A new partnership with Enactus UK: improving social mobility for young people in disadvantaged secondary schools

In this blog post Tom Dobson, recently appointed Professor of Education at York St John University, introduces a new partnership between the university and Enactus. The partnership aligns with the ISJ’s focus on education for social justice, and its potential to produce radical and lasting change.

We know what’s happening – social inequality in the UK is deepening.  In this blog I talk about how the work of Enactus UK, a third sector organisation that works with young people in socially disadvantaged secondary schools, is playing its part to disrupt this disturbing trend.  

The impacts of inequality upon work and education

A recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies evidences how young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have unequal access to, and less success in, the education system.  Young people eligible for free school meals are around three times as less likely than their more advantaged peers to achieve above the expected level at age 11 and at GCSE. And after compulsory schooling, these young people were also three times less likely to attend one of the most selective higher education institutions.  It’s a trend that continues into employment.  Teach First’s analysis of DfE data reveals that 1 in 3 (33%) disadvantaged young people are not in sustained work or education 5 years after GCSEs, compared to 1 in 7 (14%) of their wealthier peers. 

If nothing changes, these inequalities will deepen further.  Best for Britain identifies that rising inflation will mean significant pupil premium funding cuts for disadvantaged young people to the tune of £340 for primary school students and £241.50 for secondary school students.  The Education Endowment Foundation outlines the negative impact of the reintroduction of exams post-pandemic in terms of attainment for disadvantaged young people – a prediction which is evidenced by a geographic breakdown of last summer’s GCSE results.  And the Sutton Trust predicts that the current cost of living crisis will mean that disadvantaged young people are more likely to drop out of post-compulsory education than their more advantaged peers.

Set against the context of these deepening educational and employment inequalities, the OECD reports how the UK education should be doing more in to provide young people with the skills and competences required in the workplace.  These are often referred to as the 4Cs of collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity – skills competences that the Tony Blair Institute argues should now become accountability measures for all schools.  This need for skills and competences is recognised by young people themselves, with UCAS reporting that nearly half of the 700,000 students who applied for university degrees this year expressed an interest in degree apprenticeships.

The NextGenLeaders programme: equipping young people with skills and competences for the workplace

Rather than addressing social inequalities in education by fuelling a system which reproduces rather than tackles inequalities, education needs policy reform in order to ensure that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds leave education with the knowledge, skills and competences to continue their education and find sustained employment.  The OECD’s Learning Compass 2030 provides a good starting point for thinking about this.  Drawing upon research and expertise, the Learning Compass outlines how young people need to develop agency, skills and competences in order to become independent learners who actively transform society.  What is missing in the Learning Compass, however, is an articulation of what kind of teaching and learning experiences would help develop young people in these ways.

Commissioned by Enactus UK, I undertook a review that provides some answers and gives schools ideas as to how they might meet, and exceed, the Gatsby Benchmarks for careers outlined in government guidance documents.  Enactus UK is a non-profit organisation, whose work in secondary schools is undertaken through NextGenLeaders – a programme supporting disadvantaged young people to run projects that will impact positively upon their local communities.  The approach is to make learning student-driven and community-facing, with outcomes shared with and impacting upon a real audience.

Students work in groups on projects of interest that will bring about positive change in their local communities.  Examples of projects undertaken include: Project Pawject, helping the homeless in Norwich through the selling of dog beds; Foodprint, providing affordable food that would otherwise go to waste to people in Nottingham; Coding with Codex, delivering inclusive and affordable computer coding courses for neuro-divergent learners; and a community awareness project to help the Roma community access their school and to actively challenge community perceptions of this stigmatised group.

For each of these projects, young people work through processes with a NextGenLeader facilitator in way that mirrors the OECD’s definition of critical thinking skills: they “imagine and inquire”, developing and researching a problem and thinking about beneficiaries and barriers involved; they take action (“doing”), working in partnership with local businesses and third sector organisations; and they receive feedback on their actions, helping them to reflect and set targets for the future development of their projects.

My review draws upon evidence of outcomes from across the globe where similar student-driven, community-facing approaches to teaching and learning are used with disadvantaged young people of secondary school age.  The main approaches are identified as project-based learning (PBL) and youth participatory action research (YPAR) – pedagogies whose key difference lies in the way that YPAR involves explicitly upskilling young people in research methods to help them design their projects.

A crucial role for ISJ: building an evidence-base for PBL and YPAR in schools to address social inequalities 

As we enter into a new partnership with Enactus UK, there are two ways in which we can support the NextGenLeaders programme.  Firstly, through helping young people to develop YPAR research methods skills to ensure their projects are participatory.  And secondly, through helping Enactus UK and their young people to identify and articulate the ways in which their experiences of the NextGenLeaders programme develop skills and competences through research.

The second point is especially important as the majority of the research into PBL and YPAR comes from the US, where these pedagogies are used across large networks of schools with disadvantaged young people.  As my review shows, PBL and YPAR should be adopted by schools in the UK in order to develop young peoples’ Learning Compass 2030 and begin to address social inequalities.  This is because using PBL and YPAR with socially disadvantaged young people has been shown to:

  • help increase engagement, attendance and attainment in school;
  • encourage young people to continue their education after compulsory schooling;
  • provide young people with the competences outlined in the Learning Compass 2030, including critical thinking, self-regulated learning and collaborative learning.

In an education system driven by standards and attainment, critics may respond that encouraging schools to work with organisations like Enactus UK and calling for curriculum reform like that outlined in the Tony Blair Institute report, may not demonstrably alleviate the situation.  Be that the case, they should look no further than Singapore, a country that frequently tops the PISA rankings, and that mandates PBL at each year of schooling.

Of course, addressing social inequality goes well beyond education.  However, empowering young people to learn through running their own projects in their local communities can have a transformative effect both to their educational outcomes and the development of skills and competences to help them improve society.

As part of Tom’s work at York St John, the ISJ are funding a ‘young people as researchers’ programme in conjunction with NextGenLeader. To find out more information email Tom Dobson.