In England over the last two decades, there has been a growing interest in the role of English schools in developing, facilitating and supporting young people’s community participation. A number of policy initiatives have sought to build the capacity and opportunities for youth participation. Research suggests, however, that pupils and schools are often prohibited by significant barriers from becoming involved with community activities, particularly those which might occur beyond the school environment itself. In March 2010 the UK Labour government launched a Youth Community Action initiative for England, piloted across five local authorities, which aimed to involve young people of 14-16 years-of-age in community action. Following the UK general election in May 2010, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government terminated these pilots but was quick to announce the launch and piloting of a National Citizen Service for 16-19 year olds in England.
Drawing on research conducted with participants in one Youth Community Action pilot project, the aim of this study was to explore the perceptions and understandings of young people regarding their involvement in community action activities and how this compared to the perceptions and understandings of the teachers responsible for co-ordinating such activities.
In the final synthesis, the sample comprised 614 pupil questionnaires, representing a response rate of 24 percent of the pupils in the 9 participating schools. 11 semi-structured interviews and one focus group interview were conducted with pupils in 6 of the schools, with a further 8 semi-structured interviews conducted with teachers in these 6 schools.
Design and methods
A questionnaire was administered to pupils participating in the Youth Community Action pilot, enabling an exploration of self-reported behavioural attitudes and perceptions. The data collected was analysed thematically, with an identification of common themes in responses. In addition, factor analysis and a series of Chi² tests of association were carried out. The use of semi-structured interviews, the data from which were analysed thematically, enabled a qualitative exploration of pupils’ and teachers’ self-reported perceptions of community action activities.
The findings of our questionnaires report that those pupils who know more about their local neighbourhood and community are likely to report greater levels of concern for what happens within it. This suggests that pupils’ learning about their neighbourhoods and community is likely to be beneficial toward developing affective attachments to them. For the pupils in our data-set, simply possessing pro-social behaviours and attitudes was not a sufficient or necessary condition for their community awareness and involvement. It suggests that, at least for a notable number of pupils, active engagement in the community requires cultivation and learning beyond pro-social behaviours. The semi-structured interviews report that pupils identify the school as the key source of information about community engagement opportunities, but also indicate that there is a marked difference in the activities which teachers identify their pupils as having undertaken, and the ability of pupils to vocalise these themselves. A further notable finding was a focus on the practical (time, distance, age-constraints) and social (peer-pressure) barriers to community action activities to the exclusion of specifically educational (lack of understanding and skills) barriers.
Results from this study suggest that schools represent an important source for pupils’ community involvement, but that in our sample pupils often lack the vocabulary with which to explain the extent and nature of such engagement. Pupils and teachers identify a range of barriers to and benefits of community involvement, but these do not include a lack of understanding or skills. The research raises important questions in the context of recent policy trends in England.