Impact Journal Logo

Youth social action: What are the benefits for careers education?

Written by: Bart Shaw  Abi Angus
9 min read
Bart Shaw, Head of Policy, Centre for Education and Youth, UK
Abi Angus, Researcher, Centre for Education and Youth, UK

In this article, researchers from the Centre for Education and Youth (CfEY) examine the extent to which schools and colleges can use Youth Social Action (YSA) to improve their careers education. We identify where the links between careers education and YSA lie, drawing on our research carried out to inform the development of the Careers and Enterprise Company’s YSA toolkit for schools and colleges ( CfEY is a ‘think and action tank’ that undertakes independent research and develops resources to support organisations working with young people.

In 2018, CfEY were commissioned to develop a toolkit to help secondary schools and colleges use YSA within their careers provision. Our research comprised analysis of three young people’s focus groups, 20 interviews and survey data (n=131) collected in 2018/19, as well as a rapid review of literature. In this article, we set out how YSA can help schools and colleges to deliver high-quality careers education that prepares students for life after education, to meet the Gatsby benchmarks for careers provision, and to support students to take part in projects that benefit them and their communities.

What do we mean by YSA?

The #iwill campaign describes YSA as volunteering, campaigning or any project that involves young people coming together to solve an issue or improve something in their community (#iwill, 2019). There are overlaps with volunteering; however, YSA often includes opportunities for participatory practice and community-building (Arches and Fleming, 2006), which are not always present in volunteering. YSA is seen as beneficial to young people as it provides opportunities for them to work together to solve issues, gaining new skills as they do so. This article therefore explores one avenue through which schools might consider embedding YSA into their everyday practice.

How useful is YSA for careers education?

Skills for employability

There is promising evidence that taking part in YSA boosts the kinds of skills that employers say they value. Randomised control trials of YSA programmes have shown that YSA develops key skills for employment and adulthood, such as ‘empathy, problem solving, grit and resilience, sense of community and educational attitudes’ (Kirkman et al., 2016, p. 13). Evaluations of YSA programmes have found similar impacts. One volunteering programme for students at a London university, for example, used participant surveys and focus groups to suggest that participation supported students in developing ‘“employment” skills; particularly event planning, teamwork, leadership, decision making and problem-solving’, as well as ‘communication skills such as presentation skills and public speaking’ (Donahue and Russell, 2009). Young people feel that these skills will help them when they leave education and move into the workplace. The 2017 National Youth Social Action Survey found that 81 per cent of young people who had taken part in social action said that they believed it would help their future job chances (Knibbs and Michelmore, 2018).

One group of colleges in the South East of England has found a way to embed YSA within the curriculum of all the courses they teach, by linking YSA to students’ learning. On each course, tutors support young people to identify a local cause and then develop a project that utilises the skills that students are gaining. For example, young people studying construction redeveloped, decorated and furnished the space used by a local charity to provide resources and clothing for women facing challenging circumstances. Through this project, students were able to practise and apply the skills that they gained on their course while also gaining experience working for clients. The charity benefited from these young people’s skills, and formed new connections with members of their local community.

YSA supporting planning around future careers

YSA also helps students to think about the kinds of jobs that they might consider in future. Taking part in YSA enables students to reflect on their own sense of purpose and think critically about how they might affect their social surroundings. Rapa et al. (2018) found that students who engaged in YSA had higher expectations for their own career paths as a result, while Diemer and Blustein (2006) reported that students with greater awareness of socio-political inequalities imagined their future careers with more clarity and commitment than their peers.

One teacher that we interviewed described this sense of purpose as helping to broaden students’ horizons in terms of their future careers (Sixth form learning manager):

‘Some of our children have very clear ideas of what they think they want to do when they leave school, but they might not be manageable, or they might be completely driven by their parents’ desires, rather than their own. I suppose any kind of social action project, because of its open-endedness, allows them to explore areas of themselves and areas of the real world that they didn’t realise existed.’

For some of the students that we interviewed who were close to leaving school, YSA projects had influenced the steps that they planned to make next – for example, shaping subject choices at university or engagement in local and national politics.

Links to Gatsby benchmarks

The Gatsby benchmarks are designed to support schools and colleges in ensuring that their careers provision is high quality and provides students with the experiences and skills needed to make a positive transition to the world of work. Table 1 sets out each of the eight benchmarks and explores how embedding youth social action within careers provision supports learning in a way that is meaningful to students.

Table 1: How Gatsby benchmarks can be met through YSA


How could YSA help to meet this?

1. A stable careers programme
  • YSA can form part of a broad careers programme, building on other careers-focused learning
  • Relationships developed between careers leaders, other staff and students through YSA can provide consistency for current and future students
2. Learning from career and labour market information
  • Students volunteering in organisations can be encouraged to find out about the range of jobs available within the organisation and wider sector
  • This can help students to identify opportunities and ‘gaps in the market’, enabling them to pursue YSA responsive to local need
3. Addressing the needs of each student
  • YSA opportunities can be made available to students from a range of diverse backgrounds and genders, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, to enable them to develop a range of skills and competencies
  • Schools and colleges can be proactive in planning YSA activities and have discussions with students to explore opportunities available to them
4. Linking curriculum learning to careers
  • YSA provides opportunities to apply classroom learning in new contexts, alongside new knowledge and skills
  • It enables individual teachers to support projects that relate to their subject areas and areas of passion
5. Encounters with employers and employees
  • YSA can give students opportunities to work with a range of employers both inside their educational settings and beyond
  • Where employers or employees support YSA activities, there is an opportunity for them to speak to students about their own career journey, job role, skills and experience of the workplace
6. Experiences of workplaces
  • YSA can involve students visiting and experiencing workplaces as part of their projects
  • During activities that require a visit to a workplace, students can be supported to find out more about that working environment
7. Encounters with further and higher education
  • YSA can involve forging relationships and working with a wide range of stakeholders, including further and higher education settings, and apprenticeship and training providers
  • Where a YSA activity takes place in an FE or HE institution, there is an opportunity for students to learn about the range of courses available
8. Personal guidance
  • YSA gives students the opportunity to experience a wide range of activities and projects. They should be encouraged to reflect on and talk about these experiences in the classroom and when they meet their careers advisor

Maximising the benefits of YSA

Ensuring that all students can access YSA

Not everyone has equal access to YSA, particularly when it is organised in the community or when access is reliant on students’ own networks. As a result, students from low-income backgrounds are less likely to take part in YSA (Knibbs and Michelmore, 2018). School- or college-based YSA can be a good way to broaden access; however, there is not always capacity to involve all students, and offering opportunities to selected students can result in groups missing out, as one of our interviewees explained (Academic, currently researching YSA):

‘There is plenty of evidence that when teachers… want to encourage youth volunteering, they go with the kids they think will do it, but also encouraging the worst-off kids, the poorest kids… And so what that suggests is that teachers are going to both the low-hanging fruit, that’s the kids who are easy to get engaged, and the hardest to reach kids because that’s where they think they will make the most impact… genuinely universal is really important.’

Schools and colleges should track which students take part in YSA, and work to ensure that access is equitable. We came across schools taking different approaches to this – for example, through universal activities across whole classes or year groups, setting expectations that at least 50 per cent of students taking part are eligible for Pupil Premium, or enabling YSA that is focused on the local issues that matter most to lower-income pupils and the communities in which they live.

Developing student leadership of projects

Supporting students to take ownership of the design and implementation of their projects is key to providing quality YSA experiences. Students can take ownership of projects in a number of ways – from identifying the issue that they seek to address through their YSA project, to taking the lead on designing the activities that will be carried out. This ownership is vital to engage students, resulting in higher-quality projects but also in finding new and valuable solutions to issues faced by communities. Young people, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, can be switched off by programmes that fail to allow space for young people to identify the ‘cause’ and to design delivery themselves (Davies, 2019). With ownership, students become invested in their projects and learn new skills.

Above all, effective use of YSA as part of a school or college’s careers provision involves meaningful, real-world experiences. We spoke to a YSA practitioner who summarised the importance of high-quality YSA projects within careers provision (Youth worker and YSA practitioner):

‘It [YSA] isn’t about teaching young people in a classroom and getting them to fill in CVs and stuff like that, it’s giving them some real-life practical opportunities to work together in a team, learn new skills, practise things and direct, really direct what the agenda is and what that looks like, so learning through experience in a safe space.’  


At the heart of quality careers provision is the aim of providing students with the skills and knowledge that they need to transition into adulthood; YSA can play a role in equipping students with experiences that help them to build those skills. This article draws on the emerging literature on YSA, as well as interviews with young people, experts and practitioners, to suggest ways in which schools and colleges can use YSA to augment their careers curricula.

By embedding student-led, inclusive, sustained and meaningful YSA into careers provision, schools and colleges can work towards meeting the Gatsby benchmarks while also supporting their students to make positive change in their communities and learn more about what they want from, and can offer, future workplaces.

This research represents a starting point for understanding how school and college careers provision and YSA can be used to help students develop skills. As more schools and colleges make use of YSA, either as part of careers education or more widely to support students’ citizenship or social and emotional development, we hope that larger-scale research will allow researchers to understand how to maximise the impact of YSA for young people in the longer term.


#iwill (2019) What is youth social action? Available at: (accessed 30 January 2020).

Arches J and Fleming J (2006) Young people and social action: Youth participation in the United Kingdom and United States. New Directions for Youth Development 2006(111): 81–90.

Davies B (2019) Youth volunteering – the new panacea. In: Davies B (ed) Austerity, Youth Policy and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in England. London: Palgrave MacMillan, pp. 217–235.

Diemer MA and Blustein DL (2006) Critical consciousness and career development among urban youth. Journal of Vocational Behavior 68(2): 220–232.

Donahue K and Russell J (2009) PROVIDE Volunteer Impact Assessment Final Report. London: Institute for Volunteering Research.

Kirkman E, Sanders M, Emanuel N et al (2016) Evaluating youth social action: Does participating in social action boost the skills young people need to succeed in adult life? London: Behavioural Insights Team. Available at: (accessed 30 January 2020).

Knibbs S and Michelmore O (2018) National Youth Social Action Survey 2017. London: Ipsos Mori. Available at: (accessed 1 April 2020).

Rapa LJ, Diemer MA and Bañales J (2018) Critical action as a pathway to social mobility among marginalized youth. Developmental Psychology  54(1): 127.

      0 0 votes
      Please Rate this content
      Notify of
      Inline Feedbacks
      View all comments

      From this issue

      Impact Articles on the same themes