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Community change makers: Youth social action in the East End

Written by: Kiran Mahil
5 min read
Kiran Mahil, Assistant Headteacher, Central Foundation Girls’ School, UK; formerly Key Stage 4 Leader, Oaklands School, UK

‘The future is uncertain and we cannot predict it; but we need to be open and ready for it’ (OECD, 2018, p. 2) is perhaps not a hugely revelatory statement for those working in education. It certainly chimes with how the world is battling with the current COVID-19 pandemic. The scope and scale of change that our young people experience seem greater than at any point in human history, particularly with the faster rate of technological developments. How, then, do schools prepare students for the challenges that lie ahead?

‘Students who are best prepared for the future are change agents. They can have a positive impact on their surroundings, influence the future, understand others’ intentions, actions and feelings, and anticipate the short and long-term consequences of what they do.’ (OECD, 2018, p. 4) This statement from ‘The future of education and skills: Education 2030’ report was at the heart of a personal development project for students, co-created by Toynbee Hall, an organisation working for social change in the East End for over a century, and Oaklands School, an inclusive secondary school and sixth form in Tower Hamlets. To help young people prepare for an uncertain future, we took the view that being comfortable with the pace of change was not enough. Students must play an active role in leading that change too.

This objective and our school’s mission to provide an education that equips students with the knowledge, skills and networks to thrive, launched ‘Community Change Makers’, a leadership development course that aimed to empower 15 Year 10 students (girls and boys) to push for and bring about change in themselves and their local and global communities. It was delivered in 90-minute biweekly workshops during the school day, over a period of three months. Students applied to be selected for the course and others were encouraged to participate to help to re-engage them with school life.

Throughout the programme, students learnt how to:

  • win the argument
  • make others listen
  • build powerful teams around the change that they wanted to see.

Students spent their time in workshops at school and at Toynbee Hall, helping them to see their role in making change beyond the school gates. Before the project started, none of the young people knew of Toynbee Hall. They had not visited and did not know its role in pioneering positive change for their neighbourhood. It was vital that students were inspired and not intimidated by this heritage so that they could cast themselves in leading roles in the story of 21st-century social activism. The Community Change Makers were invited to make Toynbee Hall’s space their own with exercises that taught them how to be courageous in new settings. The workshops, which were facilitated by the Toynbee Hall youth team, encouraged students to reflect on and research issues to which they wanted to make a difference. They had to turn these ‘pet ideas’ into ‘pithy pitches’ by negotiating in small teams and agreeing on what they were going to organise action around and how they were going to represent the importance of these issues and actions.

The second phase of the workshops took place at Oaklands School yet were still facilitated by Toynbee Hall staff. Students created storyboards that explored national and international social reform movements, generating content for a debate about how best to bring people together to solve the problems that would improve their lives and their communities.

Observing this project from a distance, Oaklands School staff witnessed students transform into inspirational individuals who combined to form a very dynamic team. They were taught how to identify and articulate their own thoughts and turn them into collective action, so that everybody in the group felt that they were making a real difference. The young people were ambitious when communicating the picture of a preferred future that they wanted to see. At the Community Change Makers graduation event, which took place in the historic Ashbee Hall (Clement Attlee, Mahatma Gandhi and Amelia Earhart have all visited), the students passionately shared the social change they wanted to lead. They pledged to play an active part in pushing for better adolescent mental health provision, improving community safety and solving the climate crisis. This leadership course has inspired and equipped students to organise in their community now and become active citizens in the future.

A focus group session with participants, coordinated by Toynbee Hall’s funders, intended to assess the delivery of the student leadership programme. Here, some genuine personal growth gains from the students themselves were revealed:

‘I really wanted to come to school on the day that we did Community Change Makers.’

‘I feel that my ideas are worthwhile and now I know how to get other people to listen to them.’

‘It was fun working with people in my school who I didn’t really know properly before. We actually have loads in common.’

These anecdotal findings echo the Education Endowment Foundation’s (2019) evaluation of a larger-scale social action project, which concludes that participation is associated with a small improvement in self-reported non-attainment outcomes.

The immediate impact of Community Change Makers was felt by those involved and seen by the professionals delivering the project. To ensure longer-term legacy, one of the outcomes – a zine publication created entirely by the students, with graphic novel input from Toynbee Hall’s resident storyteller – has been deposited in the Youth Club Archive, soon to become the Museum of Youth Culture. It is hoped that future generations take inspiration from this publication. Empowering Oaklands students to find their own voice and know how to use it, whilst remaining true to themselves, will continue. It will now be led by the team of young people who participated in this leadership development project, as they assume new roles as Community Change Maker Ambassadors.

It is very true that ‘education should be about broadening minds, enriching communities and advancing civilisation. Ultimately, it is about leaving the world a better place than we found it.’ (Spielman, 2017) This call to action from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector should ignite a movement for change across the country, particularly as we have witnessed the pivotal role that schools and young people have played in their communities during lockdown. The coronavirus pandemic has sparked a real appetite in some of my students to support society and renew how and when they learn. Projects like Community Change Makers, which are bespoke to students’ needs and co-designed to work for their interests, are a small but significant way to empower young people with the tools needed to be the change that they want to see.


Education Endowment Foundation (2019) Youth United executive summary. Available at: (accessed 17 February 2020).

OECD (2018) The future of education and skills: Education 2030. Available at: (accessed 4 February 2020).

Spielman A (2017) Enriching the fabric of education, speech. Available at: (accessed 4 February 2020).

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