Why we need Youth Social Action projects this summer


19th May 2020

Last week, we launched a report on summer schools, summarising the evidence base and highlighting some school leaders’ views on whether summer schools could support students after lockdown. Recently, I’ve been drawing from my experiences both as a youth worker and a researcher to consider whether Youth Social Action (YSA) programmes could be a useful format for summer learning.

I believe that YSA programmes run this summer could allow young people find solutions to community issues, as we deal with the impact of covid-19. In this blog, I set out what the evidence tells us about how to deliver a programme so that it creates meaningful change.

Why YSA?

A few years ago, I spent a summer working for a National Citizen Service (NCS) provider, providing specialist support for young people who were finding the programme difficult due to additional support needs or mental health issues. As a researcher at CfEY, while developing the Youth Social Action and careers toolkit for #iwill and the Careers & Enterprise Company, I delved into the literature on YSA and spoke to young people about their YSA experiences.

Researching the evidence base on YSA and having the opportunity to see how it plays out in practice persuaded me that when done well, YSA is beneficial for young people and their communities, helping young people to tackle social issues while developing useful skills. However, youth social action can be problematic if certain pitfalls aren’t avoided.

When YSA is implemented without leadership from young people themselves, or when it prioritises increasing the volunteer workforce rather than empowering young people to make change, it loses its potential to deliver meaningful change. Research suggests that if career-readiness and development of ‘employability’ skills are promoted as the main reason for participating in YSA, it risks becoming transactional, losing its focus on community development.

We must also recognise that real change cannot be made without examining the structures that make that change necessary – in other words, the underlying drivers of inequality. Ideally, YSA projects bring young people together to create change while learning more about how to tackle systemic injustice.

YSA projects should be designed to bring young people together to create change while learning more about how to tackle systemic injustice Share on X

Developing young people’s skills

Research suggests that when they take part in YSA, young people gain confidence and develop skills they can use throughout their lives. Randomised Control Trials have shown that taking part in YSA develops young people’s “empathy, problem solving, grit and resilience, sense of community and educational attitudes”, key skills and attributes for adulthood.

Evaluations of YSA programmes have found similar impact. Volunteering programmes have been shown to develop ‘employability’ skills, such as event planning, teamwork, leadership, decision making and problem-solving; and ‘communication skills’ including presentation skills and public speaking.

Young people will particularly benefit from opportunities to develop their skills after being away from education for several months; whether they’re going back to their school or college, into the world of work, or starting a new phase of education.

Whatever their plans are for September, after being out of education for several months young people will benefit from opportunities to develop their skills Share on X

Young person led, community based

Communities are best placed to identify the issues that they face and to shape how issues are tackled using existing community assets, such as shared spaces, local organisations or skills held by community members. The pressures brought on by covid-19 and months of lockdown vary across communities, so local solutions delivered with national funding are the best way of supporting recovery. Therefore, YSA projects should allow young people to plan and deliver projects that they tailor to their community’s needs.

Youth leadership is a key component of effective YSA, resulting in fresh ideas for projects as well as opportunities for young people to “learn and use skills in decision making, participation, and civic engagement”. Youth work practitioners skilled in participatory youth work should facilitate this work, to ensure that projects are truly youth-led. This would include supporting young people to identify the issues that their project could address, and then splitting down into smaller teams to research the problems, develop plans and deliver projects that tackle specific issues.

Open to all

Long-term, all young people across the country should have access to YSA programmes in their area.

Research suggests that affluent and middle-class young people are more likely to participate in YSA, and that not being asked to take part in a project was the most common reason given by young people who did not take part. When opportunities for participation are universal (such as when YSA is delivered to whole year groups in schools), the socio-economic gap is reduced. Fully universal programmes tell all young people that the opportunity is for them, while still allowing agency and choice.

While YSA programmes should ultimately be open to everyone, in the shorter-term, to ensure access and uptake is equitable, young people from low income families, who have been excluded from school or who have disabilities, should be prioritised, as these are the groups that typically miss out on YSA opportunities. Youth services and schools working in partnership can ensure that young people from these groups are contacted and offered a place.

Before deciding to take part or not, young people should be able to talk through the programme and any concerns with a trusted person such as a youth worker or teacher. At this stage additional support can be planned with the young people who would need it to access the programme. As we do not yet know when it will be safe for restrictions on face-to-face socialising to be lifted, and it is likely significant groups of people will still need to remain socially distant, programmes need to ensure that working virtually and in-person flexibly is possible.


In order to deliver YSA projects across the whole country, partnerships will be key:

  • Youth services and teams already recruited to run NCS programmes this year should facilitate the bulk of delivery. Organisations with a track record of effective youth led YSA or engagement with so called ‘hard to reach’ groups should be prioritised to access funding and run programmes in their areas.
  • Youth workers who are furloughed and any teachers who wish to apply will be vital in providing skilled additional capacity – whether that’s through the leadership of groups, or by sharing their expertise in training for project staff.
  • As the NCS Trust are a national, centrally funded youth service provider, they have a responsibility for ensuring young people are supported post lockdown, especially over the summer holidays. Any central funding that may be unspent after cancellation of the NCS summer programme should be reallocated to organisations delivering YSA projects.
  • Young people access the programme through their schools, colleges and youth services. Teaching staff and youth workers know the young people they work with, and so can make sure that pupils’ support or safeguarding needs are flagged and identified to make this experience safe for everyone.
  • Local organisations can help young people access community members who might benefit from support. They can also provide insight that helps young people plan projects.
  • While staffing costs and resourcing should be covered by central funding, large funders and grants foundations could consider establishing pots of money with accessible application processes, that young people and their partner organisations can use to implement their projects in the community.

At the heart of my proposal is this: young people forming links with local organisations to create change that meets the needs of them and their communities.