Video, text, and analysis of the Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s address to school leavers on Friday 10th July 2020

Rugby, buckets of cold water and Churchill were all referenced in a five minute address direct to young people on Facebook and YouTube:  “.. one of the most important and influential generations in the peacetime history of our country … we are going to need people like you … I can’t wait to see the great new world that you are going to help us to build.”

Read  full text and our analysis. Watch the PM’s address, and Obamas speech to U.S. school graduates earlier this year.

The address was circulated to schools to pass on to all school leavers during the week of 6th of July. There was no public or media notice, but the national press reported a number of key quotes the following day. The recording will remain on Youttube and Facebook channels.

I cannot recall a previous occasion when a UK Prime Minister has talked directly to young people at a national level. The message from young campaigners for the last decade, and one of the mottos of ‘Young Voices Heard’, for the last decade has been ‘talk to us – not about us’ . Has it got through? We ‘ve written to the PM and other political leaders in the past calling on him to do this, and the ease of modern social media YoutTube and Facebook platforms, enables leaders to reach out directly to people without going through mainstream media which many young people do not consume. Whether you agree or disagree with what he said – and our analysis below goes through the text in more detail,  the occasion was a milestone, regardless of who was the first to do it, on the road to greater youth participation in public life in the UK.

It’s not unprecedented – Barrack Obama’s speech to U.S. graduates in May this year (video below) set the bar high. As one of the world’s greatest orators of modern times he also addressed those stepping out from education into an uncertain future with the words “This is your generation’s world to shape”. Many of the themes were echoed inevitably by the PM given the context but in Boris’s personal style, including a curious sporting reference “rugby tackle that opportunity to the ground!” and a striking visual quote  “Some people will pour buckets of cold water on your ideas”. (cue a new wave of bucket inspired posters, placards and props). The first UK leader to talk to children and young people about Covid19 was the First Minister of Scotland, but on national TV, joining other leaders and prime ministers such as in Finland, Norway, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, in not only talking directly to their young citizens but taking questions from them too, and during the height of the pandemic. UK organisation’s and young activists have been lobbying for a Press Conference, a Q&A, a Taskforce (see report 2 below). Having said that, a PM giving national address to school leavers has set a precedent that I hope will be repeated, and pave the way (media too please) for greater youth participation and dialogue in national debates.

ANALYSIS / OPINION by James Cathcart Editor

He opens with praise and congratulations to school leavers for making it through to the end of the school year during lockdown but underlines that his first message to them in THANKYOU for your sacrifice, acknowledging that young people too, were part of the national effort to save lives.

“Congratulations everyone – you’ve made it! After all the years of work and effort, all the many hours hunched over your desks, all the homework, after all of that, your finishing school this summer – you deserve every praise and celebration possible, because, let’s face it, this has been a final year like no other. Your last months of school have coincided with the greatest crisis our country has faced since the second world war, and so the first thing I want to say is ‘thankyou’.

Thank you for the incredible effort you have put into doing the right thing over the past weeks and months. It was your education that was disrupted, your lives that were disrupted, and now as many of you are missing out once again on parties and festivals, presentations, perhaps even on long-planned holidays, I want you to know that your efforts have been worth it. Because of you, because of your sacrifice, we have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, and that’s not something many generations will be able to say about their final weeks at school. Not your elder siblings, certainly not your parents.

Young people have been telling me that they are also worried about the lost lesson time and how and when, if ever, they will make it up the lost learning. Those still in school might have the opportunity for special arrangements, but those leaving this summer, whose exams results will be predicted using their mocks, are concerned that this will not reflect their true potential, and will adversely impact their progress to work or college opportunities. Others are concerned about employment. Yes many have missed those end of term social celebrations and some would have been looking forward to a summer of festivals and holidays – but many will also have lost the prospect of work experience opportunities, gap years, and summer jobs.

In fact one day, many years from now, people are going to look back and they are going to ask you what it was like to live through the lockdown and while you might not have tales of a lost summer of festival and house parties, you will be able to talk with pride not just of the lives you helped save but of the country you helped rebuild, because while this stage of your life, this very important stage of your life, is drawing to a close, the really exciting bit is yet to come.

I think it’s not only been fun forgone but weeks of isolation from extended family, grief for lost relatives, loneliness and mental health challenges and whilst we can all remember the excitement of leaving for something new, perhaps we can also acknowledge the anxiety that many of these school leavers are feeling – especially when they read reports about being part of a lost generation. However, the PM is no doubt aware of this and wants to strike an upbeat note as the prepare for the future.

These past years your brilliant teachers have equipped you with the skills you need to change the world and now you have the opportunity to do so, because we face the challenge of reopening our society, cautiously, carefully, we have an incredible opportunity to do things differently, to build back better, not just for the next few months but for years and decades to come.

Looking ahead the PM underlines the key role that the next generation has to play going forward, highlighting four key qualities that he believes to be critical during the rebuild – empathy, resilience, self-discipline and patience – and adding his priorities for that future – a fairer society, clean air and climate safe. Three areas that many young people have campaigned on and will surely come back to the PM to talk about his plans and their ideas, with opportuities and support to get involved in the how and when.

Your generation, that came of age, perhaps a bit faster during this pandemic, your generation are going to be so vital to that national effort to rebuild, because we are going to need bright, brilliant young people like you and that strength of character, the qualities that you forged during the lockdown, empathy, resilience, self-discipline, patience, those are qualities that we are going to need now as we make our society fairer, make our air cleaner, stop our planet getting warmer, and those are qualities that are going to carry you forwards and upwards and make you one of the most important and influential generations in the peacetime history of our nation.

The PM is acknowledging a role for young people and inviting them to be part of the rebuild. ‘we need people like you’ – perhaps opening the door to for a more ‘listened too’ generation in stating that you are not only ‘bright’ and ‘brilliant’ but that ‘you are one of the most important and influential generations’ – the keyword being ‘influence’.  I hope that this means that through both words and social action of young people that future Governments of whatever politics, will respond with words (policies) and actions (investment and collaboration) follow through with investments to empower that influence. Perhaps new job creation and training will target climate change – but I sincerely hope that young people will not just be seen as the footsoldiers in the lowest-paid jobs, but will be valued in frontline jobs, creative jobs, and future jobs rising to the highest level sooner – the boardroom, and with roles such as designers, decision-makers, young trustees, social and business entrepreneurs, writers, journalists, and indeed political changemakers and leaders.

Your journey forward will not always be easy. There are always going to be people who pour a bucket of cold water on your ideas. People who like to sit on the side-lines,criticise, sometimes with good cause, sometimes for the sake of criticising and of course you may make some mistakes. The important thing is to get out there, to keep picking yourself up, to keep trying again and again. As our greatest leader may or may not have said once – ‘never, never, never give in. Jump on every opportunity that comes your way, rugby tackle that opportunity to the floor. Bring enthusiasm, energy to everything that you do. Be that friend, that team member who is always there to lend a hand. Take the time to ask others how they are doing. Be kind to all those around you, and when you look around look for the good. Because while this crisis has brought great grief and sadness to many homes across the country, there have been many brilliant and determined people who have also shown the country at its best. The incredible willingness of all those who put up their hands to help out and volunteer, the British companies that leapt into action to build the ventilators, scientists working flat out on possible treatments and vaccines, and the way so many incredible people kept our country going through the pandemic.

Its not hard to guess who the PM was referring to as Britain’s greatest leader – Churchill! This paragragh starts with encouragement to be persistent and never give up but goes on to applaud the virtues of kindness and teamwork – something I know many young people demonstrate every day in their volunteering and community work on the front line – especially during Covid.

Your generation has come of age facing a challenged like no other generation before you, and just as previous generations have had their missions: the wartime generation that rebuilt Britain in the 1950s, those who fought for great rights and equality in the 1960’s and 70’s. Your mission will be to make your way in the world, as we build back a better, fairer Britain.

Something of a rallying call to – ‘make your way in the world’. Given the disproportionate rates of unemployment being forecast for young people and the uncertain impact of the new financial support being announced – its perhaps understandable that ‘making your way’ is something we sometimes have to do through the mud, and for some the ‘mission’ will be impossible without support because they dont have the option with this mission – ‘should you choose to accept it’.

I know this year has not ended the way you wanted it to. I know you’ll never get back the past few months or enjoy the experiences that you hoped to. But I promise you – it has been worth it. And I can’t wait to see the great new world that you are going to help us to build.”

I cant help wishing that he’d said “I promise you – you are not alone”.  I know that Headteachers making final year speeches to leaving pupils are saying ‘cheerio and good luck’ and perhaps ‘keep in touch’ but Id rather hope that the Prime Minister’s role in governing and leading out society covers the next steps of further, higher education, training, and employment prospects, and that he is not waving off the generation to make their way whilst he returns to the world of adult politics and voters expectations – but instead appreciates that school leavers are now going to be 18+ voters too, and worthy of a continuing conversation. Democracy is a dialogue and young people need to be part of that.

Talking to them direct was a great first step and I hope it is repeated annually. It should not take a crisis to appreciate and engage the younger generation. Their future will be longer than for most of us – they deserve to be more included in shaping it.

James Cathcart, Editor Youth Voice Now project



Story 1 – Compare and Contrast? : Obama May 2020

Story 2: The campaign to get the Government to talk with young people about Covid.

Young people and their supporters, including Young Voices Heard, have been calling on the PM to hold a press conference with questions on Covid, an inquiry into its impact on them and a taskforce that includes young leaders, to focus on taking forward new measures about restart post-Covid19.

In May over 90 organisations and 150+ young campaigners signed an open letter (coordinated by the iwill campaign on youth social action) calling for a Youth Press Conference to take questions.

This week (July) another open letter (coordinated by MyLifeMySay) was signed by an all-age group of over 75 people calling for:

1. Launch an inquiry into how COVID-19 has impacted young people aged 16 to 25 years old;
2. Establish a national youth task force to produce recommendations from the inquiry report;
3. Commit to responding to recommendations with policy proposals and a clear timeline for implementation

… and have started a petition on Changeit

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