Schools’ Recovery Cannot Be Limited to a ‘Catch-Up Curriculum’

13 January 2021

As schools adjust to another lockdown, many are considering what this will mean for young people’s education as we start to recover as a society.

In this blog Hannah Breeze from RSA argues that for schools, there will be much to do in terms of ‘catch-up’, but this should not be simply restricted to academic learning.

There is a need to develop a much wider recovery curriculum that places equal emphasis on rebuilding relationships and community belonging alongside academic catch-up.

Teachers have become increasingly aware of the mutual benefits of developing youth social action within their schools for these very reasons. There is evidence that youth social action supports more engaged learners, more active young citizens and more connected school communities.

Pre-pandemic more young people than ever were taking part in youth social action through their school. However, there is a danger that pressure on schools to prioritise a ‘catch-up curriculum’ will squeeze out these opportunities.

Here are just some of the reasons why youth social action should have a place at the heart of schools’ recovery plans:

Championing youth voice

When youth voice is heard, change happens.

The pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty for young people with schools closing, exams cancelled and employment opportunities disappearing almost overnight. Despite this youth voice has largely been ignored in this pandemic leaving young people feeling disempowered and overlooked. While many other countries held dedicated youth press-conferences to give young people a platform to engage with politicians on the issues directly affecting them, Westminster failed to do the same.

We need to find ways to champion young people and empower them during and after this period. When youth voice is heard, change happens. Protests from young people disadvantaged by this Summer’s predicted grade system helped but pressure on the Government to do a U-turn.

Social action enables young people to feel a greater sense of agency over their own lives and wider society. Supporting pupils to take positive steps towards tackling the issues they recognise and feel passionate about in their communities can flip the current power dynamic between young people and society.

Tackling social injustice

We need a curriculum that can heal the far deeper wounds of this pandemic.

A recovery curriculum must be more than a catch-up curriculum because we are not just trying to plug the lost learning from the extended period of school closures. We need a curriculum that can heal the far deeper wounds of this pandemic.

Covid-19 has shone a light on many of the social injustices in our communities and even in pupils’ own lives. Food poverty, domestic violence in the home, the digital divide and loneliness are just some of the many social issues brought to the forefront of this crisis. At the same times the Black Lives Matter movement has ignited important conversations about the pervasive nature of racism in all aspects of society, including our education system.

Rather than shy away from these topics when schools return, we should use this moment as an opportunity to teach pupils about social justice and active citizenship. Often, young people are already aware of these sensitive issues. Social action offers opportunities to explore them with an emphasis on creating socially impactful outcomes and destigmatises issues in the classroom.

Developing more altruistic citizens

Just 5% of adults think that young people today are likely to contribute to social action compared to the actual 68%

The RSA’s own research shows young peoples’ desire to contribute to society significantly outweighs adults’ perceptions. Just 5% of adults think that young people today are likely to contribute to social action compared to the actual 68% of young people have participated in volunteering, fundraising or some form of social action.

This crisis has seemingly fuelled more altruistic young people with 51% reporting making more effort than they normally would to help those in need. Young people want the opportunity to give back to their communities and schools can provide this through social action programmes.

Creating belonging

83% of pupils who have taken part in social action agree ‘I feel like I belong at this school’ compared to just 54% who have not participated

Some pupils may find the transition back into the classroom challenging. They’ve been disconnected from their peers and teachers. We need to help pupils reconnect to their school community to feel part of something bigger after this extended period of isolation.

Young people who regularly engage in youth-led social action through school are more likely to report feeling higher levels of agency and belonging to their school community. In response to the 2018 National Youth Social Action Survey, 83% of pupils who have taken part in social action agree ‘I feel like I belong at this school’ compared to just 54% who have not participated.

Developing positive wellbeing

Many young people will have experienced feelings of isolation, hopelessness, anxiety and even loss during lockdown.

Prior to the pandemic children and young people’s mental health was already a concern for schools. Around 1 in 8 young people between 5-19 years-old have a diagnoseable mental health condition. That’s around three pupils in every class even before Covid-19. As schools reopen, a major priority will be wellbeing. Many young people will have experienced feelings of isolation, hopelessness, anxiety and even loss during lockdown.

Research consistently shows links between participating in social action and positive wellbeing. An in-depth study by The Behavioural Insights Team also found young people and children who regularly took part in service activities report higher overall life satisfaction and reduced anxiety by over a fifth.

The Double Benefit

Communities have suffered during this period and young people’s energy and creativity can be part of the solution and healing.

Evidence has shown that the positive impact of participating in social action has a ‘double benefit’: a benefit to pupils through developing key socio-emotional skills and a benefit to the community’. Social action develops a range of skills and positive character traits. Several independent evaluations of social action programmes have found robust improvements in character qualities including empathy, grit, resilience and problem-solving. All essential qualities that will help support children in through the current challenges.

Communities have suffered during this period and young people’s energy and creativity can be part of the solution and healing. We want to see communities benefitting from the positive social contribution of schools, and students benefitting from an educational experience that is enriched by community connections.

Role of schools

It’s important that all students, but especially disadvantaged pupils, continue to have opportunities to participate through school as a social justice issue in itself.

School continues to be the main route for young people to take part in social action – 74% of those aged 10 – 20 year olds who have participated in social action got involved through their school. However, the National Youth Social Action Survey found a socio-economic gap in youth social action participation rates. Even before covid-19 teachers from schools in the most deprived areas were less likely to say social action is a part of their school’s ethos than those who teach in more affluent areas.

Young people from less affluent backgrounds especially need the encouragement of their teachers as they are less likely to have opportunities to participate outside of school. 51% of young people from the most affluent backgrounds have taken part in some form of social action inside or outside of school compared with just 32% of those from the least affluent.

Without schools, many young people from low-income backgrounds will further miss out on the wide range of benefits that participation in social action can offer. It’s important that all students, but especially disadvantaged pupils, continue to have opportunities to participate through school as a social justice issue in itself.