The value of engaging young people in positive social action has been working its way up the political agenda for some time.

An independent review into youth social action launched by former Prime Minister David Cameron led to the #iwill campaign, which aims to harness the creativity, energy and talents of 10 to 20-year-olds for the benefit of participants and their local communities. The National Citizen Service, which encourages young people to work on community projects, is set to receive permanent statutory status thanks to a Bill passing through Parliament with Government support.

As part of her plans to create a “great meritocracy,” Mr Cameron’s successor Theresa May unveiled an £80 million funding allocation for youth projects in England just months after entering Downing Street last year. The grants, to be distributed via the #iwill Fund and the Youth Investment Fund, form part of the new Tory administration’s “determination to build a country that works for everyone” so that “young people can go as far as their talents allow, regardless of their backgrounds.”

Delivering the Charity Commission’s annual lecture, Mrs May outlined her vision for a “shared society” that “respects the bonds that we share as a union of people and nations. The bonds of family, community, citizenship and strong institutions.”

But having galvanised young people, how do groups, policymakers and practitioners encourage longer-term commitments so that individuals view activities such as volunteering, fundraising and campaigning as something more than a one-off?

The question goes to the heart of a ground-breaking project led by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. Focusing on the civic virtue of service, the study, thought to be the first of its kind, seeks to investigate and understand what constitutes a habit of service for young people.

By looking at the idea of habit, researchers hope to understand how young people who have already made a commitment to service sustain that habit. How does meaningful social action become an embedded part of life rather than a flash in the pan?

The Centre’s final report aims to enhance theoretical understanding about the habit of service and inform policy and practice to boost young people’s participation in actions that benefit others. At the same time, the study dovetails with the Jubilee Centre’s wider investigation into how “schools, youth social action providers and other organisations build character virtues in order to transform lives and contribute to a flourishing society.”

The Centre has worked with the #iwill campaign since 2014 and has already revealed that youth social action providers believe the character development of participants is central to their work. In seeking to understand what makes a habit of service, this new investigation uses two complementary research methods: an online questionnaire completed by more than 4,500 16 to 20-year-olds (a far larger sample than previous studies relating to habit) and detailed life history interviews. The survey participants have been recruited with the help of youth action providers and schools and colleges with a track record of social action provision. In total, 12 organisations, schools, colleges and groups have been involved including vInspired and the National Citizen Service.

Meaningful social action is defined by the #iwill campaign as activity in which young people participate “at least every few months, or in a one-off activity lasting more than a day, and recognising the benefits it had for themselves and for the community or cause they were helping.”

Researchers hypothesised that a habit of service involves a young person both participating in social action in the past 12 months and intending to participate in future. The activity or service is part of their character and is encouraged and role-modelled by family and friends.

The scope of youth social action activities is wide, including those involving, for example: education providers (schools, colleges and universities); apprenticeships or jobs; local communities; places of worship; clubs and groups; family and friends; and individual activities. The activities could range from a sponsored event and campaigning to mentoring, volunteering with a charity or supporting an elderly neighbour.

The study will seek to highlight which virtues young people with a habit of service most strongly identify with.

Following completion and analysis of the questionnaire and interviews, the Centre will consult with youth service providers to develop a “best practice” guide to inform future policy and promote the value of inspiring and developing a habit of service among young people.

As one young interviewee put it, being involved in service has “just developed me so much as a person … it’s given me purpose to do something with my life, and to do something that I care about”. This research will inform practitioners and policymakers to support more young people to find their own purpose, developing their character and helping others at the same time.

Emma Taylor-Collins, Research Associate                                                                                   Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

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