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15th April 2024

Volunteering in our education system: lessons learned from trend analysis

In July last year we published a blog exploring the widespread review of Scotland’s education and skills landscape and the potential opportunities for volunteering.

The many independent reviews in recent years, including a National Discussion on Education, found that there is a need for ‘parity of esteem’ regarding educational pathways, and talk about ‘breaking down the academic/vocational divide’.

There is clear evidence that volunteering is an educational activity, promoting the development of new skills including key metaskills such as communication, initiative and leadership. Volunteering also promotes improved wellbeing, such as feeling happier and improved confidence, which can improve educational attainment and achievement. In our response to the National Discussion on Education in December 2022, we recommended that access to volunteering should be a core part of the curriculum so that all children and young people can benefit from participation.

Since writing this response, the need to support more young people to volunteer has become even more stark. The adult formal volunteer participation rate in 2022 had fallen by 4 percentage points since 2019 to 22%. However, the formal participation rate for young people – the volunteers of the future – had fallen by 12 percentage points from 49% to 37%. Given the benefits of volunteering for educational outcomes of young people, the time to address this is now.

In November last year, we invited members of the Volunteering Action Plan Policy Champions Network to share their thoughts on the next steps for further influencing this agenda. This was a rich discussion, with a clear action to recognise and celebrate what has worked well in the past regarding the engagement of young people in volunteering. There is, after all, no point in reinventing the wheel. In response, our Research Officer, Debbie, took a fresh look at our Young People in Scotland (YPiS) research series to identify key trends. The results have posed many interesting questions and have shown that the decline in youth volunteer participation, particularly in school time, started long before the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Total youth volunteer participation increased between 2014 and 2016 from 42% to 52%, with both volunteering in school time and in spare time increasing (from 20% to 27% and 34% to 40% respectively). However, between 2016 and 2019 total youth volunteer participation fell to 49%. Volunteering in spare time sustained at 40% while volunteering in school time fell to 21%, showing that the decline in overall youth volunteer participation is likely fuelled by a fall in volunteering during school time. This raises interesting questions as to why youth volunteer participation increased between 2014 and 2016, and why the increase was sustained outside of school but fell in school time.

There are demographic groups which can, at least in part, be attributed to the increase then decrease in school time volunteering. Between 2014 and 2019:

  • Female volunteer participation in school time increased from 22% to 35% before falling to 23%.
  • Young people aged 11—13 volunteering in school time increased from 17% to 24% before falling to 21%.
  • Young people aged 14-15 volunteering in school time increased from 19% to 25% before falling to 18%.

One potential explanation for this is the apparent decline in teachers promoting volunteering. Between 2014 and 2019 there is a decline in the proportion of young people saying that they were encouraged to volunteer by teachers. In 2014, 32% of young people were encouraged to volunteer by a teacher, but by 2019 this had fallen 10 percentage points to 22%. Despite a slight uptick in teacher encouragement to 24% in 2022 we must still ask –  what has caused this decline in teacher encouragement for volunteering in Scotland’s schools? 

During the same period volunteering in sport showed a similar trend, increasing dramatically from 34% in 2014 to 50% in 2016, before falling again to 39% in 2019. Did the Commonwealth Games in 2014, and the associated legacy programmes and funds, help fuel the increase in youth volunteering in school time, and more so for different demographic groups?

The decline of volunteering during school time is even more concerning given the evidence that it appears to be more inclusive than volunteering outside of school. The difference in youth volunteer participation between the most and least deprived areas (SIMD Q1 vs Q5) was 5% on average for volunteering in school time, but 11% for volunteering outside school time.  Volunteering in school, with encouragement by teachers, is vital for more marginalised groups – providing yet more evidence for the need to promote volunteering to our young people in schools.

If you support our calls for volunteering to be part of the curriculum for young people in Scotland, or if you have evidence or insight to help us understand why volunteering in schools has declined so significantly, we would love to hear from you.

Sarah Latto

Policy Officer

Debbie Maltman

Research Officer