From the classroom to real world action: How young people change their community

Louisa Searle Director, First Give

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Schools In Their Communities: Taking Action and Developing Civic Life is a collaboration between Big Education and Citizen School.

Social action education in schools and colleges can seem like yet another thing to add to the list of responsibilities that time-poor teachers, lecturers, support staff, and school leaders must carry out as part their jobs. It can also seem daunting and hard to manage – where in packed weekly and daily timetables and overcrowded curricula can this kind of learning be delivered? How can we make it meaningful and inspiring rather than simply paying lip service to the idea of charity? Charitable work happens a lot in schools, of course, but students are not always meaningfully involved – they participate in so-called ‘own clothes’ days without really engaging with the cause or where the money is going. They are too often reduced to being bucket-shakers and red nose wearers, often for larger national and international charities. While these are worthy causes, of course, to deny young people the opportunity to engage with the issues that affect them and the world around them, is to lose out on their ability to make an immediate impact and to feel that they can make a difference today, and not only when they are older.

One solution is to provide them with the opportunities to explore these concepts within the classroom. First Give, a charity working with secondary schools across England and Wales, provides all the resources teachers need to guide them through this process, including practical support in planning and designing social action opportunities, as well as delivering assemblies and workshops designed to inspire and upskill students. The key, though, is for teachers and school leaders to guide students to considering what is happening outside the school gates, at home, and in their areas. Students who see the local benefit of their action are galvanised and inspired – the process can be transformative. There are benefits for the school as well: an improved profile and reputation in the local community, a way to positively engage parents as well as connecting the school with charities and their services, some of which might benefit students and staff.

Key to the success of the programme is the way that, despite a uniform scheme of work, differentiation across and between schools is achieved by outcome. The programme’s flexibility and structure allow it to be successfully implemented in almost any secondary school year group and in a wide range of educational contexts and settings.

In the case study below, the impact of the First Give programme as delivered in a secondary school in South Wales will be explored, highlighting how this kind of work can allow students’ learning to transcend the classroom and make them realise their own ability and agency to positively impact their community.


The train line at Mountain Ash, situated some forty minutes from Cardiff, has a single track. One small, two-carriage train can pass the platform that denotes Mountain Ash’s station at any one time. On alighting from the train, you are immediately struck by the beauty of the mountains and the greenness of Cynon Valley. This is true mining country.

At the foot of the valley, is Mountain Ash Comprehensive School (MACS), operating in circumstances which are a fascinating example of how the demise of local industry, austerity, and the quirks of a devolved education can intersect with each other. Child poverty in Wales rose in 2019 and at present sits at 29.3%. The ward of Penrhiwceiber, one of the communities served by Mountain Ash Community School, has the highest rate of child poverty in Wales at 49.4%.

The school has worked in partnership with First Give since the charity launched in secondary schools in South Wales in 2016. The First Give programme prompts an entire year group of students to consider the social issues in their community and asks them to connect with local charities addressing them. Having chosen a charity to support, each class carries out active citizenship and social action such as fundraising, volunteering, advocacy and awareness raising.

At the end of the programme, each class competes in a School Final that brings together the whole community to celebrate their work on the project. The programme is tightly structured across the length of its eight lessons, each activity building on students’ understanding and skill development to support them to plan and carry out real world social action including presentations to report on their project. The philosophy underpinning First Give is that through action, however small or locally focussed, young people can change their world for the better.

In the early summer of 2019, a group of Year 9 students at MACS selected the hyper-local cause, Lee Gardens Pool of Penrhiwceiber village. Decades ago, the local mining community funded the construction and running of this micro-community venture. With the closure of the mines, the pool fell into disrepair and was closed down. In 2016, a group of volunteers campaigned and fundraised to regenerate and reopen this community resource and the pool now hosts community-focussed events and provides opportunities such as formal lifeguarding training for local young people.

Having met with the trustees of the charity, the students set out to raise money and awareness for their cause, supported throughout by their teacher, Mr Church. The students were inspired by Lee Garden Pool’s approach to providing opportunities for the local community to come together and many of their social action activities reflected this: starting with a rubber duck race down the local river; on to a mass sponsored walk up Pen Y Fan; then to arranging a Bingo night in the local church for the community’s elderly and then a children’s disco night in the local working men’s club, as well as other events held within school. The role of Mr Church here was to support the students in facilitating introductions to members of the local community and guiding them through the process of setting up the events. However, the driving force was their own enthusiasm and energy and a willingness to use resources at their disposal, including raising awareness about their activities and cause through a specially created Twitter account.

Perhaps the most impressive piece of social action from this school was one carried out in partnership with Lee Gardens Pool itself: the ‘Great Get Together’ event in the summer of 2018. The students were keenly aware of this annual event held in memory of Jo Cox – former MP for Batley and Spen and who was murdered in 2016 whilst carrying out her constituency duties – and wanted to do something similar as a fundraiser at the Pool. They promoted it to the local community but, more impressively, managed to secure the attendance of their local Assembly Member, Vikki Howells and their then-MP, Ann Clwyd. The event raised nearly £500 and by the time of the First Give Final, the students had raised over £2,000 through their own efforts.

The First Give Final at MACS was a celebration of all the students who had participated on the programme – in fact across the year group around £10,000 had been raised for local causes! But the students who had represented Lee Gardens Pool had carried out so many different activities and raised so much awareness as well as funds that they were the clear winner. Their passion for this cause and what it does for their local community drove the entire project and ensured their presentation about their work was inspiring enough to secure them the top prize.

Since then, the students have travelled to London as guests of First Give for the charity’s #FirstFive event which celebrated five years of the programme in October 2019. While there, they had a tour of Parliament as guests of Ann Clwyd MP. And the impact of their work has been felt, massively, by the charity. The funds raised were used to train four new lifeguards for the pool and to fund the ‘Fit and Fed’ programme which provides lunch and activities during the summer holidays for students who would usually be on free school meals in term time. Perhaps more importantly, the students remain engaged, volunteering at the Lee Gardens Pool Winter Wonderland celebrations in December 2019, five months since the First Give project began.

Who wrote this article?

Louisa Searle Director, First Give

Louisa began working with young people as a youth worker in the South East of the UK and abroad while a student. She then trained with Teach First, going on to teach English in a North London secondary school, before joining First Give as its first member of staff in order to launch it in London in 2014. Now as Director, she leads the organisation as it delivers social action education in partnership with secondary schools across England and Wales.


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