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From classroom to boardroom: Young citizens lead the way

From classroom to boardroom: Young citizens lead the way

-Dr Jamie Keston & Dr Matt Scott

Sometimes it takes an organised group of young people to accomplish what powerful adults cannot.

Indeed, there is power in it being young people who ask about and act on local issues that often remains untapped or unrecognised. This case study is about a group of young people from Riverside School in Barking, East London who have begun to recognise their individual and collective power to act and have generated a tremendous amount of change and positive recognition in a very short space of time. They are called the Young Citizen Action Group (YCAG) and we reflect here on the significance and impact of delivering leadership and community organiser training to young people within a school environment in the context of one of Europe’s largest new housing developments.


A decade of austerity has not been kind to the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, with over 60% reduction in its budget and a growing population the council sees its future in ‘inclusive growth’. Thames Ward, the largest of seventeen in the borough, with some of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the country, is the site of both Riverside School and Barking Riverside, one of the largest growth areas in Europe. As with many other developments across London, Barking Riverside is constituted primarily of flats rather than houses, with starting prices many times over the average salary range of most Londoners. With London predicted to rise from a population of 8.6 million to 10 million over the course of a few decades housebuilding is back on the agenda and Barking & Dagenham has some of the cheapest land in London and a planning department whose oversight capacity has been dramatically reduced in recent years amidst cuts, restructuring and pressure to build new homes.

Riverside School opened as an 11-18 mixed academy in September 2012, serving one of the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the country, with an intake whose prior attainment was significantly below the national average at KS2. The school motto, 'Excellence for All’, reflects the school philosophy: a belief that intelligence is incremental, not fixed, and that everyone can be successful by working hard, being resilient, and collaborating effectively. Maximising achievement is the number one priority, and an inclusive approach means that, by working together, the school genuinely seeks to support every child. There are over 1,200 students in the new £45 million state-of-the art building, which opened in September 2017, situated in the middle of the planned new development of Barking Riverside, which will eventually grow to a full capacity of 2,000 students. The facilities include a sports hall, four multi-use games areas, a 3G Astroturf, two dance studios and a large main hall, providing the community with excellent resources never seen in the area before.


Amidst the building of a new school, in a newly developing area of the borough, the senior leadership team had a vision that went beyond physical regeneration, bricks and buildings. The aim was to be a hub for the wider community, an anchor institution that looked outwards to all residents. The commitment extended beyond providing high standards of education and making facilities available to local people outside school hours, but also to be a positive catalyst for social cohesion and regeneration. The school saw itself as serving the whole community, offering a ‘neutral space’ where people from different estates, ages, faiths, cultures and backgrounds could come together to build a sense of unity and common purpose in the context of rapid change.

However, community organising at Riverside School did not come out of nowhere. Years of careful preparation were required to lay the foundations. In 2014 the local MP, Dame Margaret Hodge DBE, mindful that the partial and divisive effects of regeneration elsewhere in London might be visited on her constituency, worked with Riverside School to secure funding for a community project to ensure a more balanced, resident led approach to the wave of development about to sweep into the area. In June 2016 the school secured support for a 6-month project, funded by ‘Power to Change’ to do outreach and develop support for a longer term three-year programme of work. The school line-managed a part-time Community Organiser post to conduct the initial research, with outreach work led by pupils alongside wider engagement with residents. A group of Year 10 students at Riverside School led on further outreach work and undertook several environmental and local history activities. They listened to residents and took action on issues like the poor quality of the environment and a lack of access to green space and leisure facilities (a plot of land next to the new school site was set aside as land for a Community Garden, more on that later). They cleaned up Ripple Nature Reserve and worked with partners to make it safe and accessible for the community to use. They undertook litter-picks and produced publicity to improve the ‘face’ of Thames Ward, as well as planning a local history project that connected young people with the elderly and with more recently arrived families.

The outcome of the ‘Power to Change’ funded work was an overwhelming endorsement of a school-led approach to community organising. Residents were thrilled to see young people getting involved and rallied round the school in what was identified as a ‘cold spot’ that had traditionally lacked the forms of community infrastructure other areas can access. Over 75 residents indicated a willingness to be directly involved with the project and a further 300 residents agreed to join a database of contacts.

The ‘Power to Change’ findings highlighted 5 key themes:

  • A divide between the older estates and new developments
  • Services under pressure as the population expanded
  • A lack of communication and little information about existing activities
  • A lack of activities for young people
  • Tensions between different groups as they struggle to promote their activities


At the end of the ‘Power to Change’ project a recommendation was made to seek long-term funding to support community workers who could act as honest and independent brokers between young people, local residents and other partners (Council, Developers, etc.) and thereby strengthening community capacity, voice, resource and business. This process took over a year and eventually led to a successful bid for £300,000 from the Big Lottery Reaching Communities Fund in July 2017. In this bid the school made clear that ‘… the scale and pace of the Barking Riverside development requires a more ambitious approach’. Given past experiences of regeneration there were concerns that ‘decisions [would] be taken without involving [the community], thus exacerbating divisions rather than bringing people together’. The project’s ambition was to support and develop leadership from within the community to address the asymmetries of power in order to ‘… provide a strong community voice in relation to the ‘development juggernaut’ that could so easily ride rough-shod over this community’.

As the budget-holder, the school became a focal point for community activity and began to build bridges within the wider area. In other places such a role might have been picked up by a voluntary sector group. However, in Thames Ward there was no other community-based organisation in a position to do this, so the project took hold in the school through a mixture of serendipity and intention. In hindsight the match seemed obvious but is still a relatively rare occurrence across London and the UK. The opportunity was thus taken to mobilise the enthusiasm and energy of the whole community, young and old, to bring about positive social, economic and environmental change to a rapidly transforming part of Barking.

The Thames Ward Community Project (TWCP) began in earnest in October 2017 and was tasked with five core outcomes: helping the community become stronger and more cohesive; healthier; more confident and skilled; cleaner and more attractive; and to develop a resident-led Community Development Trust. The Lottery funded two worker posts, both based at the school, a Director of Community Engagement, line managed by the Head Teacher and a Community Organiser post. A key aspect of the organiser post was to develop a programme of work with Riverside School students, building on earlier work conducted and it is upon this aspect of the work of TWCP that this case study intends to focus.


With the creation of the Thames Ward Community Project came the inception of its Citizen Action Groups (CAGs) formed of concerned and motivated residents taking action on local issues around key themes of Arts & Culture, Environment & Green/Blue Spaces, Health & Wellbeing, Housing & Growth and Skills & Enterprise. Within Riverside School this approach took the form of the Young Citizen Action Group, better known as the YCAG. This began with a desire to get students involved in community activity such as litter-picking and flower planting but later expanded to a well-established, recognised and respected group of young people who seek to act with and on behalf of their wider local community to achieve positive change in their neighbourhood


The YCAG is a group of approximately 15-20 students from across Years 7-10 who meet after school for an hour once per week to discuss, plan and act on social issues affecting their community. As their school is a founding member institution of their local Barking & Dagenham Citizens Chapter, at the beginning of each school year they all receive training supported by TELCO Citizens. This training focuses first on helping the students recognise themselves as leaders by exploring the qualities of leadership and the importance of having a following. It also develops their understanding of the key community organising principles of listening, power and action and how to use these principles to take action to benefit their community. They then decide what the most pressing community issues are and what kind of action they want to take, with support from the Community Organiser from TWCP based in their school.


In Year One of TWCP – the 2017-2018 academic year – a lot of time was spent working with students to develop an understanding of what the YCAG should be, what it would involve doing and what it could achieve.

This presented real challenges at first as students struggled with the idea that they were not signing up to do a specific thing but instead would be able to act on whatever issues they cared about most. As a result of this early uncertainty, many of the activities undertaken in the first phase were directed by the Community Organiser as a means of inspiration and recruitment until eventually ideas started to come from the students attending YCAG themselves.

Year Two – the 2018-2019 academic year – marked the first full academic year for TWCP and the first time that the wider student body was engaged with (via a school listening campaign among students in Year 7, Year 8 & Year 9). The results of this listening campaign were used to decide what action the YCAG would take. This initial listening campaign was conducted as a simple hands-up survey by pairs of YCAG students visiting each form during morning registration over several weeks, with the options students voted on decided by the YCAG students themselves.

This process evolved in Year Three – the 2019-2020 academic year – so that YCAG students prepared and delivered short presentations during the assemblies for every year group in the school on their achievements of the following year and the purpose and importance of the listening campaign process. This presentation was followed by students in every year completing open-ended surveys stating the issues in the community that they were most passionate about and the action they would most like to see taken. Doing so ensured that all students in the school would have their say on the actions prioritised by the YCAG.


The 2018-2019 YCAG Listening Campaign prioritised Transport from home to school as the top concern of students, along with issues including Air Pollution, Lack of Green Spaces and Parks, Lack of Health Services, Crime and Litter and a lack of bins.


Living and attending school in an area that is still under construction, even students living very close to the school face the prospect of a very long and unpleasant walk to get to school. Routes to school involve navigating areas of ongoing development and roads without safe crossing points and a high volume of fast-moving construction and heavy goods traffic serving the industrial estate and building sites which surround their homes. As a result, most Riverside School students rely on the bus, causing issues with severe over-crowding at peak times. Students reported waiting for and being unable to board as many as 3 consecutive buses on their journeys to and from school due to overcrowding. This led to significant numbers of students either being regularly late for school and receiving detention or being injured in one of the many crushes that ensued from the daily scrums at bus stops, with students suffering injuries as severe as broken arms or legs. The YCAG listening campaign discovered that an overwhelming majority of students at Riverside School were experiencing one of these two issues on a regular basis and were also reporting significant levels of anxiety about the potential of either one taking place, which was affecting their mental health and wellbeing. Parents and carers also frequently complained of the dangers, with younger pupils particularly vulnerable. The YCAG liaised with the school on this issue in the first instance and discovered that the Headteacher had already engaged extensively with Transport for London on bus overcrowding at peak times but had been told that TFL research concluded there was insufficient need to justify additional investment. Armed with this knowledge YCAG students requested a meeting with TFL representatives. At this meeting, which was also attended by the school Senior Leadership Team (SLT), developer (Barking Riverside Ltd), the bus company (Go-Ahead London) and the local council (London Borough of Barking & Dagenham), the students told their own personal stories of being late to school because of consistently over-crowded buses, being injured, trapped or unable to breathe while on-board or simply being considerably worried or scared in the mornings about either taking place. Their stories were delivered powerfully and persuasively and were able to shine a light on the day-to-day reality and human stories that TFL’s research procedures had missed. This intervention by Riverside School students led to Transport for London agreeing to invest an additional £1,000,000 in the route, meaning an extra bus every hour across the EL1 route plus an additional service arriving on time for the start of school each day and another waiting at the end of the school day to cope with the height of the demand.

At this same meeting students expressed concern at the standard of, and lack of safe crossings along, the road connecting their homes to their school. By linking the lack of safe walking and cycling routes to school to the overcrowding being experienced on buses they secured commitment from the local council to install two new zebra crossings on the road leading to their school, which were completed shortly after.

The students were successful at this meeting because they effectively harnessed their power as young people to speak with passion and first-hand experience about the problems they were facing and did so with a focus on what they were ‘for’ rather than what they were ‘against’ (something the council and other stakeholders were not typically used to from local residents). They identified not just problems but solutions. With this constructive and disarming approach, they won themselves support for their causes and also allies among adults in powerful positions.


After experiencing some significant success with buses and road crossings, and having developed their access to – and understanding of – local powerholders, the YCAG turned their attention to another major concern among local young people highlighted in their listening campaign, the lack of accessible green spaces and parks. Aware that the school and TWCP had been promised the patch of land next to their school for use as a community garden space they pursued its handover with fervour. After over two years of wrangling between the developer, council and school over the legal minutiae of the lease the students took matters into their own hands. They’d dreamed of what the strip of land adjacent to the school might provide, the activities, planting and spaces for tranquillity, only to have the timetable for handover endlessly delayed. Having received guarantees at public meetings they wanted the keys to the site and marched to the developers’ office with large banners, giant cardboard cuts outs of keys and other associated props ready to make good on promises made. As Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals, no politician can sit on an issue if you make it hot enough and sure enough the keys were forthcoming, and a positive news story was capitalised on by all.


The YCAG were also successful in persuading the developer (Barking Riverside Ltd) to tackle the problem of litter directly outside their school by installing bins at their school bus stop and along the private (and as yet unadopted) road that their school is situated on. They did so after several meetings and a keen ability to secure a commitment to act and then to hold the powerful to their word. As if that wasn’t enough, they also installed air pollution monitors to detect the levels of NO2 in the atmosphere in their neighbourhood and were able to establish that while the levels in the majority of the area are safe, the homes next to the main A13 motorway exceeded the EU legal limit. They presented these findings to both residents and stakeholders at one of TWCPs Resident Growth Summits.


In short, the Young Citizens Action Group at Riverside School is getting used to winning, in fact in recognition of their incredible achievements the YCAG from Riverside School were recently awarded ‘Secondary School of the Year’ by TELCO at their 2020 Annual General Meeting & Awards Evening. With all this success and recognition comes a new sense of collective confidence, determination, civic duty and pride that was not there before. They have become acutely aware of their own individual and collective power to ‘move the needle’ and ‘make change happen’. Their energy, commitment and numerous wins, as outlined above, have become a source of pride and inspiration not only for themselves but for the wider student body, the school as an institution and for the wider community. Students now write messages to the YCAG on their listening campaign surveys like “please act quickly” and “we need your help urgently!”. Teachers have acknowledged the leadership role taken by the YCAG on the school travel plan and empowered them to take this issue further, rather than staff acting unilaterally. The wider community, local resident associations and voluntary groups in the area embarking on their own social justice missions, have come together and begun to act in a more organised way, inspired by the example of collective leadership set by the YCAG. Where previously there was a high degree of apathy among many local residents who had a historically paternalistic relationship with the local council and felt that their concerns were often ignored had begun to take a more organised and strategic approach to their efforts and found it to be more fruitful.

Community Organising and leadership training delivered to students in Riverside School by TWCP and TELCO has been one of the biggest contributing factors in connecting young people to their wider community. It has given young people the space to have their voices heard to be at the heart of change in their communities and created intergenerational connections with wider residents. It has built confidence among young people to be aware of and make use of their individual and collective leadership skills and encouraged young people to think of themselves as active citizens connected to the wider community and world around them and not just as students.


The results of the most recent 2019-2020 YCAG Listening Campaign prioritised the lack of youth clubs and facilities and activities for young people locally, the lack of green spaces and parks, concerns over crime, the lack of local shops, litter and the state of the local environment, air pollution and housing. They plan to focus on how to improve the provision of facilities and activities for young people and to continue to support the development of their community garden site as well as the opening up of the local nature reserve and other disused green spaces in their neighbourhood – watch this space!

Schools in their Communities

Schools in their Communities

This is an extract from Schools in their Communities; Taking action and developing civic life by Sebastien Chapleau.
Click below to download your free e-book and read more case studies on schools involved in Community Organising.

A hall filled of people that make up Birmingham Citizens UK alliance. Around the hall, different flags of the Commonwealth nations hang together.

Citizens UK is made up of hundreds of member organisations that are committed to taking action together for social justice and the common good.

We believe that faith, education, trade union and community organisations play a vital role as civil society institutions with deep and long-standing roots in their local areas. Through voluntary participation in these organisations, people build relationships, trust, vision and hope - and learn how to work constructively with those they might disagree with, to focus on what they have in common.

Posted by Lauren Del Fabbro on 7 Apr, 2023