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Making a lasting difference through youth social action

Posted on 26 Mar 2015

Guy Horridge, Chief Exec of CVQO, shares his perspective on youth social action and how we can make it sustainable for years to come…

I don’t mean for this to mark the start of a “in my day…” rant, but when I was young local community work was almost expected – it was intrinsic within society.

There are a number of theories for its decline – the lack of permanent communities in commuter towns (in 2013 research showed that 70% of people did not even know their neighbours’ full names and just over a third wouldn’t recognise them), the lack of town halls and community centres, the rise of social media, the economy, even that young people are under so much pressure to succeed at an early age they have no spare time.

However, in spite of its decline the idea of traditional community spirit has not been abandoned altogether. Social action, community work’s fresher face, fell out of the Conservatives’ Big Society concept. Three years later the government’s Centre for Social Action, which supports programmes that encourage young people to get involved in their communities, formed. And, Step Up To Serve’s #iwill initiative aims to raise the current 40% of young people (10-20 year olds) engaging in community to work to 60% (1.7 million) in seven years.

Will this all reignite the fire? I don’t think so. For me, education is key to the sustainability of social action, making sure that it is embedded and not the just habit of one individual. It makes sense to begin social action philosophies within local schools. This is something we have had particular success with on our DfE-funded Schools Partnership Project.

Schools Project students volunteering at a community conservation project

The Project is about recognising that everyone learns differently and that taking young people out of the classroom, and sometimes safely out of their comfort zones, can have a positive effect on areas they were previously struggling with, such as schoolwork.

We incorporate aspects of social action in our work with schools nationwide. This could take the form of conservation projects, fundraising events, litter picking, learning life-saving skills or assisting local fire or ambulance services. Follow-up with those schools and students shows an 85% improvement in behaviour, attendance and classroom interaction. Additionally, 52% have since joined a youth organisation – real signs of change and social action longevity.

The key is to show young people the importance and value of operating as part of a team to give something back to the community in which they live. Quite often we find this causes them to look at their surroundings in a new light, with a better understanding for how it fits together, simultaneously providing them a greater sense of purpose.

One of Schools Project students visiting a residential care home

To make a lasting difference, however, these charitable acts must be rewarded with recognised qualifications that reflect what the students have learned. This provides motivation to succeed and also puts in place a framework for future academic achievement - whether this is through the traditional GCSE, A Level, Degree route, vocational study or something completely different.

Making sure everyone has access to these qualifications is crucial to success. This leads to long-term benefits for both parties: the young person gains a new, transferable skill-set, while the community benefits from a template for established and lasting change.

Much as I promised this wouldn’t turn into a “good old days” rant, what I believe is needed to restore our local communities to their former glory is just an injection of that spirit. Every young person should be encouraged to enhance their prospects, while making a positive social impact. The responsibility of embedding that spirit and making it a habit rests with us all.

To find out more about CVQO, visit their website.

Guy Horridge

Guy Horridge is the Chief Exec of CVQO, a UK-based vocational education charity, providing internationally recognised qualifications to young people and adult volunteers in youth organisations.