During a summer of covid-related challenges for the education sector students views were increasingly reported by the media to a wider audience than is usual.  The exam results announcements are traditionally a time when cameras and microphones are poised to capture the reaction of pupils. This year the ‘algorithm’ produced such a range of results and young people were on hand – shocked and disbelieving. This turned to questioning and challenging politicians to respond, and in some places backed with street protests. When the politicians announced a change of policy, at least one education minister acknowledged the influential role of students who had contacted him.  What can we learn from this experience about how youthvoice can be better empowered and amplified in a way that has agency and impact? It suggests that a combination of #youthvoice and #social action supported by their allies, can make an difference.

The impact on the personal, social and educational outcomes for the class of 2020 are going to be hard to assess given the twists and turns of the pandemic’s growth and the governments’ response. Lost learning and poor mental health were always going to be issues, but the consequences were compounded by a summer of muddle. Yet some pupils voices have been cutting through, when some students were among the first to point out the injustice of exam regrading. Their stories were amplified by the media and some were given a national platform to criticise policy-makers. Was this the beginning of new chapter for youthvoice to be heard or will persistent negative stereo-types prevail in a fearful society?

The media was full of analysis and questions about exam re-grades, mask wearing in schools, and the higher risk of young people spreading covid19 as the return to colleges and university.  To mask or not to mask? To bubble and where? These are the questions that were directed to parents, teachers and politicians but rarely put to pupils or their young leaders in the national debate. Even today – I listen to older people telling us about what young people think and how they are likely to behave.

Yet young people played a significant part in amplifying the grading/regrading issue, first on social media and eventual through street demonstrations reminiscent of climate change protests. The media responded by inviting them to tell their personal stories and gave a platform to those calling for rethink.

Erin Bleakley, a 17 year old from Glasgow, was one of the first to take action (social action) at the start of August, by writing a passionate, well-prepared and very polite letter to the Scottish Education Secretary over the unfairness of the examination grading process in Scotland. She suggested to John Swinney that a “re-evaluation of the approach .. would be a huge step forward.” She went on to organise a street protest by students in Glasgow to mobilise support. She was one of several young people in Scotland and elsewhere, writing, walking and subsequently exercising the ‘power of youth.’  Nina Mitcham, an ‘A’ level student from Peterborough, was more forthright with the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, on BBC Radio 2. “You have ruined my life!”  after her assessed ‘A’s were downgraded to ‘D’s, denying her a place in veterinary college.

When John Swinney announced the Scottish Governments change of policy, he acknowledged Erin’s and other young people’s influence on his decision. “I watched the pictures of the spirited, articulate young people demonstrating in George Square on Friday. I have spoken directly to pupils who wrote to me … I have listened and the message is clear. They do not just want an apology. They want to see this fixed and that is exactly what I will now do.”

It’s difficult to measure the effectiveness of the ‘power of youth’ but this is a great example of it being plugged in and connected. We witnessed public feedback to young people about the impact of their words and actions. It’s a “you said – we did” statement. It is just the sort of direct acknowledgement that must become the everyday test of meaningful youth participation in decision-making. It is the sort of recognition many in power avoid for fear of encouraging lobbyists, but feedback is an essential test of whether youth voices are welcomed and heard.

Under Secretary of State at DCMS, Diana Barran, has an unpaid role in the Lords with responsibility for Youth and Social Action, a role transferred from Education via the Cabinet Office, and from the Commons to the Lords. Her time must also cover five other briefs yet she is sometimes referred to by the press as the Youth Minister. She restated her and presumably the Government’s commitment to youth participation in its decision-making this summer: “We also want the next generation to be actively at the heart of our decision-making”. But this contrasted sharply with the behaviour at the Department for Education and its associated arms-length bodies.  A DMCS junior Minister certainly does not appear to be as influential on policies as when the role of Youth Minister was embedded in the Education department. I wonder if, for example, how many young people were consulted on the issues around returning to school – such as the wearing of facemasks?

Harry Twohig, #youthvoice champion and former member of the Youth Steering Group at DCMS took to social media to ask “why do only adults get to ask questions about returning to school. It’s just completely illogical .. just talk to us about the things that impact us.”

Young people, many of whom are too young to vote (perhaps because they are too young to vote) systemically have less power and influence – yet their needs are just as great, their questions relevant and the views just as valid. Indeed Articles 12 and 13 of the UN Convention on Human Right of the Child enshrines their right to be heard and taken seriously – though they don’t set a test for what ‘seriously’ means. So, as we move forward, a new-normal set of priorities should include putting the interests and representation of young people much higher up the nation’s agenda. Young people’s voices need to be heard at the head not just the heart of decision-making, with acknowledged influence and not just a hearing. The power of youth needs to be plugged and plugged in to get flowing to the places its needs to reach to effect change.

This will require something of a culture shift in attitudes towards young people not just by the decision-makers but by allies and supporters. The media are significant ‘brokers’ in taking this forward and I detect a slight shift in the balance of their coverage both in amount and in sympathy. Such effort will need to be matched by a much better response from decision-makers, especially in Government, with equal access to high level points of contact that are already enjoyed by more powerful interest groups in society. Perhaps it is time to renew calls for a coordinating cabinet-level Minister of Youth Affairs to chair a committee of Ministers and to provide a focal point for youth voice to be channelled to the relevant departments.

What was encouraging about this period is some young people successfully exercised their #powerofyouth to get a policy response on their agenda.

How can we give the power of youth more plugs? How can we amplify it and turn up the volume of youth voice so that it can be heard by the right people, despite the barriers, whatever the mask.

James Cathcart, Director “Young Voices Heard”

Mentoring, Project Management, Fundraising, Review

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