Professor Sarah Mills
Professor of Human Geography – Geography and Environment
Sarah’s research explores the geographies of children and young people, focusing on youth citizenship, informal education and volunteering – charting their evolution and impacts on young people and the society in which they live. Her work is widely published, and she has provided evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement (2017). She serves on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s College of Experts and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Political Literacy. Her research has been recognised by several awards - including the Royal Geographical Society’s Gill Memorial Award (2017), the American Association of Geographers (PGSG, 2015), and an ESRC Future Research Leader Award (2014).
Exploring the geographies of youth citizenship, informal education and volunteering
About 1.8 billion people living today are aged 10 to 24 – the largest generation of young people ever. It is increasingly important that they have positive opportunities to engage in the decision-making processes that will shape the future.
I’m fascinated by the idea of "good citizenship" and how its evolution – the way it is defined and taught to young people – reflects changing societal values.
Over the years, I’ve studied a number of British youth movements – including The Scouts, Girlguiding, The Woodcraft Folk and Jewish Lads’ Brigade. Their philosophies and activities during the twentieth century reveal a lot about the relationship between the state, civil society and young people.
In 2014, I was awarded an ESRC Future Research Leader Award to examine the National Citizen Service (NCS). At the end of the three-year study, I was invited to present my findings and 17 recommendations to the House of Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement – improving the NCS programme for young people across the UK.
I’ve also examined the development of character education in England and the wider geopolitics of a "character agenda".
My 2021 book – Mapping the Moral Geographies of Education: Character, Citizenship and Values – drew all these threads together.
I’ve recently been part of a team, examining the impact on children and young people of gambling style systems used by digital games.
This collaborative ESRC research on paid reward systems in digital games and loot boxes - led via Newcastle University - has featured in international and national press, including BBC News Online, The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal.
The project has contributed to wider debates on digital geographies of childhood, popular culture and parenting.
In 2022, I concluded my work as Co-Investigator on the ESRC / GCRF project, Refugee Youth Volunteering Uganda (RYVU). As a team of international researchers, we explored the volunteering activities of young refugees.
Based on our findings, we developed a toolkit to support organisations working with young people and tackling inequalities. We shared our recommendations as policy briefings, but also interactive games and public exhibitions featuring photographs by young refugees.
Going forward, my future research plans are to build on these recent projects - pushing them forward in new and exciting directions, and exploring topics that matter to the lives of children and young people.
My research journey
I studied at Aberystwyth University, graduating in 2006. I stayed on to do my postgraduate studies – completing my ESRC-funded PhD in 2011.
My fascination with youth citizenship started then, and my doctoral thesis explored the Scout Movement in Britain and its evolving model of the "ideal citizen".
In 2011 – having been awarded an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellowship – I moved from Wales to the University of Leicester to continue my research.
One year later, I joined Loughborough University as a Lecturer and have contributed to a number of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes.
During the last 10 years or so, I have developed my research career through several original projects and by engaging with a range of stakeholders.
I was delighted to be promoted to Professor in 2023.