Making School-based Social Action a Success

02 February 2021

Image of Yeading Junior School Pupils at the 2018 #iwill Welcome Event

Team London Young Ambassadors is the Mayor of London’s volunteering programme which works in partnership with schools to connect young Londoners with their communities through social action.

Since 2013, over 450,000 young people have improved their school and communities by setting up projects on issues they really care about, such as LGBTQ+, food poverty, bullying and refugees. They are also taking action on key Mayoral priorities, including air quality and the environment, serious youth violence, gender equality, homelessness, mental health and wellbeing, and social integration.

Recently, with the help of match-funding from the #iwill Fund, the programme has focused on areas of social deprivation, young people at risk of exclusion and those that have not been previously involved in social action or volunteering. Using data from our City Intelligence team, we’ve been able to target schools serving some of the most deprived areas of London, as we know that deprivation and low family income correlate with both wellbeing and participation in social action.

We have also been specifically targeting and adapting our work to suit a range of different contexts, including Pupil Referral Units and Special schools across London. Some examples include Phil Edwards PRU in Croydon, who have been delivering workshops in primary schools on the consequences of gangs, and Hackney City Farm (ALP), who have been using youth social action to make the school a hub of community cohesion.

Another school that has used youth social action to great effect has been Shaftesbury High School in Harrow. Shaftesbury is a community special school for students aged 11 to 19 with a vision ‘to build just, collaborative and accessible communities and carving pathways into them’. They work with students with a range of needs ranging from mild learning difficulties to complex autism.

Shaftesbury High School

The key word is ‘purpose.’ There was an actual purpose to what they were doing.

Matt Silver became the headteacher in 2017 with a passion for community engagement, volunteering, and social action. Since he was nine, Matt had been volunteering at residential camps for SEN young people where he noticed that the helpers were usually getting just as much out of the experience as the residents. The other thing that he noticed was that “when students were fully engaged and part of what they were doing, they essentially took on new personalities and stepped outside the negative belief they had of themselves.”

When he started his teaching career, he began building up projects with his Year 7s – such as fundraising for Great Ormond Street Hospital. “As soon as we started to run projects like that, we started to see a real change in the engagement of the students. The key word is ‘purpose.’ There was an actual purpose to what they were doing.”

After a few years, Matt had designed a whole curriculum around ‘meaningful mastery projects.’ “Everything has a meaning. Students choose what the social issue is going to be. They then follow a project cycle, which is essentially a business model, to solve or support that issue.” This approach means that not only do the young people impact on external social issues, but they’re actually able to gain higher level qualifications. Shaftesbury has been able to double the quantity of qualifications on offer in the school and has seen a marked improvement in the quality of learning. “Because they’ve been engaging in these programmes so much, they’re starting to see some purpose in their learning. They’re then changing their engagement in core subjects. We had a Looked After Child who was out of English and Maths for essentially three years. After using this approach, they turned around and asked for additional tuition because they understand that it relates to their future.”

“This is all linked to self-determination theory, which is about generating intrinsic motivation in people. It’s built on confidence, autonomy, and relatedness.” By using social action and having young people be able to choose what actually means something to them, Matt has seen students really take ownership of their learning and their role in the community.

Transforming Social Action

It’s moved rapidly with buy-in from bottom to top, commitment of SLT, and lots of training and coaching.

Deborah Stone is the school’s Community Engagement Manager and has seen the school transform its approach to social action over the last eighteen months. “‘Our involvement with Team London completely changed our thinking here,” and the impact on young people has been very evident; giving them the inspiration to think of ideas and to make a change.

“We had one student who was suffering very severe mental health issues. I took him to an annual celebration event at Wembley Arena, he sat next to me, and I’ve never seen a transformation happen so quickly. He turned around to me and said ‘miss, this is making me realise I can succeed. I want to be on stage.’ Over the next year we enabled him to tell his story. We found his hook and it was performing arts and drama. He went into the performing arts group and was able to grow to the point where he went on stage, told his story, and raised awareness of mental health. It was unbelievably amazing.” With his speech, he was able to encourage 10,000 young people to open up about their emotions and prompt conversations about mental health. Since leaving school, he’s now delivering equalities training and speaking to local authorities and services.

“Why did that happen? It was because of the ethos of the school. It was because the school was open, and flexible, and we look at each student. It’s moved rapidly with buy-in from bottom to top, commitment of SLT, and lots of training and coaching.” says Deborah.

However, building a whole school approach, with everyone on board, is a common challenge for integrating social action successfully. This is especially true in specialised settings where there are usually a number of adults involved in a young person’s care. Getting buy-in from other staff and support in making it a success is tricky, but something that almost all external providers are happy to help with.

 Deborah’s tip for making a success of it?

“Do a skills audit – find out what all your staff are doing. Find out their skills outside of school. You would be amazed. Then give them the opportunity to use those skills in school in a flexible way.”

Matt says that it’s also about giving people time and space to think, design and collaborate, which can also be challenging. But through this approach they’ve seen teacher engagement and wellbeing ‘shoot through the roof’ alongside the students. 

All this effort is well worth it in the eyes of both Deborah and Matt. “You need to be prepared to take that leap. But it works. I’ve seen Y7s, who have been with us two weeks start to think about their position as citizens,” says Deborah. 

Transformative Outcomes

[It] made them realise that they could succeed as opposed to fail.

“We’ve seen an 83% reduction in negative behaviour incidents,” says Matt. “Every member of our sixth form now has work experience once a week. Attendance went up by 4%. We have a café to provide a social hub to the community. We think we’ve had a positive impact on 3,000 people, locally and globally, and feedback from parents has been incredible.”

Guiding young people out of their comfort zone and testing their boundaries does lead to some warranted trepidation from some parents. But once Matt had explained what it was and why they were doing it, parents got fully behind it. 67% of parents are now engaging with school and events, and the programmes are showcasing things that the parents didn’t know their child could do,

“Last year we had a cohort of students with a ‘laddy’ passion for football. So, we put them on the PE project and they then went out to coach younger students in local schools,” Deborah recounts. “They realised that they had something that they could apply themselves to, that gave them a focus, and made them realise that they could succeed as opposed to fail. The positivity we’re creating is all about what students can do.”

The Mayor of London is committed to helping young people fulfil their potential. Team London Young Ambassadors, with schools such as Shaftesbury at the forefront, are developing young peoples’ skills at the same time as building stronger, more engaged communities. Youth Social Action is able to support more active citizens, who in turn create better, bolder, stronger cities.

Image from Ormiston Academies Trust