What a joy it was early this year to talk at length with a Youth Mayor and two Deputy Members of the UK Youth Parliament about the role of their Youth Council in a town in the north of England. I was working with Practical Participation to find out why and how young people get involved in decision making about spending money on services for young people for the Heritage Lottery Fund. Our discussions with young people and their youth workers across England were inspiring, thought provoking and enjoyable.
The impact of the work of the three young women with the Youth Council and speaking in schools and at public events is to “completely smash the stereotype that young people don’t want to be involved in politics. We are inspiring a generation.” These youth councillors are involved in commissioning multi million pound projects with the Clinical Commissioning Group for young people’s health services. They undertake the same process as the adults. “We are not stupid. We know the value for money and have pretty good ideas. …Anyone can see how passionate and serious we are”.
Examples of their commissioning include:
• an on-line counselling service staffed by trained professionals for young people across the local authority area
• a theatre piece to perform to young people to challenge their knowledge about and stereotypes of people with mental health issues and to inform them where to find help for themselves or their friends. The audiences were moved by the performances.
• decisions on their own commissioning pot of £120,000.
One use of their campaigning budget was “to seek the banning of mosquito devices, which had been installed in a few places. This was unacceptable discrimination of young people as anti-social and it goes against all the Youth Council stands for. The devices have been taken down. Young people will be involved in the council review of the policy on them every step of the way.” An example of the use of their right set in the council constitution to propose a motion for debate at each full council meeting was a motion to address concern about the local rise in legal highs, which was passed unanimously.
Unprompted, they went on to explain “two full time youth workers support the youth council. They are absolutely essential. We would not achieve nearly as much without them. They support us in everything we do. We have a really good relationship with them”. They felt “really lucky here in the partnership with the council because we are so integrated. Our offices are in the council building, which shows they recognise our value.”
We found that structures for youth voice in a number of places, including some local authorities, still exist with significant commitment from the councillors and officers. This resonated with the research findings of the National Youth Agency and Network of Regional Youth Work Units England published in 2014, which identified ‘some strong commitment and effective approaches to supporting young people’s voice and influence but indications that this focus has been lost in some authorities.’
Practical Participation supports the rights of children and young people to shape the decisions and services that affect their lives. The positive attitude and actions towards the potential of young people to make a difference, which were evidenced in the authorities and organisations we interviewed give hope that the essential values and principles, skills and approaches of youth work to support the empowerment of young people will survive these times of cuts and austerity in youth work and youth services.