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Extending high-quality social action into primary schools

Written by: Oliver Wimborne
9 min read
Oliver Wimborne, (formerly) Senior Researcher, The RSA, UK

How can we support more young people to participate in social action? The RSA has been exploring this question for two years, with support from the Pears Foundation and the Templeton Religion Trust. Our report, ‘Teenagency’ (Partridge et al., 2018), found that young people want to make a difference in society but that opportunities for social action are limited. The best youth social action programmes are youth-led (Ockenden et al., 2013), but young people can rarely shape their involvement. Some argue that engaging young people earlier in life might develop a lifelong habit of service (Taylor-Collins et al., 2019; Arthur et al., 2017). Similarly, the authors of the RSA’s Teenagency, Laura Partridge et al., suggest (2018, p. 54):

‘We must find ways to ensure that all young people are empowered to shape the activities they engage in to make a positive difference in their communities – the benefits to communities may be greater, and the impacts on young people, especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, could be huge.’

There is a challenge, therefore, to understand what high-quality and youth-led social action might look like for children at earlier points in life. And this is what the RSA and RSA Academies are exploring, together with a social action programme for primary-aged children called RSA4.

This article explores how high-quality social action in primary schools has been developed through RSA4 and reports our early findings on the benefits and barriers of this programme.

  1. What is high-quality social action?

Social action can be defined as a practical action in the service of others to create positive change (Kirkman et al., 2015). Whilst many primary schools run activities that resemble this, often these do not translate into high-quality programmes in which the children understand the positive change that they are working towards. For example, Alison Body and colleagues (2019) looked at charitable action in primary schools and found students who assumed that the purpose of Children in Need fundraising was to buy Pudsey Bear a new eye. They write (p. 33):

‘Almost all the children (in the study) were able to identify Pudsey Bear, recognise the poppy and the Comic Relief red nose, and associate this with various activities they had taken part in. However, less common was a deeper, more critical engagement in the reasons for this fundraising activity and the issues that sit behind this giving.’

Here, the #iwill principles for high-quality social action are instructive (Ockenden et al., 2013). These promote programmes that: (i) have a level of challenge for students; (ii) are youth-led; (iii) have an intended benefit for the wider community; (iv) foster greater involvement in similar activities; (v) normalise social action as part of participants’ lives; and (vi) are reflective, with opportunities for recognition and reward. Research has explored how these principles might provide a useful framework for a broader programme of character education in schools that supports a positive change in both individuals and the community (Lamb et al., 2019).

For many schools, especially smaller primary schools, implementing these principles can be daunting and requires careful planning, expert guidance and confidence in students’ ability to lead social action. By designing RSA4, we have aimed to develop a programme that incorporates these principles in a way that is practical for the primary setting and ambitious for realising children’s potential.

  1. Tailoring this for the primary setting

RSA4 is a programme for Year 4 (aged eight to nine) students to develop a social action project that has a clear intended benefit for the community. Students develop projects that address an issue beyond the school gates (such as homelessness, social isolation or mental health) and involve a practical action to tackle the issue directly (rather than fundraising or signing a petition, for example) as an ‘intended benefit’.

During our pilot year, the four schools nominated 10 Pupil Leaders from their Year 4 classes. These Leaders participated in four whole-day workshops focused on leadership skills, problem-solving, teamwork and communication. These took place off-site in the spring terms and were delivered by a specialist charity. Pupil Leaders then took what they learnt back to their schools as ‘experts’. During the summer term, the class worked together to define, develop and implement their social action project through democratic decision-making and with the guidance of the Pupil Leaders. At the end of the academic year, Pupil Leaders from across the participating schools came together for a celebration event at a local university.

The RSA4 process is youth-led, ensuring that children make choices about what issue they focus on, how they will learn more about it and what action they will take in light of what they have learnt. Of course, the class teacher plays a vital role in facilitating this programme but students are afforded space to make decisions in response to what they have learn about social issues and how to address them. This ‘youth-led process’ can be a different way of working for many teachers, and the programme includes training opportunities for staff with an expert organisation.

After piloting RSA4 with four schools, the programme is running again in 2019/20 with 10 schools. But what have we learnt from the experience so far?

  1. Early findings from RSA4

A team from RSA Academies and an independent evaluator collected data through the pilot to help us understand how the programme ran. The data we collected came from observations of workshops, interviews with teachers, a questionnaire for students and questionnaires for teachers.

The youth-led format is a core principle of RSA4 but one that creates specific challenges in the classroom. Teachers highlight the need to balance the enthusiasm that this generates from students with the uncertainty of not setting the direction of travel:

‘(I)t’s been great… It’s made me more confident to let the children follow their own idea, and I think that’s why they have been so passionate and that’s why they keep thinking of more ideas.’ (Teacher)

‘(T)here’s always an element of having to think on your feet as a teacher. You are going to do that anyway because you never quite know how a lesson is going to go, but with [RSA4] you have… got to potentially be more creative, braver and willing to run with it when you are not entirely sure where it’s going.’ (SLT)

An area of uncertainty for many teachers centred on how much guidance they could give children when deciding what the topic of social action should be. In one class, for example, students chose to focus on homelessness and their class teacher told us (Teacher):

‘I was nervous, and the other two teachers were nervous about them choosing homelessness because we thought, “What are we going to do?”, and you know, “It’s too sensitive”. They may be too young, and they might be doing things that aren’t age-appropriate… I really didn’t think it would be this successful.’

The challenge of ‘age-appropriateness’ in social action can create perceived barriers for primary teachers that might not exist for secondary teachers. Our research found several schools encountering ethical concerns (ought students to learn about a topic?), practical barriers (can students fully grasp an issue?) and safeguarding challenges (could some students have direct experience of these issues? If so, should they be avoided?). This has been especially interesting because these aspects of social action in the primary setting are not well documented.

A different challenge existed for Pupil Leaders, where participating in workshops involved stepping outside of their comfort zone (Interview with Pupil Leaders):

‘I haven’t had any practice at being a leader or anything like that… I do like helping people, but I don’t really know how to.’

‘It kind of feels like we are in Year 6 because we’ve never got to do important things like this.’

The benefits of the Pupil Leader role included the high expectations for the pupils and the recognition and reward associated with the role. For example, some Year 4 students articulated how participating in workshops had introduced them to procedural aspects of problem-solving, leadership and teamwork more explicitly. For example (Interview with Pupil Leader):

‘(B)efore I thought working as a team is just doing work together. But now I think it’s like listening to each other’s ideas, sharing ideas, making them better and I’ve learnt to do what teamwork really is.’

A final theme from our findings of RSA4 has related to how Pupil Leaders are selected by teachers. The leadership system enables the programme to support a smaller group of students, who are responsible for leading their class’s social action project. In many cases, teachers chose students who they thought would easily take to the role. However, after seeing how their Year 4 classes responded to the project, many teachers recognised an opportunity to support ‘less likely’ students through the role. For example, one senior leader suggested (Interview with SLT):

‘So, I think next time we would be looking at the children it would make the biggest difference to, rather than worrying [what might happen] if they don’t come up with any ideas. Of course they will. We didn’t give them the credit that we should have.’

Across all schools, there were examples of ‘unlikely’ students who took far more from the programme and the experience of social action than their teachers anticipated.

  1. Conclusions: Refining RSA4

Delivering youth-led social action in primary schools is challenging and difficult to get right. Looking ahead to the second year, we have made some refinements to the programme in light of what we have learnt:

  1. Students should be seen as ambassadors and not leaders. The advantage of working with a smaller group of students to develop their understanding of leadership, teamwork and problem-solving has proven to be a successful system. However, a side effect of this is that the wider year group have felt less involved because they are not ‘leaders’. To this end, we are renaming the role ‘Pupil Ambassadors’, with a view to signalling a more democratic and collaborative relationship between them and their peers.
  2. Student workshops need to be rooted in the substance of social action. The initial view when designing workshops was to build them around the skills that we wanted to see. However, there was ambiguity in what these skills look like when ‘doing’ social action, and students left workshops without a clear understanding of how to apply what they had learnt. For this reason, we redesigned the student workshops around a more coherent, substantive account of social action participation.
  3. Delivering high-quality social action in primary schools can run up against unexpected barriers and challenges. Our future research is focused on understanding these and how they can be managed. Further research into primary-aged social action might build on this by assessing whether there is a causal relationship between the programme and its benefits, and what the cost–benefit might be when children spend time away from the classroom for these activities.


Arthur J, Harrison T, Taylor-Collins E et al. (2017) A habit of service. The Jubilee Centre, University of Birmingham. Available at: (accessed 30 June 2020).

Body A, Lau E and Josephidou J (2019) Our charitable children: Engaging children in charities and charitable giving. The University of Kent; Canterbury Christ Church University. Available at: (accessed 30 June 2020).

Kirkman E, Sanders M, Emanuel N et al. (2015) Evaluating youth social action: Does participating in social action boost the skills young people need to succeed in adult life? Behavioural Insights Team. Available at: (accessed 30 June 2020).

Lamb M, Taylor-Collins E and Silvergate C (2019) Character education for social action: A conceptual analysis of the #iwill campaign. Journal of Social Science Education 18(1): 125–152.

Ockenden N, Unell J, Donahue K et al. (2013) Scoping a quality framework for youth social action: The campaign for youth social action. Cabinet Office; Institute for Volunteering Research; NCVO; The Young Foundation. Available at: (accessed 30 June 2020).

Partridge L, Astle J, Grinsted S et al. (2018) Teenagency: How young people can create a better world. RSA Action and Research Centre. Available at: (accessed 30 June 2020).

Taylor-Collins E, Harrison T, Thoma SJ et al. (2019) A habit of social action: Understanding the factors associated with adolescents who have made a habit of helping others. Voluntas 30(98): 98–114.


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