6 Principles for effective social action in schools

How can you judge the quality of work done for the local community?

That’s the question we’ve been trying to answer in our RSA4 project, which runs social action projects for Year 4 pupils. So how are we defining ‘high-quality social action’? Social action is practical action such as campaigning, fundraising and volunteering, all of which enable young people to make a positive difference in their communities.

Research suggests that the most meaningful and impactful social action programmes will meet six key principles:

(Image credit: Step up to Serve #iwill Campaign)

Social action activities that embed these key principles effectively are more likely to create a ‘double benefit’ (which creates positive impact for both the young people who take part, and the cause or community), and instill a commitment to youth social action throughout a young person’s life (a ‘habit of service’).

Here I take a look at what we’ve learnt about what works and what doesn’t – based on the #iwill Campaigns 6 principles of what makes quality social action.

To help the community, ask what they need

Principle 1: Socially Impactful. This principle means that quality social action must respond to real needs and really help local people.

What did we find? The best way to make sure what we were doing did this was simply to ask people.

In one school, we worked with pupils who wrote and conducted their own surveys on litter, recycling, and plastic. These results helped them to choose ‘putting more recycling bins in our school’ and ‘organising a litter collection’ as their actions.

Another school wanted to focus on youth homelessness. So, they met with staff to find out what young people would need – then collected those items.

Make social action part of the curriculum

Principle 2: Embedded. This principle means social action should aim to create lasting changes and behaviours.

In schools, changing behaviours means making social action part of teaching and school culture. We’ve seen teachers discover that social action can be an exciting and stimulating tool to explore the curriculum and connect learning to the world beyond school.

For example, in the school looking at plastics and recycling there was a creative writing assignment about describing life as a turtle in plastic polluted oceans. In the school helping the homeless, drama asked pupils to think about being on the streets. Another school was working to promote wellbeing – they used mindfulness to do it in class.

Let pupils lead social action

Principle 3: Youth-led. This principle means social action should be led, owned and shaped by young people’s needs, ideas and decision-making.

We found that pupil-led action was much more likely to succeed than teacher or school-led activity.

Research looking at children’s understanding of charity has found that young pupils are often not aware of the reason for charitable giving through school activities such as Children in Need or Comic Relief days. Give children the chance to explore the issues behind charities and they will come up with their own ideas to help.

At the heart of our work on RSA4 are 10 Pupil Leaders from each of the participating schools. They’ve decided the issue, they’ve decided what they want to do, and they’ve made it happen.

Teachers told us they were surprised at the leadership pupils showed – and noticed a big confidence boost.

Include all students – kids outside their comfort zone can benefit most

Principle 4: Challenging. This principle means social action will stretch learners.

To make sure our social action activities were pushing kids, we found it was helpful to include students beyond the existing leaders and high-flyers.

We asked teachers to choose children they thought would gain the most from responsibility and working in a team – not necessarily the students they knew would be the most capable. We found that it’s often been the kids most outside their comfort zone that have thrived.

By setting high expectations, teachers and schools encouraged students to meet those goals. This year on RSA4, children have written to local government asking for their support, formally met with the senior management of the school about the project, and exceeded fundraising targets. But more than these achievements, we’ve been impressed with how they’ve problem-solved their way around barriers outside their control.

Try to build a legacy

Principle 5: Progressive. Social action should create a ‘habit of service’: a commitment to helping others.

This has been one of the challenges for the RSA4 project. Many of the schools taking part are First Schools (Reception to Year 4), so pupils go to a new school after they take part in Year 4. Building a legacy is hard.

But we saw many pupils help ensure their projects will last by recruiting younger students and speaking to the Year 3 pupils about social action and how they can be involved in RSA4 next year.

Some of the pupils even have plans to speak to their new schools about introducing their project or finding opportunities outside of school to support their communities. This supports the research of the Jubilee Centre, which found that students who volunteer before the age of ten are more than twice as likely to form a ‘habit of service’.

Celebrate…but also evaluate

Principle 5: Reflective. This principle is about recognizing achievements and thinking critically.

Central to the idea of social action is the ‘double benefit’ – the community benefits, and the young person taking part benefits too. One of our key aims with RSA4 has been to build positive character traits and skills in students. Things like believing they can make a difference, responsibility, teamwork, leadership, communication, problem-solving.

To do this, it was important for us to have celebration events at schools, but also cross-school evaluations workshops where students presented their projects. Together, these helped children reflect.

“We all learnt that giving is better than being selfish.”

As we at the RSA look forward to next year’s activities, we are happy with what students have told us about taking part:

“I’m proud of helping other people and raising money to achieve our goals.”

“We all learnt that giving is better than being selfish.”

With thanks to Pears #iwill Fund, the RSA and RSA Academies will be working together for the next two years to investigate what meaningful social action looks like at primary school level through the RSA4 project.

– The #iwill Fund is made possible thanks to £40 million joint investment from The National Lottery Community Fund and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to support young people to access high-quality social action opportunities.

– The #iwill Fund brings together a group of organisations who all contribute funding to embed meaningful social action into the lives of young people.

– The #iwill Fund supports the aims of the #iwill campaign – to make involvement in social action a part of life for young people, by recognising the benefit for both young people and their communities.

– By bringing together funders from across different sectors and by making sure that young people have a say in where the funding goes – the #iwill Fund is taking a collaborative approach.

Related project: RSA4 Primary Social Action Road-trip: Sutton Park RSA Academy Related project: RSA Academies RSA4 Road-trip: Abbeywood First School Related project: RSA Academies RSA4 Road-trip: Charford First School Related project: RSA Academies RSA4 Road-trip: Woodrow First School Related project: RSA4 Primary Youth Social Action