Skip to content

Research Hub Logo

The role of youth social action in creating independent learners

Written By: Abi Angus
7 min read


Through our work on Youth Social Action (YSA), we see a great deal of overlap in the skills and processes that support independent learning, and those that are developed within YSA projects. In this article, we look at how enabling young people to take part in YSA projects can support skills for independent learning and encourage participation in learning throughout their lives. We also look at what the evidence says about the principles that can be used to underpin YSA in schools and maximise the benefits for young people’s learning.

What is YSA?

The Centre for Social Action defines social action as a distinctive value-based group practice, with a focus on social justice, rights and empowerment (Arches and Flemming, 2006). Youth Social Action (YSA) involves working with groups of young people, creating opportunities to improve circumstances within communities and tackle unequal power relations. This could include activities where young people lobby for change, raise money or awareness for a cause, or volunteer and take action within communities.

In order to ensure that projects provide the experiences necessary to develop the skills young people need for independent learning, YSA opportunities should be shaped around these quality principles:

  1. Youth-led. YSA projects are effective in supporting young people to build on skills such as leadership and problem-solving (Donahue and Russell, 2009), which are useful for building confidence and self-reliance. Supporting young people to identify the issues they feel are important can result in increased motivation to create change, and therefore greater opportunities to apply developing skills. Young people often have creative ideas about what may help to solve an issue, so projects benefit from youth leadership too.
  2. Long-term. While intensive YSA projects can appear to have a positive impact, as with all community work, YSA projects should be long-term in order to create meaningful, sustainable change. The benefits of YSA are increased when activity takes place over a sustained period of time (Moorfoot et al., 2015), providing increased opportunities for young people to develop their skills as well as their thinking on the issues they are seeking to tackle.
  3. Inclusive. Middle class young people are more likely to take part in YSA than peers from working class or low-income backgrounds (Knibbs and Michelmore, 2018). Young people who have disabilities or who have been excluded from school can also find there are fewer opportunities to participate. Therefore, when designing or leading YSA projects, it is vital that opportunities are available for all young people, with particular focus on ensuring that pupils from marginalised groups are supported and encouraged to participate.

How does YSA promote independent learning?

Leading and designing YSA projects provides multiple opportunities for young people to practice autonomy and freedom in their learning.

To successfully deliver a project or activity that will create change, young people need to understand the issue that they plan to tackle, form links with local members of the community and find out about existing services and organisations. By breaking down tasks within teams, individuals are able to take responsibility for different aspects of the project, solve problems and share their learning with the group. Running a project requires young people to set goals, monitor progress and evaluate success, which are also key skills for independent learning. Supporting young people to plan projects around issues they feel strongly about, or making use of existing skills and interests, can also be a useful way to encourage motivation and build on young people’s curiosity.

For example, during a visit to a college in the South East, my colleagues and I heard about an event organised and run by a group of students studying media and games design. The young people involved planned an all-day event across their college, splitting into small groups to design and run different stalls, offering different awareness and fundraising activities. Each group was responsible for their own stall, and had the freedom to shape their activity based on the research they had carried out.

For young people with disabilities who are often recipients of care and support, taking part in YSA can be especially beneficial. Not only do projects allow young people to make wider links in their community, tackling isolation, but also demonstrate to young people, their families, carers and the wider community that all young people have skills and qualities that can be used to make change happen.

While conducting research on YSA, we heard about a school where autistic young people have been supported to run a community café within school grounds. The café has benefits for the community, providing a space for people to learn more about autism and strengthen local connections. Students who choose to work in the café are able to practice working alongside each other, and see how their responsibilities within the café build on problem solving and communication skills that will continue to be useful in the future.

What impact does YSA have on learning in later life?

Taking part in quality YSA allows young people to build on skills and develop qualities that will be useful throughout their lives, including confidence, teamwork and communication (Ellis, 2005; Moorfoot et al., 2015; Unell, 2013). Practising these skills in a context outside of the classroom allows young people to see how these can be used out in the ‘real world’. A study of young people who had taken part in social action found that increased engagement with social issues resulted in young people having increased clarity and higher expectations for their career pathways (Rapa et al., 2018).

Lifelong learning requires motivation; for many young people, understanding the systems that impact on them and their communities can be a motivator to learn more about those systems and create change (Diemer, 2009). Young people who have taken part in YSA projects might choose to find work related to social justice. Other young people may continue on unrelated career paths, but look out for ways in which they can continue to learn, volunteer and support members of their community (Moorfoot et al., 2015).

In our own research, we spoke to a young person who had decided to study geography at university after taking part in a YSA project tackling environmental issues. We also spoke to young people studying construction, who had been given opportunities to use their skills to benefit their local community, and were now more aware of others who may benefit from their practical skills in the future. By opening up opportunities to learn more about issues affecting their communities, YSA projects encourage young people to consider how to continue to develop skills that will support not only themselves, but the people around them too.

How can schools use YSA?

To maximise the effectiveness of YSA projects, schools should aim to meet the three quality principles outlined above. If YSA is delivered without ensuring projects are youth-led, long-term and inclusive, they can be tokenistic and are less likely to provide opportunities for young people to become more independent in their learning. Teachers do not always have the time or resources to facilitate YSA projects, so without additional capacity and support, teacher-led projects may not always be the most effective.

During our research into YSA, we spoke to teachers who had run YSA projects in their schools. For many teachers, this was made possible by a senior leadership team that was supportive and encouraged a school-wide approach to YSA. This might involve identifying where YSA can be embedded into the curriculum, or providing additional time to plan projects that run as after-school or lunchtime clubs.

YSA organised through schools has one key benefit: it can reach all young people, including pupils who otherwise might not have the networks or social capital to find opportunities, or those who live where community and youth sector opportunities don’t exist. When YSA is universal there is a far smaller gap in engagement between young people from higher and lower income backgrounds (#iwill Fund Learning Hub, 2019).

Three questions to encourage reflection and prompt action

For teachers considering how YSA could be used in their own classrooms and schools, these questions may be useful:

  • What YSA activities are already taking place in my school and community? Are there projects that are already working well that could be used to build on, make links to or learn from?
  • What support or resources do I need to run a meaningful project? Would it be useful to speak to YSA delivery organisations, or to local community and youth services? Would additional expertise and capacity increase the impact of projects? Would it be beneficial to speak to members of my Senior Leadership Team, or involve other colleagues?
  • How can I ensure that YSA projects are high quality? Am I able to ensure that projects can be led by young people, run over a sustained period of time, and are open to all young people? If this is not possible within my setting, then can I support my pupils to identify other opportunities for YSA that do meet these principles?


Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. What opportunities are there for youth social action in your context?
0 0 votes
Please Rate this content
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Other content you may be interested in