New research has found that schools play a key role in creating volunteering opportunities for young people from all socio-economic backgrounds. Given the ever increasing focus on widening participation in volunteering to include under-represented groups, this research suggests that organisations seeking to increase youth engagement in voluntary activities of all types should focus their energies through schools.

There is a stable relationship between social class and engagement in volunteering among adults in the UK and elsewhere. Qualitative research has sought to understand how this is established in childhood, but little empirical evidence exists to explain when and how the engagement gap emerges.

A number of government policies in the UK over the last 20 years have sought to encourage more young people to volunteer, often with a focus on widening participation to include under-represented groups. More recently, the National Citizen Service, which includes a ‘social action project’, makes up a large proportion of central government’s youth sector spending.

Getting policy right is important, because investing resources effectively in encouraging young people to volunteer is likely to have an impact long beyond youth and young adulthood.

This research draws on data gathered in the first four waves (2014-2017) of the National Youth Social Action Survey (NYSAS). For the purposes of this research, we focused on respondents in full-time primary or secondary education, who make up around 70% of each annual sample, a total of 5,798 pupils over the four waves.

Our outcome measures were whether a young person had engaged in any of a range of voluntary activities more than once in the last 12 months, what they had done, what their route in was and, for those who did not volunteer, why they did not. Our predictor measure was socio-economic group, as indicated by NRS social grade.

We conclude that there is an observable relationship between socio-economic advantage and volunteering by young people, but that it is not straightforward. In particular during Key Stage 3, when the influence of school as a pathway into volunteering is strong for all socio-economic groups, we find little difference in engagement between young people from different backgrounds.

The role that schools play as facilitators of volunteering diminishes in Key Stages 4 and 5, as exam and other pressures loom larger. At this stage groups and organisations become more significant and socio-economic differences re-emerge. We know from academic research from the UK and beyond that patterns established in Key Stages 4 and 5 persist throughout adulthood.

The influence of school on young peoples’ volunteering would seem to be key to creating opportunities for young people from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds to volunteer, particularly in Key Stage 3.When the job of encouraging engagement is left to formal groups and organisations, we see a clear social gradient emerge with young people from more advantaged socio-economic groups significantly more likely to engage.

This makes the role of schools – and organisations who work with schools – vital.

They are the most egalitarian way to access a range of young people and encourage them to take part in volunteering opportunities.

Organisations who seek to increase youth engagement in voluntary activities of all types should, this research suggests, focus their energies through schools. The encouragement and support which eliminates significant socio-economic differences in Key Stage 3 should continue throughout young people’s school careers through to age 18.

Schools, and organisations who work with them, should also think about how they can encourage and support young people to continue volunteering post-18. This may mean working in partnership with groups and organisations to ensure that young people from all backgrounds – not just the most advantaged socio-economic groups – are aware of and feel comfortable in the kinds of organisations that can support a longer term commitment to volunteering.

By Dr Eddy Hogg and Dr Robert de Vries


University of Kent School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research

Dr Eddy Hogg is a member of the #iwill Data & Quality Assurance Steering Group

This paper was presented at the Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference on 6 September 2018