What are educators’ experiences supporting youth social action? - RSA blog - RSA

What are educators’ experiences supporting youth social action?


  • Picture of Hannah Breeze
    Hannah Breeze
    Former RSA Researcher
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Education and learning

As we work towards the launch of our final Third Benefit report, Hannah Breeze, RSA Researcher, shares the interim results of a survey wherein 2,000 primary educators shared their attitudes, motivations and the potential benefits of delivering youth social action in the classroom.

As part of our Third Benefit project, and in partnership with TeacherTapp - a daily survey app which poses topical questions to educators - we recently asked over 2,000 primary school educators about their experiences supporting youth social action to better understand educators' attitudes, motivations and potential benefits.

By youth social action we mean:

Children (in this case primary-aged pupils) taking practical actions such as campaigning, raising awareness, fundraising, environmental action, or giving their time in some way, to make a difference in their community or wider society with the support of their school and educators.

Understanding the benefits of youth social action has tended to focus on the benefits to young people and communities however we believe there may also be benefits to educators when they support pupils to take part in youth social action – a third benefit if you will.

The full results of the survey will be shared in our final project report (due for publication in Spring/Summer 2023). The report will shine a light on several schools involved in supporting youth social action and sharing the positive impact this has had on their whole school community including educators.

However, one thing was obvious from the survey results, educators care deeply about making a difference, and their motivations and the value they place on youth social action are driven by both a personal and professional commitment.

When surveyed about what would motivate educators to support more opportunities for youth social action, responses clearly show they want to effect positive change in their communities by creating opportunities for pupils to lead socially impactful actions on the issues they care about. As well as creating social change, educators want pupils to be able to achieve positive outcomes themselves from these experiences.

'What would motivate you to support more opportunities for youth social action?' graph

Benefits beyond those for young people

Participating in high-quality youth social action opportunities can indeed have a ‘double benefit’ to both the young person involved and their communities. Existing evidence, including our Citizens of Now report, tells us that young people can experience positive outcomes such as increased confidence in problem-solving, developing empathy, and a greater sense of empowerment when taking part in youth social action, and communities benefit from the civic actions of our young citizens.

However, what is also particularly interesting is that nearly a third of educators also shared their motivation to support youth social action because they believe it is an important part of education and should therefore be promoted by all educators.

This is something that we’ve come across as part of our literature review for the project, leading some academics to term this educator’s sense of ‘civic professionalism’. This is the idea educators have a somewhat unique professional role in civic society to help shape children’s civic agency alongside educators being agents for change themselves. Based on the data, seemingly many educators do foster a personal sense that supporting youth social action is an important part of their professional identity and purpose.

We know from the TeacherTapp survey that supported our Citizens of Now research in 2020 that 93% of primary school educators felt it was important pupils had the opportunity to take part in practical activities that aim to make a positive difference in society and improve the lives of others before leaving Year 6.

However, in our survey which we ran in October (the results of which will be made available in April 2023) only around a third of primary school educators said they have supported pupils to take part in youth social action activities such as campaigning, organising fundraising, volunteering or taking care of our natural world, through school. So, why this disconnect from what educators value vs reality?

'Primary school teachers who have...' graph

How many primary educators support youth social action?

Our Citizens of Now research exposed the barriers that exist to embedding youth social action in a primary school. These results also highlighted that many educators feel their motivation for supporting youth social action is hindered by:

  • a lack of time and resources (66%)
  • pressure to prioritise school improvement (37%)
  • feeling a lack the confidence or knowledge on how to support youth social action (27%).

Despite educators personally valuing the importance of youth social action, almost a fifth felt youth social action isn’t valued in our current education system. This mismatch between personal values and a sense of professional purpose against the backdrop of system realities may cause tensions for educators wishing to support pupils to participate in youth social action.

Even with the high challenges to supporting youth social action, our survey showed that more educators would like to support youth social action in the future. This increased to one in four educators with a desire to support pupils in the future when looking at educators with less than five years of experience suggesting that early career educators are keen to embed youth social action in their emerging practice.

Perhaps most importantly almost two-thirds of educators believe they can potentially benefit alongside pupils and communities when supporting youth social action, and headteachers were the most likely to agree with this statement. The research on school-based youth social action stresses that senior leadership buy-in is essential to embedding a culture of youth social action.

Many of the positive benefits teachers identified go beyond those to individuals and speak to the idea that positive impact might be felt across the whole school community. These might include increased positive relationships between educators, pupils and families, to youth social action experiences being able to influence wider school culture beyond just the experience itself. Exploring the interplay between these and how this collectively can be understood as the third benefit of social action – for pupils, communities and educators – is a key aspect of this project.

Benefits for educators in supporting youth social action

Educators also recognise youth social action may lead to them feeling more personally empowered in their communities, more confident, becoming increasingly social justice orientated in their classrooms, and possibly even feeling an increased sense of their civic purpose in the teaching profession and their professional sense of identity.

It would however be remiss not to acknowledge that while just 1% of educators disagreed with the statement ‘teaching and non-teaching staff, experience benefits alongside pupils and communities when supporting youth social action’, a third of teachers were uncertain or gave a neutral response. Given most educators indicated they had not experienced supporting youth social action before, it’s not surprising many of them simply haven’t experienced the benefits for themselves or don’t know what they might be. This further suggests youth social action in the primary phase is underexplored and not well understood across the sector.

We should not be disheartened that the data suggests a smaller number of schools than we might have hoped are actually engaged with youth social action. Some of this might be down to schools simply not identifying with the term youth social action or conflating the term with only big, grand action as opposed to many of the everyday ways schools encourage pupils to contribute to their communities and our wider world. Some may feel the barriers are too high if they don’t have the time or resources to support youth social action, and some may even feel conflicted about if they should prioritise it against pressure to focus on school improvement.

Yet overwhelmingly educators feel there are benefits to be had from supporting youth social action, and when they do, it can lead to positive outcomes. These include improved relationships across the whole school, to educators feeling more personally empowered in their communities. Another way to read the data is to say that educators are focused on the altruistic motivating factors and benefits of social action. They want to support positive social change for pupils and communities, and they perceive that these experiences may also have potential ripple effects for them personally, professionally and as a whole school.

Our project will seek to further explore these themes and shine a light on the experiences of educators and schools supporting youth social action so we can better understand how educators alongside pupils and communities can positively benefit from making social action part of their school culture.

The Third Benefit

Can participation in social action by our young people yield benefits beyond those of the individual and their community?

Are you a primary educator? Do you have experience supporting youth social action in your school? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

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