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2020 Special Issue: Youth Social Action and Character Education

Published: Special Issue 2020
Guest Edited by: Alison Peacock

This special issue on youth social action and character education, supported by the Pears #iWill Fund, includes sections on: 

  • schools and the wider community
  • knowledge, skills, character and values within the curriculum
  • pupil leadership and pupil voice.


Alison Peacock, CEO, Chartered College of Teaching

I am pleased to be able to introduce this unique issue of Impact, which discusses the issue of how we support children and young people as they learn about who they are, what they care about most and the social actions that they may take as they begin to make their way in the world.

We have experienced an extraordinary year. In March, when the Prime Minister announced that all schools would close for the majority of students until further notice, I recall experiencing a deep sense of shock. Never, in my entire career as a teacher, had I anticipated that something as world-changing and frightening as this would take place. Our nurseries, schools and colleges all serve local communities but are also micro-communities in themselves. Suddenly, our teachers and school leaders, working alongside support staff, premises teams and administrative colleagues, abandoned their holidays and weekends to become key workers in a time of global crisis. Teaching teams rapidly adapted schemes of work to teach pupils remotely, whilst in many cases simultaneously providing care for individuals who needed to be in school – all of this whilst also providing support to the wider community. Meanwhile, the voices of our young people were suddenly and dramatically muted. The two poems included at the end of this editorial, written by young people during lockdown, articulate what many of us experienced during this uncertain time.

Our member survey (Muller and Goldenberg, 2020) shows that almost 90 per cent of respondents felt that they worked within a collegiate culture and appreciated the mutual support offered during the pandemic. Young people who were used to engaging in a culture where their views and ideas are celebrated were able to continue to speak up and to contribute. Parents and carers who knew that they were respected and valued were much more likely to engage with teachers on the phone and were able to honestly share their triumphs and difficulties with home learning. A sense of collective endeavour carried us through. Trust and humility are powerful leadership qualities. The role of the teacher and their relationship with their students has mattered more than ever. Similarly, those young people who believe that they have something to offer have felt able to contribute through roles such as #iWill ambassadors and mental health champions within their virtual networks.

Governments around the world seeking to control the spread of COVID-19 have tried to appeal to young people to socially distance through campaigns such as ‘Don’t kill Granny’ (Heren, 2020), but Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, UCL London, recently commented that her insight into teenage behaviour indicated that involving young people instead of threatening them with consequences was far more likely to be effective (Andrews et al., 2020; Blakemore, 2020). Behavioural scientists such as Christopher Bryan, University of Texas, have shown how values alignment motivates action (Bryan et al., 2019). Youth social action achieves greatest impact when adults have the courage and vision to see that they do not need to try to set every agenda and try to control every outcome.

This issue explores what can be achieved when children and young people are encouraged and taught about how they can contribute to society, why their opinions matter and how personal development skills can stand them in good stead. Over the last decade, notions of character education and whether this is something that can be taught at all have been debated. We read here about programmes that show promise in their aspiration to build leadership skills and to nurture young people’s confidence and efficacy. We hear of opportunities that help to build individual understanding of teamwork; we see that experience of helping others can encourage openness and respect. We encounter stories from schools and colleges where global initiatives such as Fairtrade and activities to promote sustainable transport are organised. Opportunities that seek to build empathy and understanding are provided at the school micro-community level in order that connections can be built and extended beyond. Although gains in measurable attainment may be small, Stephen Gorard’s article (pp. 6–9) describes outcomes of social action on attainment that show promise over time.

The outcry from young people, from families and across wider society about the unjust summer examination results in all four nations provides another example of what happens when we all work together to right wrongs. Young people, moved to speak up for themselves and for their peers, provided compelling stories that the media showcased. Articulate, calm students were the best advocates for change. Social action – action that makes a positive difference to others or the environment – speaks to the ‘shaping’ of young people. I have been a longstanding member of the #iwill campaign, whose aim is to make meaningful social action the norm for young people, with young people leading change ( Within the schools where I have taught, pupil voice and active citizenship were always at the heart. Citizenship and social action are only as good, however, as the lived experience that they offer. Rhetoric about student engagement that, in reality, offers only surface-level involvement does nothing to improve models of democratic leadership (Peacock, 2012).

The contributions to this special issue aim to celebrate the voice and actions of our young people beyond anything that is controlled by the school. Ultimately, society benefits when the children who will lead our future are moved to social action that supports the collective good. As teachers, we are well placed to nurture and encourage this leadership when we are not threatened and worried about losing our authority. Our best chance of having the skill and confidence to stand back comes from our own sense of self-efficacy and purpose. We cannot control everything, and neither should we seek to do so, but we can offer glimpses of what might be achieved. I recall a conversation that I had with an experienced foster carer who specialised in supporting youngsters who had experienced trauma. Typically, the children would only remain with her for a short amount of time and I asked her how she carried on giving so much when often she would not see the results of her efforts. Her reply was that through living with her family, where their views were listened to, she was showing the youngsters that she fostered what could be possible. Through giving children a voice and purpose, she helped to reduce their feelings of helplessness. It is this ‘art of the possible’ that we build when we enable our young people to act on behalf of others in support of causes that hold meaning for them. Supporting our children and young people as they experience social action enables individual and collective effort to begin to make a difference in our schools and colleges. This, in turn, offers hope for action that impacts local communities and becomes worldwide. As teachers, we have the opportunity to create the space needed for these ideas to flourish.

Poems: Young voices from lockdown

These Months by Amaani Khan (16)

Will we talk about

the claps

or the muffled cries

or the way the sky

felt heavier?


Will we tell them

how hard it was

to fold the pages

of these months

and not see blood

on our hands??


When they ask us

about these months,

how will we find

the right pictures

to show them

how the world suddenly felt


so transparent?


Crossing by Linnet Drury (17)

I didn’t know I’d miss waiting

at traffic lights, waiting for a burst

of colour, a static of sound.

I didn’t know I’d miss noise,

crowds, the breath of rain

as it hits parched tarmac, being

near enough to hear people’s

breath. I didn’t realise I was only

exactly alone when I was

walking home from school, or

to the shops. I didn’t

realise it was the in-

between times

that held

me together.



These poems are included in Clanchy K (2020) (ed) Unmute: Young Voices from Lockdown. Oxford: Mixam Print. They have been reproduced with the permission of the poets.


Andrews  JL, Foulkes L and Blakemore S-J (2020) Peer influence in adolescence: Public-health implications for COVID-19.  Trends in Cognitive Sciences 24(8): 585–587.

Blakemore S-J (2020) Tweet. Available at: (accessed 25 September 2020).

Bryan CJ, Yeager DS and Hinorjosa CP (2019) A values alignment intervention protects adolescents from the effects of food marketing. Nature Human Behaviour 3: 596–603.

Clanchy K (2020) (ed) Unmute: Young Voices from Lockdown. Oxford: Mixam Print.

Heren K (2020) Preston council warns young people ‘don't kill granny’ as city placed under local lockdown. Evening Standard, 8 August, 2020. Available at: (accessed 25 September 2020).

Muller L-M and Goldenberg G (2020) Education in times of crisis: Teachers’ views on distance learning and school reopening plans during COVID-19. In: Chartered College Blogs. Available at: (accessed 25 September 2020).

Peacock AM (2012) Developing outward-facing schools where citizenship is a lived experience. In: Brown J, Ross H and Munn P (eds) Democratic Citizenship in Schools. Edinburgh; London: Dunedin Academic Press, pp. 120–132.

This issue's articles