6 principles for effective social action in schools - RSA

6 principles for effective social action in schools


  • Picture of Hannah Breeze
    Hannah Breeze
    Former RSA Researcher
  • Curriculum
  • Schools
  • Community engagement

How can you judge the quality of work done for the local community?

That’s the question we’ve been trying to answer in our RSA4 project, which runs social action projects for Year 4 pupils. (What is social action? Social action is something done for the benefit of the community. For example, fundraising for a local charity or helping in a local park.)

Here I take a look at what we’ve learnt about what works and what doesn’t – based on the #iwill campaign’s 6 principles of what makes quality social action.

To help the community, ask what they need

Principle 1: Socially Impactful. This principle means that quality social action must respond to real needs and really help local people.

We found the best way to make sure what we were doing really did help was simply to ask people what they needed.

In one school, we worked with pupils who wrote and conducted their own surveys on litter, recycling, and plastic. These results helped them to choose ‘putting more recycling bins in our school’ and ‘organising a litter collection’ as their actions.

Another school wanted to focus on youth homelessness. So, they met with staff to find out what young people would need – then collected those items.

Make social action part of the curriculum

Principle 2: Embedded. This principle means social action should aim to create lasting changes and behaviours.

In schools, changing behaviours means making social action part of teaching and a school’s values. We’ve seen teachers discover that social action can be an exciting and stimulating tool to explore the curriculum and connect learning to the world beyond school.

For example, in the school looking at plastics and recycling there was a creative writing assignment about describing life as a turtle in plastic polluted oceans. In the school helping the homeless, drama asked pupils to think about being on the streets. Another school was working to promote wellbeing – they used mindfulness to do it in class.

Let pupils lead social action

Principle 3: Youth-led. This principle means social action should be led, owned and shaped by young people’s needs, ideas and decision-making.

We found that pupil-led action was much more likely to succeed than teacher or school-led activity.

Research looking at children’s understanding of charity has found that young pupils are often not aware of the reason for charitable giving through school activities such as Children in Need or Comic Relief days. Give children the chance to explore the issues behind charities and they will come up with their own ideas to help.

At the heart of our work on RSA4 are 10 Pupil Leaders from each of the participating schools. They’ve decided the issue, they’ve decided what they want to do, and they’ve made it happen.

Teachers told us they were surprised at the leadership pupils showed – and noticed a big confidence boost.

Include all students – kids outside their comfort zone can benefit most

Principle 4: Challenging. This principle means social action will stretch learners.

To make sure our social action activities were pushing kids, we found it was helpful to include students beyond the existing leaders and high-flyers.

We asked teachers to choose children they thought would gain the most from responsibility and working in a team – not necessarily the students they knew would be the most capable. We found that it’s often been the kids most outside their comfort zone that have thrived.

By setting high expectations, teachers and schools encouraged students to meet those goals. This year on RSA4, children have written to local government asking for their support, formally met with the senior management of the school about the project, and exceeded fundraising targets. But more than these achievements, we’ve been impressed with how they’ve problem-solved their way around barriers outside their control.

Try to build a legacy for social action

Principle 5: Progressive. Social action should create a ‘habit of service’: a commitment to helping others.

This has been one of the challenges for the RSA4 project. Many of the schools taking part are First Schools (Reception to Year 4), so pupils go to new school after they take part in Year 4. Building a legacy is hard.

But we saw many pupils help ensure their projects will last by recruiting younger students and speaking to the Year 3 pupils about social action and how they can be involved in RSA4 next year.

Some of the pupils even have plans to speak to their new schools about introducing their project or finding opportunities outside of school to support their communities. This supports the research of the Jubilee Centre, which found that students who volunteer before the age of ten are more than twice as likely to form a ‘habit of service’.

Celebrate…but also evaluate

Principle 6: Reflective. This principle is about recognizing achievements and thinking critically.

Central to the idea of social action is the ‘double benefit’ – the community benefits, and the young person taking part benefits too. One of our key aims with RSA4 has been to build positive character traits and skills in students. Things like believing they can make a difference, responsibility, teamwork, leadership, communication, problem solving.

To do this, it was important for us to have celebration events at schools, but also cross-school evaluations workshops where students presented their projects. Together, these helped children reflect.

“We all learnt that giving is better than being selfish.”

As we at the RSA look forward to continuing our work on social action with primary students, with the support of the Pears #iwill Fund (made possible with joint investment from Pears Foundation, The National Lottery Community Fund and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), we are happy with what students have told us about taking part so far:

“I’m proud of helping other people and raising money to achieve our goals.”

“We all learnt that giving is better than being selfish.”

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