Today is the Power of Youth Day, an annual celebration of youth social action where young people take practical steps to make a difference to people, places and planet.
Since 2019, we’ve partnered with the Pears #iWill Fund to explore how to best support more primary schools to engage in high-quality youth social action. We designed, delivered and evaluated a high-quality youth social action project (RSA4) for Year 4 pupils across schools in the West Midlands.
Through this work, we found youth social action has clear benefits for communities and pupils – even when very young pupils are given the opportunity to act on the issues they care about. Conversations around youth social action have largely focused on this 'double benefit'; where young people gain confidence and increase their sense of community agency, while communities benefit from the positive actions of compassionate and civically-engaged young citizens.
A third benefit?
However, young people and communities are not the only ones involved in social action. Educators play a key role in creating opportunities and supporting high-quality youth social action, particularly in the primary phase.
We believe teachers’ experiences of high-quality youth social action represent an underexplored potential ‘third benefit’, mutually reinforcing the benefits to pupils and communities. This is what the next phase of our work, the Third Benefit Enquiry, on primary youth social action will explore. But, how did we get to this point?
What did we learn from RSA4 about a potential third benefit?
The role of the teacher during RSA4 was largely facilitatory, working in partnership with pupils to develop youth-led social action projects.
At this age, almost all things are either done to them, for them or at them – this is done with and by them
Most of us in the class didn’t think we’d be able to make a difference at the start but with help from our teachers we reached our goal
Primary educators may play an even greater facilitating role, supporting and guiding very young pupils, who may be less familiar with the skills and roles required for achieving their intended impact.
However, we believe this risks framing teachers’ involvement in social action too simplistically as facilitators of social action experience and further begs the question:
What might teachers gain from this experience alongside pupils and communities?
Many of the positive benefits pupils and communities reap from being involved in high-quality youth social action may also be shared and experienced by the teachers.
Personal benefits for teachers
Pupils who in engage in social action through school are more likely to report feeling higher levels of agency and belonging to their community. In response to the 2019 National Youth Social Action Survey, 90% of young people who have taken part in social action agree ‘I feel like I belong in my community’ compared to just 78% who have not participated.
Our action research also highlighted those pupils participating in RSA4 experienced an increased sense of agency (capacity and ownership to determine action) and civic self-efficacy (belief in one's own ability to affect social change). Might teachers who participate in supporting youth social action also feel a similar sense of connectedness and empowerment in their school and local community as they work together to create a socially impactful difference? How might this have benefits for their wellbeing, sense of belonging, and social agency?
However, there may also be potential tensions between teachers and pupil’s agency in social action. High-quality youth social action that has benefits for both will have to create a balance that does not take away from the action being youth-led and owned by pupils.
Professional benefits for teachers
Through RSA4 there were specific enabling factors linked to the teacher's role as facilitators of high-quality youth social action:
- Familiarity with youth-led facilitation methods
- Confidence teaching about sensitive social issues in the classroom
- Experience forging links with communities
Teachers who had the skills, qualities, experiences, and knowledge to support these enabling factors reflected that they were in a better position to create a high-quality experience for pupils. We also learnt that even teachers less familiar with these areas at the start of the project grew in confidence through the process of facilitating youth social action.
There is always an element of having to think on your feet as a teacher [...] but with RSA4 you have got to be braver probably. You have got to potentially be more creative, braver, and willing to run with it when you are not entirely sure where it is going
We also know that many headteachers saw RSA4 as a professional development opportunity. One head even described the RSA4 as having the potential to influence teaching practice across the school as staff became more familiar with new social justice oriented and youth-led pedagogical approaches through youth social action. How might improving professional practice linked to the principles for high-quality social action support better outcomes for pupils alongside developing teacher practice that has benefits to wider teaching and schools too?
Benefits to teachers’ professional identity as educators
Even beyond individual personal and professional practice benefits there may be wider benefits to how educators see their professional identity and the purpose of education.
The purpose of education is a contested argument, but one assertion from celebrated educational theorist Paolo Freire is that education should develop critically engaged citizens in both pupils and teachers. Youth social action encourages educators to explore issues of social justice and critical citizenship with pupils and communities. It prompts us to think deeply about the role of the teacher in shaping young people as citizens but also as citizens themselves. Youth social action provides opportunities for teachers to understand this not just as an education philosophy, but to experience it with pupils and communities through practical action and connect them with this side of their professional identity.
Primary teachers who participate in youth social action may feel that part of their purpose as educators is to give young people early experiences that encourage the development of critically engaged citizens and helps plant a seed that could grow into an ongoing commitment to participating in social action in the future known as a 'habit of service'.
However, this moral imperative of education through social action is set against a backdrop of various political agendas, budget cuts, high-pressure accountability, teacher burnout and a teacher retention crisis that pose tensions and challenges. Exploring how these external factors impact not just the facilitation of primary youth social action but the potential benefits to teachers will help build on our previous work.
About the Third Benefit Enquiry
Our 12-month Third Benefit Enquiry will seek to better understand all of this in relation to primary high-quality youth social action opportunities. To achieve this, we will undertake in-depth research through interviews, surveys, workshops, and case studies with primary school teacher and delivery organisations involved in primary youth social action. We will collate the findings from across the project into a toolkit that provides practical guidance and examples for how to support youth social action in a way that promotes the third benefit.
We believe that by building a better understanding of this third benefit it will create a compelling case for more primary schools and teachers to get involved in youth social action in the first place and enable teachers to provide high-quality youth social action opportunities which have mutual benefits for teachers, pupils and communities.
This work is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Pears #iwill Fund.
- The Pears #iwill Fund is created by Pears Foundation, and match funded by the #iwill Fund, a £54 million joint investment from The National Lottery Community Fund and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to support young people to access high quality social action opportunities.
- The #iwill Fund brings together a group of organisations who all contribute funding to embed meaningful social action into the lives of young people.
- Social action involves activities such as campaigning, fundraising and volunteering, all of which enable young people to make a positive difference in their communities as well as develop their own skills and knowledge.
- The #iwill Fund supports the aims of the #iwill movement to make involvement in social action a part of life for young people, by recognising the benefit for both young people and their communities.
- By bringing together funders from across different sectors and by making sure that young people have a say in where the funding goes –the #iwill Fund is taking a collaborative approach.
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