Transforming education practices provides students with the opportunity to learn new skills, preparing them for the workplace. Professor Tom Dobson discusses community-based projects and the Learning Compass, highlighting how secondary students’ skills can be developed, giving them some of the tools needed to embrace 21st-century competences to help further advance workplaces when they finish compulsory education.


It has become the norm to ascribe schools with the responsibility to remedy a wide range of economic and social issues, which are often well beyond their remit and capacity.  However, in light of government careers’ guidance documents for secondary schools and the new OFSTED framework, perhaps this is a good time to think about what secondary schools can do to provide their young people with the skills and competencies they need in the workplace.  Both are underpinned by the 8 Gatsby benchmarks, which advocate that secondary schools provide “a stable careers programme” that addresses “the needs of each pupil”, “experiences of workplaces” and “encounters with further and higher education”.

It is too early to say what the impact of this has been on young people coming through secondary schools, but what is absent from these documents is a focus on the 21st-century skills and competencies which employers require from young people. 

What can Schools do to Develop Secondary Students’ Skills?

The Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) reports demonstrate how the UK education system could be doing more in to provide young people with these work-based skills and competencies.  Often referred to as the 4Cs of collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity, the Tony Blair Institute now argues that the development of skills and competencies should become accountability measures for all schools.  It’s a need recognised by young people themselves – UCAS reported that nearly half of the 700,000 students who applied for university degrees last year expressed an interest in degree apprenticeships as well.

Learning Compass Review

In terms of thinking about what these skills and competencies might look like, the OECD’s Learning Compass 2030 provides a good starting point.  Drawing upon research and expertise from the education and business sectors, the Learning Compass outlines how young people need to develop “agency”, skills and competencies in order to become independent learners who actively “transform” society.  This is one step beyond the Gatsby benchmarks, which position young people as passive recipients of information and experiences as young people become actors who engage and transform their local communities.  However, what is missing in the Learning Compass is an idea of what kind of teaching and learning experiences in schools would help young people develop in these ways.

Last year, Enactus UK commissioned me to undertake a review of existing teaching and learning which promote young people in secondary schools to realise the Learning Compass.  Enactus UK is a non-profit organisation, whose work in secondary schools is undertaken through NextGenLeaders – a programme supporting students to run projects that will impact their local communities positively.  Learning is student-driven and community-facing, with outcomes shared with and impacting upon a real audience.  

Examples of projects include:

  • Project Pawject – helping the homeless in Norwich through the selling of dog beds
  • Foodprint – providing affordable food that would otherwise go to waste to people in Nottingham;
  • Coding with Codex – delivering inclusive and affordable computer coding courses for neuro-divergent learners
  • Community awareness project to help the Roma community access their school and to actively challenge community perceptions of this stigmatised group.

My review draws upon evidence of outcomes from across the globe where similar student-driven, community-facing approaches to teaching and learning are used with secondary students.  The main approaches I found were termed “project-based learning” (PBL) and “youth participatory action research” (YPAR).

Project Based Learning

In terms of PBL, the Buck Institute of Education’s (BiE) Framework for High Quality PBL (HQPBL) is a good starting point.  Drawing upon their work with over 3000 schools in America, the HQPBL framework has 6 dimensions: “promoting intellectual challenge and accomplishment; ensuring the authenticity of the project; ensuring the project culminates in a public product; promoting collaboration with external partners; developing project management skills; and promoting reflection and independent learning.”  Research into the use of this framework found that teachers who had been trained using HQPBL were far more likely to teach the full range of skills and competencies when compared with teachers using more traditional teaching methods.[3]

Youth Participatory Action Research

YPAR is similar to PBL, with one key difference.  In YPAR, project management includes building young people’s “capacity” to undertake research through the explicit teaching of research methods [1].  The fact that the projects the young people undertake are authentic and result in a real product means they are transformative as young people “actively intervene in order to change knowledge and practices to improve the lives of youth and their communities” [2].

The majority of the evidence in the review comes from the US, where PBL and YPAR are used across large networks of schools with disadvantaged children.  In my report, I argue that this growing evidence base indicates how PBL and YPAR can be adopted by schools in the UK in order to exceed the Gatsby benchmarks and develop young people’s Learning Compasses.

The use of YPAR and PBL in Schools

I also argue that the use of PBL and YPAR is particularly effective with socially disadvantaged young people.  Using PBL and YPAR in areas of social disadvantaged has been shown to:

  • increase engagement, attendance and attainment in school;
  • encourage young people to continue their education after compulsory schooling;
  • provide young people with the skills and competencies required by employers, including critical thinking, self-regulated learning and collaborative learning.   

However, the OECD also identify how these skills and competences are less likely to be developed in schools by young people from areas of social disadvantage.  In part, they put this down to the ways in which these student groups tend to be taught using more traditional teaching methods than their more advantaged peers.

This lack of equity is also part of wider issues in society with the Institute for Fiscal Studies evidencing how young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have unequal access to, and less success in, the education system.  Those eligible for free school meals are three times less likely to achieve above the expected level at age 11 and at GCSE; after compulsory schooling, they are three times less likely to attend one of the most selective higher education institutions.  The Education Endowment Foundation outlines the negative impact of the reintroduction of exams post-pandemic in terms of attainment for disadvantaged students – a prediction which is beginning to be evidenced by a geographic breakdown of last summer’s GCSE results.  In terms of employment, Teach First’s analysis of DfE data reveals that 1 in 3 (33%) disadvantaged young people are not in sustained work or education 5 years after GCSEs, compared to 1 in 7 (14%) of their wealthier peers. 

And the current economic climate means these inequalities are deepening.  Best for Britain identifies that rising inflation will mean significant pupil premium funding cuts for disadvantaged students to the tune of £340 for primary school students and £241.50 for secondary school students.  And the Sutton Trust predicts that the current cost of living crisis will mean that disadvantaged young people are more likely to drop out of post-compulsory education than their more advantaged peers.

The Impact of Education on Social Inequalities

To return to the start of this blog, it is at best naïve and at worst political, to ascribe schools with the responsibility to address social inequalities.  However, education can play its part.  If progressive pedagogies like PBL and YPAR can make a difference for disadvantaged young people, then policy needs to be rethought to ensure students from disadvantaged backgrounds leave education with the knowledge, skills and competencies they need to continue their education and find sustained employment in the workplace. 

Critics may say that PBL has already had its turn.  In 2016, for example, the Education Endowment Fund ran a project to look at the potential impact of PBL on literacy development in year 7. [4]  The results were inconclusive, partly due to high attrition rates, but I would also argue that the project was flawed. This is because the focus on literacy attainment meant the type of PBL that was being used was driven by the curriculum and not the young people themselves and that skill and competency development should have been a prime focus.

Concluding Remarks

In an education system driven by standards and attainment, critics may respond that encouraging schools to work with organisations like Enactus UK and calling for curriculum reform like that outlined in the Tony Blair Institute report, might not demonstrably alleviate the situation.  Be that the case, they should look no further than Singapore, a country that frequently tops the PISA rankings and mandates PBL at each year of schooling.

Of course, addressing social inequality goes well beyond education, but, as the review demonstrates, empowering young people to learn through running their own projects in their local communities can have a transformative effect both on their educational outcomes and the development of 21st-century skills to contribute and transform the workplace.

For more information about Enactus UK’s NextGenLeaders programme, please visit their website:

For more information about using PBL in your school, please see the BiE’s framework for high quality PBL:

[1] Anderson, A. J. (2020). “A Qualitative Systematic Review of Youth Participatory Action Research Implementation in U.S. High Schools.” American Journal of Community Psychology 65(1-2): 242-257.

[2]Anyon, Y., K. Bender, H. Kennedy and J. Dechants (2018). “A Systematic Review of Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) in the United States: Methodologies, Youth Outcomes, and Future Directions.” Health Education and Behavior.

[3]Hixson, N.K., Ravitz, J., & Whisman, A. (2012). Extended professional development in project-based learning: Impacts on 21st century teaching and student achievement. Charleston, WV: West Virginia Department of Education, Division of Teaching and Learning, Office of Research.

[4]Menzies, V., Hewitt, C., Kokotsaki, D., Collyer, C., and Wiggins, A. (2016.) Project Based Learning: evaluation report and executive summary.  EEF. 

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Professor Tom Dobson is a Professor of Education in the School of Education, Psychology and Linguistics at York St John University. He shares how providing young people with the opportunity to engage with projects in their local community can help develop skills needed to transform the workplace and improve education outcomes.

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