Professor Sarah Mills

Reader in Human Geography – Geography and Environment

Sarah’s research explores the geographies of 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 has featured on BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC Radio Leicester. She has also provided evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement (2017) and serves on 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.

“Young people are not at the center of political decision making even though almost half the world’s population is under 30 years old.”

UN #YouthStats

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’m fascinated by the idea of ‘good citizenship’ and how its evolution reflects changing societal values.

I’m currently Co-Investigator on an ESRC / GCRF project, Refugee Youth Volunteering Uganda (RYVU). As a team of international researchers, we’re exploring the volunteering activities of young refugees. Based on our findings, we’re developing a toolkit to support organisations working with young people and tackling inequalities.

Sarah with RYVU colleagues in Uganda
Sarah with RYVU colleagues in Uganda

Meanwhile, I’m also Co-Investigator on an ESRC project, Between Gaming and Gambling. We’re investigating the impact of digital games’ gambling style systems on children and young people. Worryingly, we know very little about how they understand and experience these activities, and there are big legal debates right now about how those are regulated.

Drawing on this research experience, I’ve launched a Masters degree, Childhood, Youth and Social Policy with colleagues across the School of Social Sciences and Humanities. It allows students to critically examine current research on children, young people and families with reference to relevant theories and concepts in human geography and the wider social sciences.

One of the most exciting events for me over the past few months was delivering a keynote lecture at the Geographical Association Conference 2021 – alongside speakers including Simon Reeve, Dr Anjana Khatwa and Professor Chris Jackson. I shared my research with hundreds of geography teachers. It was great to hear feedback that it was full of ideas for espousing student activities and prompted lots of discussion.

Going forward, my future research plans are to build on these recent projects, but push them forward in new and exciting directions, 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 as a Lecturer – and was delighted to be promoted to Reader in Human Geography in 2018. And, it was a proud moment, in 2023, to become Professor Mills!

Over the past 12 years, my interest in youth citizenship, informal education and volunteering has deepened. Mapping the Moral Geographies of Education: Character, Citizenship and Values – my first solo book – draws these threads together.

I’ve used it to explore the development of character education in England over the last decade as well as the geographies and geopolitics of the wider character agenda. I’m really excited that Routledge are publishing it later this year.

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