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Norwegian youth’s trust in the government is increasing

At the same time, 14-year-olds’ trust in ‘people in general’ is weakened. These are the results of the international democracy study ICCS 2016, which has been carried out in 24 countries.

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Researchers at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences (HiOA) have studied 14-year-olds’ knowledge about, understanding of and involvement in democratic and sociopolitical issues.

The study is part of The International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS) 2016.

The purpose is to investigate the ways in which students are prepared to undertake their roles as democratic participants and citizens in the 24 countries included in the survey.

Increased trust in civic institutions

Guro Ødegård

The Norwegian year nine students have a very high degree of trust in important civic institutions such as the government, the police and the Norwegian Armed Forces. The study also shows that 14-years-olds in 2016 had a far higher level of trust in such institutions than 14-year-olds in 2009. In particular, the trust in political institutions has increased.

Internationally, Norwegian students have very high scores in relation to trust in institutions, and Norwegian students also exceed the Nordic average. However, the trust in ‘people in general’ has declined somewhat during the same period.

‘One extremely interesting change that we have observed is that while 14-year-olds’ trust in institutions is increasing, their trust in ‘people in general’ has declined during the same period. This surprised us,’ says Guro Ødegård, Head of Research at the Centre for Welfare and Labour Research (NOVA) at HiOA.

She emphasises that they do not have the answer to why this trust is weakened, but offers some possible explanations.

‘We find it likely that young people’s use of social media may have affected this development. Could the debate climate in social media have contributed to weakening trust in “people in general”? Another explanation could be that young people in 2016 experience terrorism from a much closer distance. They are living in more uncertain times than in the past, and this could have led to a weakening of this trust,’ she says.

Overall, the results of the ICCS study show that Norwegian students’ attitudes to democracy and citizenship have improved from 2009 to 2016.

‘Although 14-year-olds are young, and are still four years away from coming of age and being able to vote, they are active citizens,’ says Ødegård.

‘When we asked the students what they associate with a good citizen, they highlighted always following the law, voting at all general elections and respecting the government as the most important qualities,’ she says.

Researchers also observe a tendency for the young generation to be more focused on morals and duty. This interpretation supports findings from other youth research which also show that young people support traditional political institutions to a greater extent than in the past. 

‘Such adaptation among young people can be interpreted as a positive sign of the times, but this also requires opposition and resistance that can be mobilised when critical correctives are needed vis-à-vis the powers that be,’ says Ødegård.

High knowledge level and good understanding

The results of the survey show that Norwegian year nine students also score high on the scale for knowledge of how democracy works in theory and practice compared to the international average in the ICCS study (see the table).

 More than half of the Norwegian students (54%) score at the very highest level.

‘This is high compared with the international average, where only one out of three students score at this level,’ says Project Manager Lihong Huang (NOVA).

Norwegian students in 2016 have a higher level of knowledge about democracy than the Norwegian students who participated in a corresponding study in 2009, but they still have the lowest scores of the Nordic countries.

'Norwegian students are still performing somewhat poorer than students in Denmark, Sweden and Finland, but the knowledge gap between Norwegian students and other Nordic students is smaller than in the past,’ says Huang.

Best at student democracy

Norwegian students score the best on questions relating to participation in democratic activities at school, such as student councils, student parliaments and student debates.

More than 9 out of 10 Norwegian students state that they have participated in student representative elections, and 6 out of 10 have participated in making decisions on how the school should be run. In this respect, the Norwegian year nine students clearly stand out from the international and Nordic average.

‘The students in our study find that the school has a more open climate for debates and discussions. This particularly concerns students with a high level of knowledge and understanding of democracy,’ says Research Manager Guro Ødegård at NOVA, HiOA.

Tendency for diminishing of social inequality

Students whose parents do not have higher education have poorer knowledge and understanding of democracy than students whose parents have higher education. This is the case in all countries that participated in the ICCS study.

However, in Norway, there has been a significant reduction in the knowledge gap between students with parents with and without higher education. A similar development cannot be found in any of the other Nordic countries.

Young people from minority language families have poorer scores in the democracy test than young people from the majority population. This pattern recurs in the other countries.

At the same time, the study shows that all Norwegian students, regardless of linguistic background, score higher on the test in 2016 than in 2009. However, year nine students from families whose first language is not Norwegian have made the most progress. This has led to increased harmonisation of knowledge between these two groups of students.

‘Our Nordic neighbours cannot boast the same development,’ says Huang. ‘While the knowledge gap has increased in the other Nordic countries, it has decreased in Norway.’

Girls have higher scores than the boys

The researchers found a tendency for increased gender differences in several areas among the Norwegian 14-year-olds. Girls score higher than boys on the knowledge test both in 2009 and 2016. Although there has been an increase for both boys and girls, the girls have increased their lead somewhat.

The questionnaire survey also shows that 7 out of 10 Norwegian students in year nine either participate or have participated in one or more sociopolitical activities. More girls than boys have participated in at least one activity: 65% of the boys compared with 75% of the girls.

Important knowledge

The researchers emphasise that ICCS provides us with important knowledge.

‘A democracy depends on high legitimacy that is created when most of the citizens, regardless of their social backgrounds, are both able and willing to participate,’ Ødegård points out. ‘Knowledge is an important precondition for participation, and the ICCS study shows several positive tendencies in that regard.’

The study is also useful to the authorities and school policy makers. The results can contribute to the work of adapting and improving the democracy teaching curricula in lower secondary school.

Read more

The results are published in the report: Unge medborgere.  Demokratiforståelse, kunnskap og engasjement blant 9.-klassinger i Norge (Young citizens. Understanding of democracy, knowledge and involvement among year nine students in Norway).  The International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS) 2016 . NOVA Report 15/17. The report is written by Lihong Huang, Guro Ødegård, Kristinn Hegna, Vegard Svagård, Tarjei Helland and Idunn Seland.

Download ‘Kort oppsummert.  Unge medborgere’ (pdf) for a brief summary of some of the main findings from the report.

Halvard Dyb (text), Colourbox (photo) Published: Updated: