist movement was: (a) beneficial for their educational development (71%), and (b) allows them to be more aware and proactive within the Australian community (89.9%). Only 10% voted that students should stay in school. A research conducted by Parissa J Ballard, Lindsay T Hoyt and Mark C Pachucki found that “adolescents and young adults who voted, volunteered or engaged in activism ultimately went further in school and had higher incomes than those who did not mobilize for political or social change”. The study also identified that being involved in activism may change how young people think about themselves or their possibilities for the future. Of the respondents to the questionnaire, 89.9% believe that activism is a democratic right and should not be left just to adults (see Figure 9).
The survey findings showed there’s a disconnect between society’s opinion of youth activism and that of politicians. Furthermore, 46.4% of respondents believe kids participating in activist movements can drive change and benefit the Australian community.
In conclusion, this research strongly indicates that this political rhetoric against student activism does not echo society’s values.
This article is part of a series for The Big Smoke Next Gen.
The Big Smoke Next Gen is a program which matches professional and experienced writers, academics and journalists with students who wish to write non-fiction articles and voice their opinions on what is shaping the nation.
For more information about our program at The Big Smoke, or to become a mentor, please contact us.