Education & Learning

Learning from mistakes - Avenues to increasing youth participation and leadership

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In the UK, the resignation of a 17-year old ‘youth Police and Crime Commissioner’ following public release of offensive remarks she made on social networking site Twitter has sparked a debate about the role of young people in society. Simon Blake - CEO of Brook, the UK’s largest sexual health charity - explains what youth participation and leadership has meant to him and the organisations in which he works.

I don’t know the minute details of what Paris Brown wrote on Twitter.* I don’t want to comment on her specific situation. And of course we have to take responsibility for our actions. However watching the Kent Youth Crime Commissioner story unfold via Twitter and the associated press whilst on a health retreat in Thailand, some of the responses compelled me to take a break from the beach to do this blog. It helps, of course, that it has just started raining for the first time in almost two weeks and that I have just finished reading my book (I recommend it -The Quiet Twinby Dan Vyleta).

My first experience of participating in the community came as a cub in ‘bob a job’ week; then as a companion and weekly shopper for Edith, and subsequently as a volunteer play scheme worker for children with down syndrome. Would or should I have been denied any or all of those experiences if an adult had heard some or all of the horrible things I am sure to have said in the playground prior to or during that time? Even though I never did anything deliberately hurtful I know now I wasn’t always ‘nice’. I was young, and I was learning after all.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child provides the framework for children’s rights globally. Article 12 provides for the right of children and young people to participate in decisions that affect them. The UK signed up to the Convention almost 25 years ago. Each of the four nations has a Children’s Commission tasked with ensuring implementation of those rights.

Across sectors agencies are on a journey; working hard to build a culture of youth participation and leadership in our organisations and in public life. On that journey we have had fun, insight, innovation, trials, tribulations and disagreements, learning copious lessons along the way.

All the time trying to make sure that participation is meaningful for both young people and the organisations they are influencing to create better outcomes for individuals and communities.

Pioneering initiatives like that of Ann Barnes, Kent’s recently elected Police and Crime Commissioner who created a paid Youth Crime Commissioner role aimed to take the principles of youth involvement and leadership in decision making one step further. This is a sensible idea that is completely workable if adults are sensible.

Young people in substantive volunteering roles and paid internships have significantly influenced Brook’s work for the better - their involvement has required us to look at our systems and approaches in partnership with them, and they have effectively created new platforms for our work. They have also challenged some established organisational orthodoxies, habits and priorities. It hasn’t always been easy or comfortable but it has always been constructive, rewarding and ultimately positive.

Managed well, putting young people at the heart of decision making in organisations and systems influences better outcomes. Participation and leadership has the potential to influence traditionally adult led structures, systems and approaches in ways that can really improve them for young people. Inevitably creating shifts in cultures will bring some challenges as well as opportunities. We must learn from the good, the bad and the ugly. But we have to make sure we learn the right lessons.

I have a few thoughts below in no particular order based on what I have read:

1. The right to participate

Children and young people’s right to participate in decision making and be gainfully employed in the public sector is as Wes Streeting described it a ‘laudable goal’. This is something we must continue to get better at in the new public administration systems including health, education, crime and justice.

To question this aim because young people lack experience does not make sense. Some people have said that wisdom and good judgement comes with age alone. This is simply not true. Ask any employer. Wisdom and good judgement are attributable to experience and to previous opportunities and the ability to learn from them.

We know from school and youth councils, peer education and from the Student Union movement etc that young people’s involvement makes a difference to individuals, to the organisations we work in and the communities we live. Young people’s contributions and talents are too easily overlooked or undervalued. Young people too easily demonised. The work they are doing across the UK shows the contribution they can, and are, making to civil society.

2. The importance of building effective youth leadership

People in positions of power must not start to view employing young people in senior roles in public life as a ‘risk’ and retreat from creating paid roles for young people. Right now adults need all the help young people will give us to create a fair and just society. And young people need good paid employment opportunities more than ever.

Retreating from pushing the boundaries and innovating in youth involvement and leadership would waste the opportunity their involvement brings to do things differently and it wastes our opportunity to ensure that young people have a stake in their community and society. Forging ahead with innovative approaches will help us find new ways to connect with ALL young people more effectively, build healthy communities and develop and utilise the talents of individuals.

The evidence shows youth involvement can provide greatest benefit to some of the most ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘vulnerable’ young people. They may also be some of the young people who have made ill considered remarks or statements at some point in time now mercilessly recorded forever on social media.

I have a particular interest in creating opportunities for the most disadvantaged - it would be self defeating if recruitment systems are designed that could rule out those young people who would benefit most from these experiences, and be the very people with the knowledge, expertise and credibility to help reach those young people we often need to try harder to reach.

3. Demonising young people

We trend towards ever increasing blame on young people for their attitudes and behaviours whilst simultaneously ignoring the adult behaviours they learn from, and failing to create a culture where young people are valued and adults are consistently positive role models. The irony of some of the tweets posted about Paris Brown by adults in respected positions was not lost.

4. Teaching about diversity, human rights and responsibilities, and using social media responsibly

The UK can do so much more to truly embrace the power that diversity brings. We must start early teaching children positively about the value of diversity, about injustice and our shared experience of humanity. Recent parliamentary and public debates will have taught children and young people some of the worst - for example, the hysteria about what schools would have to teach children about same sex marriage if legalised; our Prime Minister telling a woman MP to ‘calm down dear’, some MPs likening same sex love to beastiality and pedophilia, and the tone of the immigration debates. Children learn from what is unspoken as well as spoken, and that which they see around them as well as what they are taught at home, in school and youth and community settings.

5. The value of good PSHE and Citizenship

What they are taught in school is still left too much to chance. Personal, social, health, and economic (PSHE) education and Citizenship is the curriculum subject where children and young people SHOULD learn about diversity, human rights and responsibilities. It is where they critically analyse what they learn in the media and other sources around them, about different beliefs and traditions, about the law and civil rights and where they learn about the law including the potential consequences of tweeting, ‘sexting’ and so on. Without decent comprehensive PSHE education and Citizenship that covers all these areas in all schools there continue to be many many children and young people who grow up learning it is acceptable to be homophobic, racist and misogynistic simply because they have not yet learnt differently.

Our National Curriculum currently out for consultation is not as strong as it could be on Human Rights, and PSHE education will continue to be a non statutory subject.

Youth and community settings also have an important role to play in addressing these issues.

6. Understanding children and young people’s development

Expressed views are based on an understanding, and in young people’s case stage of development at a particular point in time. This is particularly true when thinking about children and young people. We know from our work at Brook, and Diversity Role Models (which I chair), that language and views used by children and young people often reflects a lack of education, lack of empathy or understanding and is often characteristic of peer norms and group think. The evidence from social norms theory shows that young people want to fit in. We have to find ways to make sure that young people know about the consequences of inappropriate use of social media, and ensure they are not fearful of engaging in organisations and public loves because they fear exposure of their ‘past selves.’

If we allow that to happen then we will have failed to harness the benefits of social media, we will have failed to apply what we know about childhood development and the development of values systems and we will allow social media to destroy young people’s chances and young reputations in unnecessary, unhelpful and damaging ways.

We all live and learn, we all make mistakes and we must all be allowed to learn from them. As adults we must search for and ask the right questions about how to make youth leadership work in order to take the right learning from this and other situations. Those questions that need asking may not be the obvious ones - they probably need to focus as much on adult responses as they do on recruitment processes.

Finally I hope that an aversion to risk does not limit creativity in this domain of public life. I hope that it makes us more determined as adults and young people to continue enjoying developing ways of working together to make a difference for all young people. And absolutely most of all I hope young people will not be put off coming forward to get involved because they think adults are hypocritical and worry we won’t keep them safe.

* For audiences outside the UK:Paris Brown was the ‘Youth Police and Crime Commissioner’ in Kent, England. Ann Barnes, the elected Police and Crime Commissioner appointed her to the ‘youth’ post upon election and partially subsidised the role from her own salary. Brown resigned her role after negative comments previously posted on her twitter account were made public.

This article has been widely cross posted but appeared on The Huffington Post on 18th May 2013. It can be viewed here. It is cross-posted here with permission of the author.

Featured Image Credit: RSPB