Everyone’s talking about young people.
Most of it is bad news.
Young people are, depending on the source, too nice for our own good, morally immature, useless, or informed and powerful.
Turns out you can make young people suit your story pretty easily.
For the UK’s young people, when you look at statistics, our lot do not make pleasant reading.
We are one of the most likely groups to suffer from the COVID-19 economy, the Institute for Fiscal Studies places workers under 25 at approximately two and a half times as likely to work in a sector forced to suspend business. ‘Is Wales Fairer?’ (2015) paints a bleak picture for young people in Wales – young people are “significantly worse off in many ways, including income, employment, poverty, housing, and access to mental health services”. We are under more pressure – Ipsos MORI’s 2018 report on Generation Z says 60% of 16 to 22-year-olds feel pressure to prosper and be successful, compared with only a third of baby boomers (55-75-year-olds). To round off this ‘happy’ picture – according to the Prince’s Trust Youth Index report 2019‘, young people’s well-being is at its lowest ebb since the study was first commissioned. The second lowest rating was found in 2018. Young people across the UK are facing unequal voting opportunities depending on where they live. From next month, young people in Wales will be able to vote, joining their peers in Scotland. Still 16 and 17-year-olds in England and Northern Ireland are denied this opportunity.
Today the British Youth Council, with the Votes at 16 Coalition are calling for equal voting rights for all 16 and 17-year-olds across the UK.
Change happens in a multitude of ways.
One way is definitely community action – young people uniting to defend issues that matter to them. You’ll have seen huge youth protests on gun control in America, and climate change across the world. Community action and youth protest is always happening in Wales, the brilliant youth-led grant panels funded over £100k worth of projects, and Welsh young people have been at the forefront of period poverty action. Many youth organisations across the UK have pressed forward with exciting youth-led projects, making a difference by young people for young people.
The British Youth Council have been surveying young people across the UK for years – our latest Make Your Mark saw 838,288 young people cast votes on what matters to them, supported by over a thousand schools, colleges and youth organisations.
In the top three UK issues in 2019?
Votes at 16.
In the top three devolved issues in 2019?
A Curriculum for Life.
In Make your Mark’s history, the two issues that have re-occurred each year have been Votes at 16 and a Curriculum for Life.
One would think that’s a pretty clear mandate from a huge swathe of the UK’s young people. Young people want opportunities in their schools and colleges to learn about and engage with local and national democracy. They want to put this into practice at the ballot box.
“Give a person a vote, they’ll vote for a day, teach a person why to vote, they’ll vote for life”?
That’s not quite the quote.
But the principle is there. All the evidence points to habits setting precedents for life. In Wales right now we’re looking at how active citizenship at a young age steers a future of active citizenship. Who’s to dispute the same isn’t true for voting? Teaching young people about local and national democracy benefits everyone. Even the 1924 Geneva declaration on the Rights of the Child includes the right to an upbringing that instills social consciousness and duty – I would argue that without a curriculum for life, we are failing our young people.
Young people are fed up of being talked about, not engaged with.
Many 16 & 17-year-olds work. Many pay taxes. And dependent on where they live in the UK, they may have the right to vote in local and national elections. We call for equal voting rights at 16 in the UK.
Young people are fed up of being under-paid, under-supported, and voiceless. It is unjust that, in the great age of human communication, with more ways to get heard than ever, 16 & 17-year-olds are being ignored in the fundamental expression of democracy.
Extend the suffrage, give young people the chance to have their say at the ballot box, and let us have Votes At 16.
I have held the position of British Youth Council Trustee for just over a year now; complete with fraught election, a seemingly insurmountable learning curve, and discovering how to accept the help of those far more experienced to overcome the curve. There have been incredibly difficult bits. And there have been incredibly rewarding bits. The British Youth Council prides itself on having a wholly ‘young person’ board. We are all between the ages of 16 and 25, and together we decide the direction of the charity, how we can best serve young people and other important responsibilities any charity board would undertake.
Throughout one year and two months of candidacy, I’ve gone through eight months of post-university unemployment, two jobs, and one year and two months of self-development. I believe firmly that being a trustee for the British Youth Council has aided and abetted that development, and given me a firm grounding of experience to take into my future. If you’re a young person reading this, be a trustee. It will stretch and pull and test you, and you will learn more than you give.
In my first position as a trustee I have learned a great deal about what a trustee is not. I have been too operational in my role. I have (shock horror, hold your ears) not read enough in preparation for a board meeting, and not known what I was talking about. I have not known enough about my charity’s history, and had to implement a regular two hour slot in my fortnight to read around the sector, and around the charity.
I have also learned how amazing and empowering young trustees can be when done well (and the British Youth Council does young trustees well). I have been flying the flag for more charities to engage with young people at that strategic level. I have also tempered my more firebrand youth belief that maybe charities who do not have youth representation at strategic level do not, not because they are scared of what they might hear, but because they are unsure of how best to engage them. To continue, I hope that by the end of this blog, you have a better understanding of “Why Young Trustees”, and why engaging young people is such an important step for charities to be taking.
Now it’s easier to identify yourself by what you’re not, I believe, so I will take that approach now:
What am I not?
I am not a trustee to ‘give back’, to the charity sector or to the youth sub-sector. I am strongly of the opinion that the day I truly believe that, is the day I should resign as a trustee, as it implies I have ceased to learn from my experiences. And what use is a trustee who is not developing their skills?
I am not a trustee to represent ‘all young people’. I am not a voice of my generation. I maybe have a slightly better understanding of them than a 50 year old, but I don’t know specifically how young black Muslims are affected by Brexit, for example. If you want to know that, talk to them. Don’t ask me “what do young people think?”. That’s not engaging young people, that’s patronising them.
I am not a trustee to ‘lead the charity to greatness’. The charity I belong to is already great. It has an unbelievably capable staff team who lead it to greatness each and every single day, in fulfilling its vision and strategic objectives – or in less management speak, in “helping young people feel empowered”. We are incredibly lucky to have the staff we have. I am a trustee to guide and question, to check and to balance. To help in overseeing. To be the charity’s biggest cheerleader.
That’s a young trustee’s biggest selling point, and for me, their biggest potential pothole to being a good trustee.
Young people are uniquely placed.
They can be raw, passionate, enthusiastic, with plenty of time on their hands. They’re different, they attract attention, they often have a great understanding of the hot button topics.
That sounds all good stuff, right?
The problem for me stems in when a young trustee is put into that box. They are the passionate one, they are the one who knows about that Twitter thing, they can be trotted out in front of our stakeholders for a reliably enthusiastic speech about how great the charity is. Young people want to be a trustee for many reasons. One big reason I would identify, is to learn. If they are pulled into an environment where they are the diversity contingent, they can be stymied by that tag. Don’t make your young trustees your token diversity, and don’t treat them as such.
Would I recommend being a trustee to young people? Absolutely I would. If you are willing to put in the work, it’s a chance to learn, it’s a chance to embed yourself deep within a charity’s framework, it’s a chance to help toward a cause you care about, and get out of your comfort zone a little.
Would I recommend charities to seek a young person as a trustee? Absolutely I would. If you’re willing to put in the work, it’s a chance to learn, it’s a chance to teach, it’s a chance to broaden your representation, and get out of your comfort zone a little.
It is obvious dissonance to have an organisation for young people without young people represented on their board.
Young people are able if you are willing.
If you want to talk about any of what I’ve discussed, you can DM me on Twitter at @Joey_St0cks
The Rt Hon Damian Hinds MP, Secretary of State for Education, has just announced that, in a move affecting all schools across the country from September 2020, the government will introduce mandatory relationships and health education in schools. This will add to current schooling guidance on online safety, mental and physical health, financial literacy, and relationships, in what represents “a major step in addressing concerns about consistency of quality and reduced curriculum time for PSHE”.
This follows work from a vast array of sources: the PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic) Association, tens of thousands of young people across the UK, and from the British Youth Council’s own Youth Select Committee and UK Youth Parliament.
It’s not as if the signs haven’t been there. Young people have been campaigning to leave school with a “good level of understanding of mental health… (with) the ability to understand and develop their own mental wellbeing” (Youth Select Committee 2015 ), and almost 120,000 young people voted mental health services as their top priority in the 2017 Make Your Mark ballot. Young people want education that is fit for purpose, education that serves to better the understanding of key topics facing them today. Young people are living in a world where mental health and wellbeing is ever more crucial to understand, with 75% of young people with a mental health problem not receiving treatment, depression being the biggest cause of ill health among teenagers around the world , and the most common reason for Childline Counselling sessions in 2016/17 being mental and emotional health.
The painting is a grim one.
In my capacity as a trustee of the British Youth Council, and in my work in the youth sector over the last eight years, I have worked with thousands of young people. I will never forget the mum of a girl I worked with at a youth club, in one of my first positions engaging with young people, who I sat down with and explained that depression didn’t mean there was anything wrong with her daughter, and that it didn’t make her ‘different’. We eventually decided to roll the mental health talk out to the group, as it was clearly not something they had heard before.
To see her daughter, who was a gem, coming out of her shell and getting excited and confident on a club trip to the seaside later that year, unshackled by negative perceptions of her own mental health, and with friends who understood her was and is one of my most rewarding experiences working with young people to date.
What I’m trying to say is, it’s great that the government is rolling this out. It’s needed, though. It’s badly needed.
When YouGov find that more than half of young people “feel embarrassed about mental illness”, when last year’s Youth Select Committee conclude that “body dissatisfaction causes long-lasting consequences for young people”, it feels like the government have only made a small step in the right direction.
Updating guidance that was last updated in 2000 is a positive start.
Ensuring children grow up to “become happy and well-rounded individuals who know how to deal with the challenges of the modern world” is crucial.
I warmly welcome the government listening to young people, but cannot stress enough the urgency of this problem, and a warning against piecemeal action. Creating PSHE that works for young people, makes them healthy, happy citizens, is of vital importance over the years to come.
We’re on the right path, but we’re not there yet.
There’s a real problem I see increasingly, the more I get involved with youth voice and charity work.
The problem –
Young people, on the whole, have been separated and isolated from politics and the importance it has over our lives.
Now you’re probably thinking I blog a lot about big problems; well this would be a crap blog if I blogged about the food I made today. And I like to think the readership (?) I have is a little bit interested in big problems.
This separation from politics I mention is partly a separation of our own transient ignorance – I don’t say ignorance with offence here – and partly a separation by our government which doesn’t teach young people to become voters any more than it teaches young people to become citizens.
The education system in the UK is, therefore, unfit for the purpose.
We approach the government with caps in our hands and wonder why nothing becomes of our requests. Approaching any issue in this manner, I have realised, denotes a superiority of the request-granters. Parliament is made up of our representatives, and it’s crucial to remember that.
It’s always more productive to approach with ideas and to get those ideas into the heads of every decision maker who will listen, and even those who don’t care to listen.
Young people often have no knowledge of how to vote, or how to protest to vote.
We make petitions, and we tweet about things.
Not a problem, any involvement is involvement.
However, Youth councils can be talking shops for CV hunters (as a side note, this is an area in which the British Youth Council are fully exempt), young people are told that they are world changers and action takers, and so often do not understand the drive and skills needed to enact their ideas.
I’ve been talking to a few Welsh politicians over the past few weeks in my capacity as UK Young Ambassador, and a common trend of comment is being told that young people are in the most creative periods of their lives. We can be making the changes we want to see, not waiting in the wings, talking.
I have made the point in a previous blog but I feel it’s still worth making, if we as young people are only allowed a say and input in the future, then we will miss the point again.
If we are only allowed to be the future in the future – and until then we have to passively wait in the wings – then we will struggle with the same questions that our predecessors have struggled with.
Firstly, therefore, the primary step on this journey must be giving 16-year-olds the right to vote.
It must come from the people, all the best programs come from the people, and when it happens this advantage must be used.
Voter turnout among the 18-24-year-olds in the 2010 general election was around 40%.
16-17-year-olds can cause an embarrassment by turning up on election day in droves, while their older siblings stay at home.
Claimed turnout in the Scottish referendum for 16-17-year-olds was at 69%, markedly higher than the 54% of 18-24-year-olds.
What is key from the report on the Scottish referendum is the fact that those who discussed the referendum in schools felt higher levels of political confidence and understanding.
Schools can play a distinctive role, but only when they are allowed to do so.
So I’ve identified the issue and discussed some positive opinions relating to the matter.
Next week I’ll be creating a ‘how it can happen’ blog.
- Read Parliament’s research on votes at 16.
- Read about the British Youth Council’s campaign for votes at 16.