Martha Aitken, Learning Partner, Act For Change Fund, UK

Research shows that schools can be fertile ground for encouraging youth social action, with an estimated 60 per cent of those who participate getting involved through their school or college (Knibbs et al., 2019). Yet when it comes to supporting young people to become involved in ‘campaigning’ youth social action (CYSA) specifically, teachers may question what their role can be and perhaps why they should be involved at all. This article explores these issues, drawing on preliminary qualitative research findings from three projects funded by the Act for Change Fund (AFCF). AFCF is a collaborative initiative between the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, and is match-funded by the #iwill Fund, an England-wide joint investment that brings together £40 million in funding from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the National Lottery Community Fund. AFCF provides resources for young people to challenge social injustice, find ways of overcoming inequality and give voice to issues that they are experiencing.

The three projects explored in this article differ in their approaches and the issues about which they campaign, but they are united by the fact that they engage with schools and teachers in some way to facilitate the delivery of their work.

  • South London-based The Advocacy Academy (TAA) uses school assemblies as a recruitment mechanism for their flagship programme – the Social Justice Leadership Fellowship – which provides activism training for 20 young people over six months
  • West End Women and Girls (WEWG) works with schools across Newcastle, training young women to campaign about issues including domestic violence, gender equality and patriarchy
  • Phoenix Education and StudentVoice (alongside the Refugee Support Network) aim to build bridges between young refugees and UK nationals, using the shared lived experience of the education system as a starting point for building a youth movement.

It is important to note that this article is based on preliminary data collection that was limited in scope by disruption as a result of COVID-19. The findings and accompanying analysis should therefore be treated simply as a starting point for future conversations and further investigation through research.

The benefits of ‘campaigning’ youth social action

Campaigning and activism tend to be underrepresented activities in the wider youth social action space. In 2017, only eight per cent of young people that participated in social action claimed that they had ‘campaigned for something they had believed in’ (Knibbs et al., 2019). A possible reason for the reluctance of schools and youth workers to engage with this form of youth social action is its proximity to party political campaigning, which the #iwill campaign explicitly excludes from its definition of youth social action. The #iwill campaign is a collective effort involving over 900 partners from across the public, voluntary, education and business sectors, with a vision of making meaningful social action part of life for 10- to 20-year-olds by the year 2020, wherever they live and whatever their background.

However, for those who are prepared to venture into this sometimes messy and complex territory, there are clear benefits. Existing research has shown the advantages of sustained engagement in volunteering (Elias et al., 2016). With regard to youth social action, sustaining activities over the course of a few months or more was found to be more common among those campaigning for something that they believed in (Knibbs et al., 2019). Research by the Blagrave Trust echoes this, suggesting that ‘enduring commitment to an issue is key’ to sustaining young people’s participation (Adams and Coe, 2019, p. 28).

Meanwhile, the scoping phase for our own research with AFCF found that those with lived experience of issues who engaged in CYSA tended to report increased resilience, wellbeing and self-belief, as a result of harnessing their identity and experiences for the greater good (Renaisi and Centre for Youth Impact, 2020).

This translates to the school environment, as there is an established link between resilience and academic success (Public Health England, 2014). An increased sense of wellbeing and self-belief can also ‘improve interest in class and involvement in other activities’ (StudentVoice, interview), which will likely in turn benefit other students and the school as a whole.

The role of schools and teachers in facilitating this work

There seems to be a case for young people to engage with CYSA. But questions remain around what the role of teachers in facilitating these activities could and should look like, as well as why it should be teachers performing this role, as opposed to any other person or institution in a young person’s life. 

A key way for teachers to facilitate this work is to outsource it to external CYSA organisations. There are several advantages to this. Teachers tend to be ‘too busy most of the time… and increasingly so’ (WEWG teacher, interview), so outsourcing makes it more feasible that activities will take place and be delivered to a high quality. Unless activities ‘directly align with something a school wants to focus on that year’ (Advocacy Academy, interview), there is not always an obvious space for this work in an already crowded timetable, necessitating provision outside of school hours. External organisations also tend to have specific expertise in developing youth activists and campaigners.

Most importantly, locating this work within an external organisation can provide the space between a young person and their school that is necessary to develop their identity as an activist, and to grapple with the complex and highly sensitive issues at the core of this work. For example, WEWG participants felt that there was a ‘barrier between most teachers and students’, whereas the younger staff members from WEWG were ‘more on our level, so we feel more comfortable’, particularly in relation to discussing domestic violence (WEWG, focus group).

Teachers can play a useful role in vetting organisations and connecting young people to them, through direct referrals or inviting the organisation to host an assembly. Teachers ‘know [their] students, and know what they might be interested in’ and it is the responsibility of schools to protect students ‘as they’re still young people so you have to be aware of your own safeguarding’ (WEWG teacher, interview). Their knowledge of students also means that teachers can help external organisations to target those who they believe will benefit most from their programmes. For the three projects that participated in the research, this means students with lived experience of the issues being campaigned about, as opposed to the strongest academically. However, organisations should communicate clearly with teachers about what they are looking for and provide support where necessary, as research has shown that teachers’ unconscious biases can shape their interactions with, and expectations of, students (Millard et al., 2018).

For Advocacy Academy, engagement with schools decreases significantly after recruitment. This is a choice of the organisation, who believe that ‘formal relationships… would inevitably come under strain very quickly’, because in many cases they work with young people to campaign for change within their schools (Advocacy Academy, interview).

Phoenix Education and WEWG take a different approach, working closely with teachers throughout the delivery of their programmes. The former view teachers as vital to ‘creating spaces in the school which are countercultural to the school itself’ (Phoenix Education, interview), and are designing training to support teachers that may not be comfortable doing so at the outset of their engagement. The motivation for a closer relationship may also originate with the teacher as opposed to the CYSA organisation: ‘you have to be very hands-on as a school… there are quite a few schools that just invite people in and let it run, but that’s where things go wrong’ (WEWG teacher, interview).

Despite the range of approaches to the extent of teacher involvement in delivery, all the organisations coalesced around the most crucial component of effective relationships with schools: an alliance with a sympathetic and relatively senior member of staff. According to Advocacy Academy, ‘the strongest, most useful relationships are with people who believe in our work, and have the power to do something about it’ (Advocacy Academy, interview). A ‘powerful’ teacher can help organisations to access students, but can also facilitate student campaigning within schools. For example, WEWG participants were happy to have a senior teacher ‘onside’ to support their awareness-raising activities around domestic violence in their school (WEWG, focus group).

Navigating tensions

The inherent tension of teachers connecting their students to CYSA organisations is that these organisations tend to specialise in social justice education, and the school system itself may come to be recognised by some young people as a site of injustice. The organisations that participated in our research noted that, as most young people spend the majority of their time at school, campaigns around school-related issues (for example, uniform policies, decolonisation of the curriculum) were commonplace in CYSA: ‘in many ways, campaigning for radical change within schools is an inevitability of really good-quality engagement with young people in this kind of work’ (Advocacy Academy, interview).

Organisations noted that some teachers were reluctant to link them to their students, for fear of them becoming ‘rowdy’ or negatively impacting the learning of others through disruptive campaigning tactics (StudentVoice, interview). Given these concerns, teachers may question why they should be involved in facilitating this work in the first place. The final part of this article looks to the concept of trust to explain why teachers in particular should link young people to CYSA.

The importance of trust

Our research with AFCF so far has shown that trust is integral to high-quality CYSA. Young people feel most comfortable leading campaigns when supported by adults whom they trust, and experience the most personal growth when they feel entrusted with the task by said adults. Therefore, those delivering these opportunities to young people must be ‘open to emergence and uncertainty, creating safe spaces and building relationships of trust’ (Phoenix Education, interview). As a key mechanism of change in CYSA, trust should not be overlooked when examining why teachers should play a role in facilitating these opportunities.

The explanatory power of trust in this case is twofold. Firstly, teachers are the fourth most trusted profession in Britain (Ipsos MORI, 2019). The trust that teachers are likely to evoke among students and their parents means that a referral from them to a CYSA action organisation can be particularly powerful.

Secondly, by linking students to CYSA organisations, teachers are arguably risking their own authority. For example, in discussing their upcoming ‘Smash the Patriarchy’ campaigning project, staff at WEWG claimed that it would be ‘interesting to see what the reactions of schools will be, because they are going to have to change’ (WEWG, interview). But it is precisely the act of taking this risk and relinquishing power to students that is demonstrative of placing trust in them. In other words, if teachers had nothing to lose, then this sense of trust would likely be felt less authentically by students, and the outcomes may well be less pronounced as a result. On the other hand, if teachers acknowledge that schools are not perfect institutions, this honesty can build trust. Above all, those who participated in the research saw teachers that connected young people to CYSA organisations as initiating an important dialogue between students and their schools: ‘they might do things you don’t particularly like or agree with. But if you can have a discussion about it then it’s alright… you have to allow young people to fly sometimes.’ (WEWG teacher, interview)

Conclusion

This article has discussed the benefits of CYSA for young people and their schools, using examples from AFCF projects to illustrate the useful role that teachers can play in linking young people to CYSA organisations and how these relationships might work in practice. Practical steps for teachers to take to implement these findings include:

  • exploring and contacting youth campaigning organisations to come and speak to their students
  • considering which students with lived experience of injustice or inequality might stand to significantly benefit from involvement in organising or campaigning around an issue
  • developing alliances at a senior level with organisations who have expertise in supporting young people to make change.

We have also posited that the ability of teachers to be trusted by young people and to place trust in them to consider inequalities and injustices makes them an effective mechanism for encouraging engagement in CYSA. Of course, as mentioned, the findings discussed are only the result of preliminary research activities. We hope to further investigate the issues raised over the next two years, during the remainder of our learning partnership with the Act for Change Fund.

Interviews with CYSA projects were carried out by Renaisi in 2020 as follows: Interview with The Advocacy Academy; Interview with Phoenix Education; Interview with StudentVoice; Interview with WEWG staff; Focus group with WEWG participants; Interview with teacher in partnership with WEWG. 

When considering campaigning social action, schools should take into account the latest DfE guidance in relation to appropriate content.

References

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Public Health England (2014) Local action on health inequalities: Building young people and children’s resilience in schools. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/355766/Review2_Resilience_in_schools_health_inequalities.pdf  (accessed 24 September 2020).

Renaisi and Centre for Youth Impact (2020) Act for Change Fund: Youth social action for social change. Available at: www.phf.org.uk/publications/act-for-change-fund-youth-social-action-for-social-change  (accessed 24 September 2020).