Addressing low engagement in extracurricular activities by children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, by targeting inequalities of opportunity to reduce social, economic and employment barriers, and improve social mobility

Full Application: Not funded at this stage

At our discovery phase we delivered XP and XPlore: a small-scale project with 339 children and young people in 6 schools, living in areas of higher deprivation and low social mobility, with a higher concentration of children receiving free school meals (FSM); to understand what methods would increase their extra-curricular engagement.  An initial prototype digital platform was developed including a mobile app, user portal, provider portal, relational database and a reward card.   Based upon our research (see Feasibility pdf), the discovery stage tested the following digital engagement methods to positively change behaviour, increase extracurricular engagement and measure change (see evaluation report 24-32, 178-183 and 189-192):

  • Track and evidence engagement through QR code scans and coded stickers
  • Segment activities according to individual aspirations, interests and location (proximity) preferences
  • Target real world incentives (discounted or free activities) to those identified as less advantaged
  • Provide the end-user with evidence of their engagement through a digital CV
  • Introduce virtual rewards, including digital badging to acknowledge experience and learning, and gamify the experience
  • Design the experience and branding through creative consultation with end users

The results of the initial phase exceeded expectations, demonstrating greater engagement by those from low-income backgrounds compared to their more advantaged peers (see Evaluation pdf pages 34-37):

  • Of the primary school children participating in an extracurricular activity, 52% were FSM compared to 48% non-FSM
  • 53% of FSM participants tried a new extra-curricular activity through the scheme
  • 40% of FSM disadvantaged children that registered to take part, went on to attend an extracurricular activity, compared to 29% non-FSM (in a 22 week period)
  • 76% of all participants indicated improvement in their awareness of extracurricular activities available
  • 81% of the FSM cohort participated within four weeks, compared to 65% of non-FSM

The alpha phase will develop this proof of concept by focusing upon the needs of young people and beneficiaries: activity providers, educational settings, employers and local authorities.  This would connect tracked extracurricular engagement to a range of nationally recognised standards.  Presuming a beta phase, alpha phase funding would cover:

  1. Test linking activity and participation data dynamically to the SkillsBuilder national framework to auto-evidence young people’s transferable (soft) skills via their digital CV
  2. Develop technical specification linking extracurricular participation to the digital badges standard unlocking real-world opportunities in work experience, training, apprenticeships, or jobs using the ‘Cities of Learning’ approach
  3. Consultation with schools on linking extra-curricular participation to the Gatsby career benchmark standards to understand contribution of this participation to post-16 career pathways
  4. Consultation with stakeholder groups to develop a prototype interactive dashboard sharing insights, identifying metrics and actions
  5. Create additional segmentation for other cohorts facing barriers to extracurricular engagement
  6. Consultation with end users and stakeholders to test affordable and scalable data capture devices/technologies
  7. Provide a demonstrator version of the XP and XPlore digital platform, incorporating the above which can be shared online with other local authorities

The long-term aim of the scheme is to provide a scalable and field-tested model that can be replicated and rolled out nationally across other local authority areas.  This concept has far reaching aspirations since partners identify this model, directed at children and young people, can be applied to improve outcomes across various cohorts thereby targeting other significant social, health and community priorities ahead.

Across the country there are significant variations in the life chances, educational attainment, aspirations and employment opportunities for young people.  This is particularly exacerbated in areas of low social mobility or high deprivation, for children in receipt of free school meals, and levels of educational attainment or job opportunities  compared to the national picture.

The cultural and social capital gained through taking part in extracurricular activities is proven to have a positive impact on transferable skills, school attendance, educational attainment, wellbeing, and career outcomes.  However, nationally 54% of disadvantaged children engage in no out-of-school activity whatsoever, compared to 34% of better off peers, and 2% of middle-class children (An Unequal Playing Field: Extra-Curricular Activities, Soft Skills and Social Mobility; 2019).  Children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds generally do less well academically, are more likely to suffer chronic illness or have special educational needs, are less able to afford school trips or take part in extra-curricular activities.  Our research identified the following areas of change and improvement when improving extra-curricular engagement:

  • Educational attainment – 62% of children do well at school that take part in extra-curricular activities compared to 37% of those who do not (Time for Change: An Assessment of Government Policies on Social Mobility, 2017)
  • Educational attainment – young people with low educational attainment are 44% less likely to engage in three or more cultural activities, than someone with a level four qualification (DCMS Taking Part and Child Taking Part survey data).
  • Social wellbeing – extracurricular participation by young people from disadvantaged backgrounds can be up to 40% less than their better off peers, and is linked to reduced social well-being, lower perceived ability and less positive behaviours (Childhood Origins of Social Mobility: Socio-Economic Inequalities and Changing Opportunities, 2016).
  • Mental wellbeing –11-19’s are less likely to participate in any extracurricular activities if they have any type of mental ill health (Youth Voice Census report, 2019)
  • Soft skills – 64% of young people who felt they lacked soft skills struggled to find a job (Results for Life, 2017)
  • Higher education – only half the children that don’t participate in extracurricular activities plan to attend higher education compared to those that do (Time for Change: An Assessment of Government Policies on Social Mobility, 2017)
  • Employment and career aspiration – young people who underestimate the education and skills needed for their career path are three times more likely to become NEET, particularly those from poorer homes (Careers Education: International Literature Review, 2016)
  • Lifelong learning – a young person with a score of at least 3 point on the index of multiple disadvantage is 75% less likely to participate in additional learning opportunities after school (DfE, Participation in Learning Survey, 2018)

A key problem being directly addressed is the manifold effects of low participation in life’s offering because of lack of opportunity, money, awareness or aspiration; and the solution is a robustly tested scheme which, building upon the techniques already tested, subtly and supportively targets positive interventions, opportunities and incentives to improve the life chances of, and foster engagement by, those in vulnerable and disadvantaged groups.  It would be hard to overstate the potential scale of economic and financial benefits which could accrue from this project, by widening its scope, not just nationally, but into other cohorts where the above principles would apply.

By addressing the problem, numerous short-term and long-term social and economic benefits would accrue to to individuals participating, to various, activity providers, the education sector, employers, local authorities and wider society.

For individuals, benefits include recognition of crossover learning in informal and multiple settings such as clubs, museums and libraries; access to a new digital skills currency validating that learning; setting interest and career pathways to support autonomous learning, tangible evidence of transferable skills and examples where they have been put into practice (beyond traditional qualifications) to improve employment chances, greater life/work satisfaction, higher earnings in later life through lifelong learning, and improved health and wellbeing.  For schools and educational settings, the benefits include improved alignment with Ofsted social and cultural requirements, a 21st century approach to recognising achievement beyond the classroom, demonstrate meeting statutory responsibilities for delivering career guidance, and greater understanding of soft skills and relationship to career destination.

Organisations providing activities will increase their understanding about who is engaged and their impact.   Access to aggregated, anonymised data via the dashboard could assist audience development, and the targeted communication of activities could diversify audiences, reaching more disadvantaged cohorts.  Employers benefit from opening recruitment to a more diverse range of young people, building local talent pipelines with greater work readiness, utilising digital badges to define skills to young people, positively addressing skills gaps in the labour market.

Local authorities will have more young people contributing to the local economy, with social benefit savings associated with averting failed transitions from education to work, and reducing social care costs through improved wellbeing.  The Arts, Health and Wellbeing APPG inquiry report estimated an SROI of £4 for every £1 invested in promoting engagement in creative activities.  Extracurricular activities have been proven to improve non-cognitive outcomes and soft skills, contributing a 15% increase in lifetime earnings, valued at £127bn to the UK by 2025 (Cities of Learning in the UK, RSA, 2017).

The feasibility and discovery work have been led by Cambridge City Council in partnership with Cambridgeshire County Council.  The governance structure includes an MoU between the two councils, a Project Board with high level senior-representation, an Advisory Group with wide-ranging representation from across education, culture, careers and research sectors, and a reference group.  The project has also been integrated into City Council’s Anti-Poverty Strategy, Digital Strategy, and Operational Plan; and has been recognised as a Transformation project at Cambridgeshire County Council.

SmartCitizen Ltd developed the XP and XPlore digital platform at our discovery phase, a highly customisable and agile version that improved and modified the existing ‘Rewards Portal’, which can be used standalone, or as a bolt-on software component to ‘SmartConnect’.  SmartConnect is a collaborative, iterative digital project successfully led by Bracknell Forest Council (BFC) since 2004 and is a wide-ranging secure online smartcard and data system, developed by and for the public sector with government funding.  SmartCitizen Ltd is the technology supplier responsible for developing SmartConnect and continues to work in close partnership with BFC and 9 other local authority licensees to develop new software, and find innovative ways to securely expand the technology to meet new priorities and deploy solutions that can each council can share and equally benefit from.

The SmartConnect User Group (SUG), the network of public sector bodies engaged with the existing smartcard project (including Caerphilly County Borough Council, Richmond-upon-Thames, Barking and Dagenham, Hillingdon Council, Nottingham City Council, Warwickshire County Council, South Yorkshire Public Transport Executive, Surrey County Council and Staffordshire County Council); has been inspired by the methods and evident benefits already identified by the early stages of the XP and XPlore project developed by Cambridge City Council.  The SUG group have identified a clear advantage in creating a synergy between SmartConnect and the XP and XPlore model, and implementing a joined up digital approach to improving outcomes for children and young people.  Beyond the SUG, additional local authorities have also expressed an interest in adopting XP and XPlore (who are not currently SmartConnect users): Westminster City Council, Worcestershire County Council, Coventry City Council and Letchworth Garden City (part of North Hertfordshire Council).

Existing practise and cooperation between the SUG members offer a model of collaborative working which has been tried and tested and has proven very effective.  The council partners involved in the alpha stage of development would form an SUG sub-group with terms of reference, and would be chaired and coordinated by SmartCitizen and Bracknell Forest Council.  A Memo of Understanding (MoU) detailing the roles and responsibilities of each partner council for the purposes of the alpha stage would be agreed.   The project manager will issue project updates and timeline, and ensure all partners are kept on track.

We would welcome any support or guidance from the Local Digital Collaboration Unit, to help us share the results and outcomes of this collaborative approach, raise awareness with more local authorities and help build more partnerships, and provide any critical feedback on the project and its findings.