Free School Meals Kids Miss out on Character-Building Extra-Curricular Activities


  • New Demos report with exclusive polling finds students on Free Schools Meals (FSM) are less likely than their non-FSM peers to take part in sporting, outdoor or community activities
  • They are also almost twice as likely to think that school is a waste of time and more likely to report not wanting to go to school most days
  • Students at state schools considerably less likely to feel their school provides enough opportunities for extra-curricular activities (debating, volunteering, outdoor sports) than those at fee-paying schools
  • Teachers overwhelmingly recognise the importance of non-formal learning activities in improving students’ chances of success in education and adult life, and three-quarters want them embedded in the national curriculum

Exclusive polling from a new Demos report on building character in education, supported by the Scouts Association, identifies concerning inequalities of opportunity in the extra-curricular activities available to UK school students.

It reveals that children at state schools feel they are missing out on the non-formal learning activities their counterparts at fee-paying schools are able to experience, and that children on Free School Meals (FSM) are least likely to take part in sports, outdoor or volunteering outside of school.

Given the polling also shows that FSM students are much more likely to report poor attitudes to schooling, the report highlights the opportunity available to engage a broader range of children with education through non-formal learning.

Learning by Doing features new polling of school children from a diverse range of backgrounds, asking them to rate their existing social and emotional skills, and their attitudes towards and participation in extra-curricular activities both in and outside school.

The results show that:

  • Children on free school meals are less likely to participate in non-formal learning outside of school than other students, including sporting, outdoor or volunteering activities
  • They are also more likely to report that school is “a waste of time” (17 per cent to 9 per cent) and not want to go to school most days (35 per cent to 25 per cent)
  • Students at state schools feel their schools fail to provide enough outdoor activities (82 per cent, compared to 49 per cent of fee-paying students), deliberative activities such as debating (80 per cent vs. 40 per cent), volunteering and social action (70 per cent vs. 39 per cent)
  • Around half of all students want to see extra-curricular activities count towards their GCSEs or A-Levels – with particularly strong support for creative activities being embedded and assessed

The desire of young people to have their non-formal learning incorporated in the school curriculum is shared by teachers, whose views were also captured in the report, Learning by Doing. This polling found:

  • Sporting activities are regularly provided in the majority of schools, but only around half regularly provide creative or volunteering activities, and outdoor and deliberative activities (such as debating) are rarely held
  • But teachers have a high regard for the value of these activities – with 90 per cent agreeing that their students would benefit from further opportunities
  • 72 per cent of teachers would support non-formal learning being embedded in the curriculum, and 63 per cent would like to see them made compulsory
  • 89 per cent of teachers don’t feel there is currently sufficient space in the timetable for them to deliver non-formal learning, while 42 per cent cited a lack of teacher training as the main obstacle

Learning by Doing recommends that the Government legislates to ensure that all UK children have the opportunity to partake in non-formal learning, as an important means of building the character attributes that will give them the best chance of success in life.

Specifically, it calls on the Government to:

  • Monitor participation in extra-curricular and enrichment activities through the School Census, and include this data in the National Pupil Database;
  • Ensure that initial teacher training also overs non-formal education pedagogies, including learning outside the classroom and character education; and
  • Provide guidance to schools, through local authorities or regional schools commissioners, on the quality provision of non-formal education.

Acknowledging the increasing autonomy of schools, the report also encourages school leaders themselves to cultivate the grassroots take-up of non-formal learning, both during and outside of classroom hours. This could include giving a senior member of staff the dedicated responsibility of working with local community and sporting groups and Scouting groups, to identify opportunities to partner together to deliver a programme of activities. Teachers should also be rewarded for their efforts to promote non-formal learning in schools, by giving these equal weight with academic teaching in timetable scheduling.

In turn, Learning by Doing suggests non-formal learning providers consider how best to adapt their activities to work collaboratively alongside schools, and to make their integration into the education curriculum more compelling by collecting evidence of their value to children’s development.

Commenting on the report, the report’s co-author and Head of Citizenship and Political Participation at Demos, Jonathan Birdwell, said:

“The enormous benefits provided by ‘non-formal learning’ or extra-curricular activities are now well proven, and this report demonstrates just how highly they are valued by teachers and students alike. But it also unearths worrying inequalities in the opportunities that are available for children to participate in them. While schools are doing their best to close the gap, we cannot ignore the fact that children on free school meals are conscious they are receiving fewer opportunities, and that teachers feel too constrained by timetabling commitments to deliver them.  

Reforms to Ofsted and teacher training will help to embed ‘non-formal learning’, but ultimately it’s up to school heads to forge partnerships with non-formal learning providers that can help to make education more exciting, engaging and better suited to helping all children to succeed both in school and adult life.”

Hannah Kentish, UK Youth Commissioner, The Scout Association, said:

“This report shows just how much both teachers and young people alike value the opportunities that non-formal learning can provides. It also highlights that these opportunities are not equally shared across all locations and that much more can be done to embed non-formal learning as a permanent fixture in the school system. If we are serious about giving all young people the very best chance to become active citizens we need to do more of this work. Scouting has so much experience in using adventure based activities to help young people gain confidence, empathy and resilience and we are ready to help partner with schools to make this important ambition a reality.”

Notes to Editors

Learning by Doing will be formally launched on Monday 29 June 2015.

The report is supported by The Scout Association, the largest mixed volunteer-led movement for young people in the UK. The Association aims “to actively engage and support young people in their personal development, empowering them to make a positive contribution to society”. Each week, its 100,000 adult volunteers deliver a youth programme to 446,531 members, aged between 6 and 25. It is the largest Scout Association in Europe.

Case studies and interviews with Scout members and their schools are available on request. Spokespeople are also available from Demos and The Scout Association.


Sophie Gaston, Press and Communications Manager, Demos
[email protected]
ph. 0207 367 6325 (Out of Hours: 074727 45678)