As part of a preview to our new publication ‘OnCohesion’ read Dr James Laurence’s blog from the collection which examines how effective youth social and civic engagement schemes can be in cultivating and strengthening social cohesion, especially among young people.
- Youth social and civic participation schemes create positive social mixing where young people are working together for a common goal to help one another in an environment where everyone is seen as equal.
- The National Citizen Service (NCS) brings together young people from different backgrounds and research shows that after participating, they are more likely to feel comfortable with a close friend or relative going out with someone from a different ethnic background and report warmer feelings towards different ethnic groups.
- These improvements appear to spill over into their views of their local area; with participants more likely to feel it is a place where people from different backgrounds get along well.
- Building a ‘stronger, safer and more cohesive region’ requires more than this. The reduction of socio-economic inequalities between different groups, tackling deprivation, promoting tolerance within schools, and reducing segregation are all key means of building a more integrated society.
Cohesion and young people
How do we ‘build a stronger, safer, and more cohesive region’, ‘tackle extremism’, and grow that ‘tangible sense of togetherness’ that brings our communities together in the face of those forces that seek to divide us? These are the questions being posed by The Manchester Mayor’s Independent Commission.’ One highly effective means of cultivating and strengthening social cohesion, especially among young people, is through youth social and civic engagement schemes.
Strengthening cohesion between communities requires the involvement of everyone; however, in recent years, concern has steadily grown regarding the susceptibility of young people to radicalisation and extremism. As Professor Hillary Pilkington, a member of the Commission, notes, young people from all backgrounds are often targets for radical messages. They are also more likely to be perpetrators, as well as victims, of race and religious hate crimes.
So what tools do we have to help build resilience and cohesion among young people? One tool that research has consistently shown to be highly effective is building positive social mixing between different ethnic and religious groups.
Positive Social Mixing – opportunities and obstacles
Positive social mixing means more than casual interactions in shops or on the street (although every little helps). The kind of contact that is most sticky is sustained, co-operative mixing, where young people are working together for a common goal, helping one another, in positive environments where everyone is seen as equal. This kind of contact not only produces positive relations between groups but can actually build a kind of resilience, which can help hold communities together in the face of shocks, such as terrorist attacks or politically charged debates.
The problem is, building and sustaining this kind of contact can be difficult. Firstly, not everyone has opportunities to meet people from different ethnic groups in their daily lives and activities. This obstacle is especially acute for people in segregated areas, where neighbourhoods and schools tend to be more ethnically homogeneous.
Secondly, even when opportunities are available, mixing doesn’t always take place. This can be seen in some schools where, despite being very mixed on paper, young people can sometimes self-segregate into friendship groups of their own ethnicity.
Thirdly, even when mixing does occur, it is not always of the right type to build cohesion. A lot of contact in society is superficial, or is simply a means to an end (such as buying bread from a shop). Furthermore, although rarer, social contact between groups can also be negative, such as when it involves a confrontation. The problem is, as opportunities for positive mixing increase, which help build cohesion, so too do the opportunities for negative encounters, which can further harm relations.
Building positive social mixing therefore faces a number of obstacles. One means of overcoming these is via youth social and civic participation schemes.
Building Bridges: the National Citizen Service
The National Citizen Service (NCS) is a government-backed youth initiative which brings together young people from different backgrounds, aged 15-17, in small teams of around 12 to 15 people, to engage in a programme of activities encouraging personal, social and civic development. What’s critical about NCS is that it explicitly aims to maximise the social mix of teams to match the wider area where participants live. In a diverse but segregated local authority like Oldham, for example, NCS providers therefore aim to make their teams look like the ethnic mix of Oldham as a whole; not just like young people’s neighbourhoods or schools, which tend to be more ethnically homogeneous.
Schemes like the NCS therefore have the capacity to bring young people together to build experiences of positive mixing and long-lasting ties between people from different backgrounds, cultivating social cohesion. But, do they work? The answer appears to be largely yes – and there is a raft of high-quality evaluations of the scheme which show this (for example, the Ipsos MORI evaluations of the 2013 scheme, 2014 scheme, 2015 scheme, and the ‘2013: one year on’ evaluation).
Overall, adolescents passing through NCS show crucial positive changes in their attitudes towards ethnic difference in society. After participating, they are more likely to report feeling comfortable with a close friend or relative going out with someone from a different ethnic background and report warmer feelings towards different ethnic groups.
A key driver of this appears to be increases in positive social mixing with these other groups. These improvements appear to spill over into their views of their local area; with participants more likely to feel it is a place where people from different backgrounds get along well.
These are encouraging findings. However, a critical question is whether such schemes simply reinforce cohesion where it already exists? In fact, an independent report demonstrated that the NCS is especially effective for young people who join the scheme with lower social cohesion to begin with. In particular, participation leads to much bigger improvements in cohesion among young people from more segregated and disadvantaged communities, where social cohesion is often more frayed.
Practical, immediate, and affordable?
To conclude then, civic/social participation schemes like NCS not only appear to improve average levels of cohesion among young people but do this by being particularly effective for those who come on to the scheme with the lowest levels of cohesion, to begin with. In doing so, they can help close the gaps in social cohesion found between the most and least integrated.
Clearly, building a ‘stronger, safer and more cohesive region’ requires more than this. The reduction of socio-economic inequalities between different groups, tackling deprivation, promoting tolerance within schools, and reducing segregation are all key means of building a more integrated society.
However, youth engagement programs like the NCS offer a practical, immediate, and relatively affordable intervention that does not require significant changes in legislation to implement.
The benefits of investing in such schemes seem vast and far-reaching. The price to society of not doing so may, in the long run, prove far more costly.