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BLOG: Participation for all – Youth Social Action and Socio-Economic Disadvantage


This blog was written as part of Dartington’s Service Design Lab’s work leading the #iwill Fund Learning Hub. In it, Dartington reflect on what they've learnt through writing a paper on socio-economic disadvantage gap in youth social action.

As lead partners in the #iwill Fund’s Learning Hub, at Dartington Service Design Lab we’ve spent time understanding the questions that are closest to the #iwill Fund’s heart – and starting to provide answers from the available research. We started with one of the biggest: ‘What causes the socio-economic participation gap in youth social action – and how can we support more young people from less well-off backgrounds to participate?’ The desire to support this participation has driven much of the #iwill Fund’s investment to date, so we want to understand as much as we can.

That there is a socio-economic gap in participation is not in doubt - The National Youth Social Action Survey found that 51% of young people (10-20 years old) from the most affluent backgrounds took part in some form of social action in 2017 compared with 32% of the least affluent.

It also doesn’t come as that much of surprise. Not just because the same gap exists for adult’s participation in social action but because it also mirrors that found in participation in extra-curricular activities, like sport and music. And we found two reasons why this might matter – firstly because young people from lower income backgrounds may be missing out on the fun, learning, and longer-term benefits that youth social action can offer. And because wider society is not harnessing their skills and enthusiasm into activities which can benefit the wider community.
We plunged into the literature to see what has been found to explain this, and our full paper presents four theories, and ideas about what could be done to tackle each.

  1. Socialisation Theory – this is the idea that children of more affluent parents ‘inherit’ the role of social action participants, and the idea that this is both a good thing to do, and one that might confer some desirable status. An American study found that in families where both parents and siblings volunteered 86% of teenagers were also volunteers compared to 38% where no family members volunteer. Researchers in this area have recommended that mentoring programmes could be introduced to provide ‘civically engaged’ role models – the One Million Mentors programme, backed by the #iwill Fund, is an example of this.
  2. Status Transmission – this is the idea that parents pass on socio-economic resources to their children which make it easier to volunteer. This can include material resources such as money for transport, as well as social capital and networks that connect their children to social action opportunities. We have found that some programmes backed by the #iwill Fund such as The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award offer support to cover transport, and other associated costs.
  3. Recruitment – some researchers focus on the fact that young people from lower-income backgrounds are less likely to be asked to participate in social action. Sometimes this is driven by only the academic high-performers, or ‘best-behaved’ students being given opportunities within schools, which tends to favour those from better-off backgrounds. Other studies found ambitious targets for volunteer-recruitment drove staff to focus on more affluent students who were more likely to agree to participate. Finally, evidence shows that youth social action infrastructure and culture is stronger in more affluent areas and schools – reducing the chance of young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds being given opportunities. These findings reinforce the importance of funder strategies incentivising and generously resourcing the recruitment of these young people.
  4. Exclusive definition – a final perspective is that the gap may not be as big as it looks, and may be partly driven by the definition.  The definition of social action used by the National Youth Social Action survey excludes activities such as helping family members – but qualitative research suggests that young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to define youth social action in this way. The question of how to define Youth Social Action is one the #iwill Fund Learning Hub will return to.

There are encouraging signs that targeted funding can tackle the participation gap in terms of reaching the ‘right’ young people. For example, the #iwill Fund’s Team London Young Ambassadors is managing to reach a greater proportion of children from lower socio-economic groups because of changes it has made to its engagement strategy. Firstly, the programme moved from a universal to a targeted approach, using the Index of Multiple Deprivation to identify and engage schools in areas of socio- economic disadvantage. It also specifically engages young people through special educational needs and disability (SEND) schools and pupil referral units (PRUs).

Secondly, the Team London Young Ambassadors programme adapted the message it gave to schools when asking them to refer pupils. The new message encouraged teachers to think of pupils from “diverse and deprived backgrounds” to counter “the inclination to put their ‘best’ students forward”. Based on the organisation’s own estimates using participant-reported postcodes, the majority of pupils engaged by the programme in its second phase lived or went to school in the most deprived areas of London.

Other funders and programmes within the #iwill Fund are trying different approaches to tackling the participation gap, including targeting Further Education colleges, building new delivery infrastructure in disadvantaged areas, and using other activities as a ‘hook’ to initially engage young people. You can read a longer list in the full report. The Learning Hub will be returning to funded projects to understand their progress over the coming months to understand more about promising approaches which could be scaled and shared.

The #iwill Fund is a £40 million joint investment from The National Lottery Community Fund and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport which is matched by over 20 Match Funders to support young people to access high quality social action opportunities. The #iwill Fund Learning Hub is designed to provide an invaluable source of information and support to the #iwill Fund delivery partners; to other delivery organisations providing youth social action opportunities and the institutions within which youth social action is embedded; to other funders who may support youth social action; and to the wider research community seeking to increase understanding of youth social action.