What role can schools play in developing young people’s social agency? - RSA

What role can schools play in developing young people’s social agency?

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  • Picture of Hannah Breeze
    Hannah Breeze
    Former RSA Researcher
  • Education
  • Curriculum
  • Schools
  • Skills
  • Teaching

Over the past few weeks 40 Year Four pupils have been coming together for a series of RSA Academies RSA4 workshops that will see the pupil leaders develop character traits and practical skills to deliver positive social change in their communities and schools, through youth social action.

It seems only fitting that in the same timeframe we’ve seen the recent Schools Strike 4 Climate movement inspire hundreds of thousands of pupils across 100 countries to walk out of school in protest. As well as drawing attention to the issue at hand, this action has also ignited powerful discussions about the role education plays in fostering young people’s civic engagement.

In his Guardian article, ‘If children don’t join the climate strike, their schools are underachieving’, David Reed, Director of Generation Change, has gone as far as to say that those schools who have failed to empower their pupils with the skills and knowledge to join the protests have deprived them of a learning opportunity no classroom can teach.

Politicians and school leaders have been left grappling with the argument - should we condone, condemn or even celebrate this particular expression of youth agency?

An education with character?

When we talk about developing pupil’s civic engagement we tend to frame it in the broader context of character education – that learning both formally and informally can support young people to develop positive character traits or virtues – within schools.

The idea that pupils need a broad education, one that nurtures specific positive character traits and virtues is not new.Since 2012, character education has been heralded within education policy as the silver bullet for developing well-rounded young people who are better prepared to contribute to society. This drive for a character focused education followed in the wake of the 2011 summer riots across Britain. It’s encouraging that in 2019 we are discussing character education in relations to a much more positive mobilisation of young people.

Yet much can be said on the argument that our current education system can be characterised by accountability to performance targets and an ‘education by numbers’ designed for the task of getting pupils through exams.

Academic success and securing the qualifications that will open doors for every pupil is important. However, academic attainment forms just one aspect of supporting young people to flourish. We need pupils who are resilient to life’s challenges and can bounce back after disappointment. We want our young people to be ambitious about what they can achieve, set goals for themselves and work towards them with determination. No aspect of what is outlined above is exclusive to formal learning alone, and neither should it be.

Last month, Education Secretary Damian Hinds reconfirmed the Department for Education’s commitment to character education. During his keynote address to the Church of England’s Educational Leadership conference, Hinds announced youth social action - practical action in the service of others to create positive change – as one of five core foundations for building character.

Dual relationship and double benefit

The joint statement from the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues and Step up to Serve iwill campaign highlights that youth social action fundamentally contributes to the development and expression of character. The connection between character development and social action is a dual relationship in which one fosters the other.

‘character development – and the importance of virtue – should be viewed as a core element of social action, empowering all young people to develop a clearer sense of their relationships with others, as well as of their own purpose in life’.

The Jubilee Centre has suggested that there is a set of building blocks to character that centre on four types of virtues; intellectual, moral, civic and performance.

Intellectual virtues, such as critical thinking and autonomy, are central to equipping young people to make informed decisions about the world around them. In addition, young people need to have moral virtues that act as their social compass to guide this decision making and include, among others, compassion, sense of justice and integrity. Civic virtues are the traits that enable us to feel a strong sense of belonging to our communities and enable us to act as responsible citizens. Finally, performance virtues are often used to refer to soft skills such as confidence, resilience and teamwork that enable young people to act on intellectual, moral and civic virtues.

Developing a strong sense of these virtues in young people should engender a commitment among the next generation to tackling social issues and practical action for change. Evidence has shown that the positive impact of participating in youth-led social action has a ‘double benefit’ for the young people involved, and the communities the action serves. Social action develops a range of building block virtues in young people through the learning process of designing and delivery the action, as well as empowering communities.

It's this double benefit that offers young people the opportunity to develop skills that employers increasingly say they need more of from the workforce of the future. A report published by CIPD and Step-up to Serve’s iwill campaign found that 67% of employers felt candidates who have social action experience demonstrate more employability skills such as teamwork, communication and understanding of their local community.

Social action as a means of developing and expressing character might just be the antidote to the ‘education by numbers’ system, and the answer to the questions how can schools produce the well-rounded young citizens we need.

Tackling more than just climate change

The Strike for Climate Change movement has the potential to challenge society’s perception of young people’s civic engagement.  The RSA report Teenagency: how young people can create a better world, shows young people’s participation in social action significantly outweighs adults perception. Just 5% of adults think that young people today are likely to contribute towards social action compared to the actual 68% of young people have participated in volunteering, fundraising or some form of social action.

However, challenging perceptions is about more than just adults’ preconceived ideas. While 84% of young people want to help others only 52% believe that they can make a positive difference in their communities. Often young people consider their age, position in society and inexperience to be limiting factors. But evidence shows that building character traits and virtues such as confidence in their ability to make a difference, encourages greater participation among young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We know that schools are a particularly ripe environment for developing these character traits through social action as 74% of those aged 10 – 20 year olds who have participated in social action got involved through their school. Yet the Teacher Voice Omnibus survey carried out the NFER (National Foundation for Educational Research) for the iwill campaign shows only a third of teacher’s surveys felt social action was embedded within their school culture. This gap between value and opportunity is particularly pronounced at the primary level with the majority for primary school teachers indicating that either they don’t know what social action is or have not thought about implementing it in their school.

Schools need to be given more space to develop opportunities for character-based learning to be 'taught, caught and sought' – and social action is a powerful mechanism for delivering this.

I’m hopeful that the announcement that Schools Strike 4 Climate initiator, 16 year old Greta Thunberg has been nominated for the Noble Peace Prize, demonstrates the influence young people can have, particularly when social action and education meet. What started as a one-person protest has kick-started a global youth movement.

If Greta does go on to receive the Noble Peace Prize in October she will be the youngest ever recipient. This is where the RSA4 project draws on recent research that signals Year Four as a critical stage for introducing young people to youth social action. Research from the Jubilee Centre finds that those who start volunteering before the age of ten are more than twice as likely to form a ‘habit of service’ (a commitment to continuing to volunteer) than if they start at 16-18 years of age. It is not surprising then that Greta first took an interest in tackling climate change when she was just eight years old.

Regardless of where you sit on the controversy surrounding students striking during school time, you cannot deny the next generation have a strong desire (and need) to be activists for positive social change in times of great uncertainty.

More importantly, they are ready to act. As educators, we need to give them the opportunity, character and know-how to lead it.


RSA4 is a new initiative supported by the Pears Foundation #iwill Fund that will see the RSA and RSA Academies investigating what high-quality youth social action looks like at primary school level.

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  • Hello, I recently joined the RSA, as the founder of an environmental education charity, I am particularly interested in the subject of student engagement and empowerment. One of our program we about to launch has strong elements of Service Action with environmental impact.

    I would love to explore a global connected community of youth through Service Action with the RSA4, perhaps have a matching 10 schools.


  • Great piece on the importance of developing civic virtue and social action to give young people the ability to tackle issues that concern them through democratic means available to them. My book Practical Politics: Lessons in Power and Democracy aims to show why and how schools and universities can develop their civic abilities and tackle the critical issues that affect them and the world. You can download free extracts from www.practicalpolitics.global or get if from Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3u6vf9j 

  • Thanks for this - connecting your thinking to our work with ArtScapers programme for University of Cambridge and particularly Mayfield Primary School. Sharing this programme as part of agenda - Learning without limits: children as ArtScapers influencing change in and around their school - at next APPG Art, design and craft in education meeting on 14th May.