Progress in education

Creatingsystem change

Education has the potential to be the great equaliser
Alison Peacock

A former teacher, Prof. Dame Alison Peacock now heads up the Chartered College of Teaching, which celebrates, supports and connects teachers. Here she gives her perspective on a turbulent year and explains how society benefits from youth social action.

We have experienced an extraordinary year. In March, when the Prime Minister announced that all schools would close for the majority of students until further notice, I recall experiencing a deep sense of shock. Never, in my entire career as a teacher, had I anticipated that something as world-changing and frightening as this would take place. Our nurseries, schools and colleges all serve local communities but are also micro-communities in themselves. Suddenly, our teachers and school leaders, working alongside support staff, premises teams and administrative colleagues, abandoned their holidays and weekends to become key workers in a time of global crisis. Meanwhile, the voices of our young people were suddenly and dramatically muted.

The outcry from young people, from families and across wider society about the unjust summer examination results in all four nations provides another example of what happens when we all work together to right wrongs.

Young people, moved to speak up for themselves and for their peers, provided compelling stories that the media showcased. Articulate, calm students were the best advocates for change. Social action – action that makes a positive difference to others or the environment – speaks to the ‘shaping’ of young people. I have been a longstanding member of the #iwill campaign, whose aim is to make meaningful social action the norm for young people, with young people leading change. Within the schools where I have taught, pupil voice and active citizenship were always at the heart.

Ultimately, society benefits when the children who will lead our future are moved to social action that supports the collective good. As teachers, we are well placed to nurture and encourage this leadership when we are not threatened and worried about losing our authority. Supporting our children and young people as they experience social action enables individual and collective effort to begin to make a difference in our schools and colleges. This, in turn, offers hope for action that impacts local communities and becomes worldwide. As teachers, we have the opportunity to create the space needed for these ideas to flourish.

Peacock A (2020) Editorial: Youth social action and character education. Impact: (Special Issue): 1–3. This edited extract has been printed with the permission of the Chartered College of Teaching, from the Impact Journal due to be published on 18 November:

What we know about social action in education
the gap

60% of young people taking part in social action found out about it through their school or college.19.

the Gap

We’ve changed national strategies to empower more young people to make a positive difference

There is a continuing gap in participation in social action between young people from the richest and poorest backgrounds. There is some evidence that this gap in participation closes for pupils whilst they are in Key Stage 3, aged between 11 and 14..20


Between 2016 and 2018 the number of teachers who see social action as part of their culture and practice increased by 25% to 73% in 2018.21.

The role of the #iwill campaign has been to connect and amplify.

Folkestone and Barrow-in-Furness Initiatives

Schools and colleges around the country are buzzing with youth social action initiatives. Explore what’s going on in Folkestone and Barrow-in-Furness here. Hear how young people are sharing their plastering, painting and decorating, and carpentry and joinery skills with their local community.

“We work really hard to make our school and community brilliant.” Listen to the inspiring children of Victoria Academy in Barrow-in-Furness talk about their fundraising and community projects.

Social Action in primary school

Deprivation in Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria is acute, ranging from low incomes and poor health to high levels of unemployment.“As a result, many children in the area don’t have high aspirations,” says Caroline Vernon, Headteacher of Victoria Academy primary school. Despite these challenges, Victoria Academy has harnessed the power of youth social action to help pupils discover a new sense of purpose, connection and confidence.

The #iwill campaign has been the catalyst for a range of school projects, including raising money for Barrow Food Bank, a healthy eating project in conjunction with Furness General Hospital, and a charity fundraising shop set up within the school. Caroline has seen a dramatic change in pupils’ attitudes and behaviour. “The #iwill campaign has encouraged children to take opportunities, make positive changes in the community and stand up for what’s right.” The campaign has also led to better learning outcomes. “Our children need every chance to be successful,” says Caroline. “We can’t afford to have any passive learners and social action has helped to engage children at a deeper level. In addition, it’s teaching valuable employability skills such as being organised, communicating effectively and working as a team.” Thanks to Caroline’s inspirational leadership, youth social action has reached every part of school and community life. “By being part of a national campaign, we’ve been able to link up with primary and secondary schools and businesses throughout the area,” says Caroline. “We now have 12 schools involved in the Happy and Healthy Lifestyle project and 13 schools have got together to write a book about children’s experiences during Covid, which will be published as a mental health resource.”“Above all, #iwill means young people’s voices are heard. This gives them the confidence to make positive choices and encourages them to want to make a difference.”

The #iwill fund has made significant investments into schools and we’re now seeing more education settings embedding youth social action.

I’m proud of helping other people and raising money to achieve our goals.

We all learnt that giving is better than being selfish. - Student on the RSA4 programme. Thanks to the Pears #iwill Fund, the RSA and RSA Academies are working in 10 primary schools helping Year 4 students take part in social action exploring whether the positive impact of volunteering can be extended to primary schools.
Primary Youth Social Action

Systems across education are changing to embrace the Power of Youth
Anna Ofsted

Anna Trethewey, Head of Strategy at Ofsted

Anna Trethewey, Head of Strategy at Ofsted, outlines the importance of personal development and youth social action in equipping young people with valuable life skills. The #iwill campaign is aiming to influence the education system at a profound level. Ofsted’s progress on the agenda is tangible, but results will take time.

We have worked with Step Up to Serve and the #iwill campaign since 2014. One of the most valuable things that the campaign has provided during that time, especially as we developed our new education framework, and more recently during lockdown, is the voices of young people as they reflect on their education experiences and the importance of youth social action.

We knew from our research and from the #iwill campaign that in some schools, education was being hollowed out to a narrow set of qualifications. Our education inspection framework seeks to rebalance those scales, recognising that children’s education is much broader than simply passing exams.

This is why our education framework emphasises the need for education and training providers to give children, young people and adults access to a curriculum that is rich in personal development, supporting them to contribute to wider society and life in modern Britain. Indeed, we consider personal development so important that it has its own section in the framework. The case studies from #iwill and Step Up to Serve, along with the voices of youth ambassadors have helped offer examples of what best practice looks like in this area, particularly for youth social action.

Going forward, we aim to raise the quality of conversation around curriculum and personal development in schools. Whilst no one would have foreseen the events of this year, it has helped to crystallise what we already knew: now, more than ever, an ambitious, broad and balanced and inclusive curriculum that equips young people for the next stage of their journey, matters. Many young people, especially those in years 11 and 13, will have had to weather a year in which their plans and next steps have had to change. It is our hope that as the work of #iwill enters the next chapter, we continue to see the emphasis on youth social action and personal development as an integral part of their journey.

Building ‘Character Benchmarks’ into the system.

The Department for Education’s Character Education framework guidance is set to build youth social action into the curriculum. It makes an explicit link between undertaking meaningful youth social action and pupils’ personal development.

The framework recognises the role of school leaders and teachers in helping to develop young people’s character. Importantly, it also highlights that character education is not a separate subject, but something that should run through every aspect of the way a school is run.

This should not be guidance against which schools are measured, but a tool that will inspire action due to its outstanding examples of character-developing activities.

Meanwhile, the Skills Builder Framework enables schools and colleges to focus on building essential skills, based on those employers are looking for, whilst participating in youth social action. The framework recognises that engaging in collaborative projects, for example with your local community, is one of the most effective ways to teach essential skills. Skills Builder is already working with over 500 schools and colleges and 120 employers.

Dame Julia Cleverdon, Co-founder of the #iwill Campaign, reflects on the excellent work being carried out to support character education, but says it will take time for its impact to be felt.

Together, we’re enabling a generation of change through education.

Young people in education? They’re not just activists, says Adam Ramgoolie, #iwill Ambassador. They’re policy makers, strategy advisors, consultants, community leaders and change makers.