Freshers’ fairs for the forgotten sixty three percent?


7th June 2023

By Joe Hallgarten and Adam Muirhead

This summer, we’re delighted to be collaborating with The Trust for Developing Communities  to carry out a rapid  ‘test and learn’ prototype for our latest action-focused idea: A freshers’ fair for young people who aren’t going to university. Find out more below.

Surprise surprise, but Guy Garvey put it better than I ever will. In an interview (that I am afraid I can’t track down) he mentioned the moment at age 18, when many of his friends departed his home town to head to university, leaving those who were left behind (including a few members of what would become Elbow) a little forlorn and envious – or, as Seamus Heaney put it even better ‘ lost, unhappy and at home’.

We can of course catastrophise too much about those young people not going to university. For many of the 63% or so who don’t go, , it’s an active choice: a transition with huge opportunities; a break from the regimes of formal learning; and a decent-ish monthly pay cheque, all without having to leave your friends or your neighbourhood (or your parental home which is still appealing to many young people).  My first ever CfEY blog on transitions talked about the barriers that these young people faced who – ‘uncushioned by the soft-structured opportunities of student life, are juggling a challenging mix of working and training, alongside family living, renting or possibly sofa surfing.’ These young people are neglected in discourse and action – consider, for instance, the huge attention paid to undergraduate mental health, as if those not going to university don’t suffer from similar issues.

Some of these challenges – poor pay, insecure work, rising rents – are deep and structural. But is there a cultural prejudice going on here too? As a society, as workplaces and as local communities, we are simply not shouting ‘welcome to the adult world’ to these young people in any meaningful way.  This further reinforces the ‘youth social action gap’ between more affluent young people and their less advantaged peers. Yes, you can come to the pub, but what about to the polis?

Thanks to funding from the Young Foundation’s Civic Journey (whose research shows that ‘a complex set of transition points exist for children and young people as they undertake their individual and collective Civic Journeys’) we are collaborating with the Trust for Developing Communities to pilot a new approach that might help these young people navigate their own civic journey – their very own ‘Freshers’ Fair’.

Freshers’ Fairs are commonplace at the start of University years for incoming students.  New students find them to be helpful in terms of their orientation and understanding of the local context and how to become involved in student societies, social activities, volunteering, work and sports. There are also other, more lubricated sides to a freshers’ week of course, that we can’t condone or condemn, but won’t replicate.

Freshers’ fairs are very much focused on those who are joining Universities, largely to the exclusion of those who are not.  Our ambition is to leverage the excitement, fun and impact of a Freshers Fair, but for those who are taking a different, often more challenging, journey towards adulthood and employment.

Our pilot will spark civic engagement for Year 13 leavers through piloting tailored ‘Freshers Fair’ events, supporting their transition out of statutory education and into communities of action.  Local young people will be employed to co-design and co-deliver these events, bringing together charities and community groups to promote volunteering, civic and political engagement opportunities.  We’ll take an expansive approach to this – anything from amateur dramatics to sports field dramatics, and everything in between, including any kind of legal political activism. Although young people’s digital lives are legitimate and vital outlets for civic engagement, our focus will be on the face-to-face.

This project will create a proof of concept around a methodology to provide entry points, infrastructure, support and resources for young people to connect with and take action in their communities.  We will be working with staff and students at Brighton Aldridge Community Academy (BACA), recruiting young people in Brighton and organisations across Sussex from now, aiming for some serious stress-testing over the Summer and a fair itself in September. We’re keen to find out about:

The Spark – Whether this approach will successfully spark engagement of young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds in civic activity.  We’d like to know if our methodology of working alongside young people enhances this.

The Warm Glow – We would like to learn if the offer at our ‘Freshers Fair’ is in line with the kind of things that young people would find appealing or interesting.  By building in some tracking/follow up with the young people we hope to know whether the resultant civic engagement generated improved wellbeing and support.

Replication & Scale – We hope to understand whether a model can be developed for delivering a youth-led Freshers Fair for non-university goers across the whole of the UK.

There is probably a better Elbow lyric to sum this up, but this one will have to do for now: ‘One day a year like this will see me right’. It won’t, of course, but a day or week of sustained civic attention on our part-forgotten 60% might provide a marker for the longer-term engagement opportunities that they deserve.

If you’re a Sussex-based organisation interested in participating in the pilot, please get in touch with Adam. If you would like your local area or organisation to participate in future Freshers’ Fairs, please get in touch with Joe.

Listen to our podcast about our evaluation of TDC’s programme for youth workers in hospitals.