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Youth Empowerment and Agency - A SEEd view

Updated: Jun 21, 2021

Wrtiten by Ann Finlayson, CEO, SEEd

I hear often that young have people are not interested or concerned about the environment. Surveys and evidence shows this not to be true - so why do some people still continue to believe this? There is plenty of evidence - SEEd, NUS(SOS-UK), OECD and PISA but it is maybe not reaching who we think it should reach!

So what does the evidence say? Yes they are aware and get their information from a variety of places - school, TV, social media, internet, family and friends (SEEd survey results). OECD research also says they aware and personally concerned - 78 % globally and in no country they surveyed did it fall below 64%.

Votes for Schools do regular survey of tens of thousands of pupils on a different topic.

In the of May this year they asked the question ‘Do we take the benefits of nature for granted?’ The sample size was 24,164 voters. Overall 94.74 % agreed in Gloucestershire. It was as low as 40% in Rutland! And it increased as students got older: Primary:Yes 56.62%, Secondary: Yes 63.83%, Secondary 16+ & College: Yes 83.17%

And yet.... young people don’t feel they can make a difference. An OECD 2021 report ‘Green at Fifteen’ said - “when students were asked whether they could do something about global problems like climate change, the figure dropped to an average of 57%(from 78%). In Germany, the Slovak Republic, Romania, Hungary, Latvia, Moldova, Russia, Austria, Switzerland, Malaysia, Slovenia, Serbia, Belarus and Estonia, the percentage fell to less than half. And, when asked whether they think their behaviour can impact people in other countries, the average figure dropped further to 44%. Interestingly, PISA top performers Korea and Singapore showed, with 20% and 24% respectively, some of the lowest shares of students who are confident they can have an impact.”

So awareness has not led to a sense of empowerment or agency.

But what do we mean by empowerment? I prefer the term agency- student agency – the capacity to set goals, reflect and act responsibly to effect change. Empowerment means you have developed the confidence that you have agency, the skills, and the knowledge of how to effect change. That is not the same as the knowledge about climate change.

So how do we do this? This is beyond ‘voice’, or awareness raising. International research say its about action competence ( first developed as a concept in Denmark). SEEd and Dr Paul Vare, University of Gloucestershire, have both been working on this model.

Action competency projects have key characteristics: working in teams; choose their own project/action; get support and sometimes its external and intergenerational; reflect and change as the project hits barriers/problems; reflect on the whole project at the end but specifically say ‘What would I do differently next time?’ SEEd specifically found that students needed some training/insights on how change happens at the individual, institutional/organisational, national level and societally. These change concepts and skills are never taught in formal education.

At a recent webinar with Gloucestershire Local Nature Partnership we asked a few challenging questions of ourselves e.g.

It was a stimulating morning with a focus first on the systemic barriers and then on what therefore needs to change. From this we hope unusual collaborations will initiate innovative approaches that either scale up existing projects or try new ideas.

The GLNP has set am ambitious strategy and the People and Nature strand is not your normal EE or ESD but community based, across the whole of Gloucestershire and with urgency, ambition and scaling up in mind.

Ann Finlayson


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