‘What’s the point?’

Offering teenagers the chance to go off and make their own films on
issues that concern them is one tactic used by youth council worker
Andy Hamflett to engage young people in their local community. Like
others in central and local government-sponsored youth programmes,
Hamflett, who has been building up the Lambeth youth council in
south London, is experimenting with ways to encourage young
people’s participation in public decision making.
He says: “If I said to young people in Brixton ‘do you
want to get involved in youth democracy?’ I wouldn’t
get much response. But if I offer them the equipment to make a film
about young people’s views I get a lot of
The activity in Lambeth illustrates a growing recognition at local
level of the need to canvass young people’s views on the
issues that affect them.
There are also significant developments at national level, with the
creation of the Children and Young People’s Unit (CYPU) in
2000, aimed at co-ordinating and monitoring the work of government
departments. Earlier this year several departments published action
plans on how they intend to encourage participation by young
This is all welcome progress. But  despite the high aspirations is
enough practical change occurring?
Alice Taylor, participation co-ordinator at the Carnegie Young
People Initiative, a youth involvement project funded by the
Carnegie UK Trust, says the action plans are a “good first
step” but that they are still at an early stage and that so
far only eight departments have produced plans.
Taylor argues that the government’s credibility has been
undermined by its failure to appoint a children’s rights
commissioner for England. “The lack of a children’s
commissioner sends the message that the government is not taking
children’s views seriously,” says Alice Taylor.
Another problem is that government departments have not been given
the funds to implement participation, says Kathleen Cronin, senior
development officer, at the National Children’s Bureau
“Whether there is enough investment available to take on this
agenda is a big question, although some, like the Department for
Education and Skills, have found the money to appoint a
participation officer who will be carrying out training,”
says Cronin.
But changes will take time, says Karen Richardson, project leader
at the Children’s Rights Alliance, which represents
organisations promoting children’s human rights.
“Civil servants seem unsure about how to involve young people
and how to organise participatory events,” says Richardson:
“They’re unsure about what they’re supposed to be
doing.” For participation to become part of the Whitehall
culture, she adds, it is important that the work is not simply
contracted out to voluntary organisations.
“We need civil servants to be involved and to spread best
practice,” she says.
According to the NCB, a key problem young people face when
interacting with government is that official documents are so hard
to understand. The charity has launched an initiative, You What?,
which translates government documents for young people.
“At the moment the documents that the government consults on
are hard enough for adults to understand, let alone young
people,” says Karen Richardson.
The You What? project has its own young people’s panel to
find out what issues they are interested in. These tend to be
topics that directly affect them such as crime, education and
transport, says Richardson.
In many ways participation is more advanced at local level, with
most local authorities employing a children’s participation
or children’s rights officer, although there are wide
variations in effectiveness, says the NCB’s Kathleen Cronin.
Connexions, she notes, has been doing innovative work in involving
young people at local level.
A Connexions spokeswoman says that local partnerships have been
striving to involve youngsters in decision-making and even in who
is recruited to partnerships. “Young people are involved in
recruitment panels for personal advisers and senior managers in
partnerships,” she says. At the Connexions centre in Boston,
Lincolnshire, more than 100 teenagers were involved in making a
range of decisions, from what type of services the centre should
offer to the building’s furniture and fittings, she said.

But a recent Ofsted report found that although most Connexions
partnerships have tried to involve them, young people were not
actively determining the direction of the service in most areas,
and few partnerships had a co-ordinated strategy to ensure they
were involved at every level.
In the local authority arena, councils are often involved in the
creation of youth councils or parliaments. But how to genuinely
engage young people, particularly disaffected or marginalised
groups, is a continuing challenge.
Andy Hamflett of Lambeth’s youth council, warns that unless
youth councils are seen to be more than talking shops young people
will not get involved.
“When we relaunched the council earlier this year I
considered doing a big consultation with young people that would
feed their views into the local authority but I realised that it
could take a long time for anything concrete to
Instead, Hamflett focused on a couple of issues that young people
had highlighted as concerns, including police stop-and-search
policy in the borough.
“I arranged for young people to visit the local
police’s training centre and talk to officers about how they
dealt with young people on the street.” As a result, the
police agreed to co-operate in the making of a film by the young
people on stop-and-search. “They’ve agreed that this
film will be used as part of the police training,” says
“Our next aim is to set up youth forums in five of
Lambeth’s town centres and to get young people involved.
We’ll be offering groups equipment to make films about public
issues they’re interested in.”
In contrast to this “hands-on” approach is the UK Youth
Parliament, which had its first sitting last year and is
part-funded by the CYPU. The parliament liaises with local youth
services and elections are based on local education authority
The parliament has produced a manifesto, which it presented to
government last year, and representatives recently met  ministers
Tessa Jowell and Clare Short.
“This year we’ve decided to focus on one issue,
transport, because that affects huge numbers of young
people,” says national development co-ordinator Kate Parish,
adding that a debate in November was due to attract government
ministers and other interested parties, such as the head of the
British Transport Police.
The parliament is also hoping to set up its own select committee
structure to examine government policies and is seeking to feed
into the action plans of government departments. It has been asked
by the Home Office to bring together groups of young people for
consultation exercises four times a year, says Parish.
But Alice Taylor of Carnegie Young People’s Initiative, while
welcoming the parliament, says it has its limitations. “Youth
organisations that try to replicate adult structures can become
talking shops and risk only appealing to articulate, middle class
young people,” she says.
Despite such challenges, campaigners are encouraged by the growing
recognition, at both central and local level, of the need to engage
with young people when deciding policy. But overcoming cynicism
among young people over whether they can make a difference to
policies is probably the greatest challenge.
“In any participation project it is essential that young
people are clearly told why their input is being sought and what
they can realistically influence,” says Taylor.
She adds that it is crucial that adult decision-makers keep the
young people informed about developments, such as what has changed
as a result of the
consultation. “Otherwise youngsters may not be aware that
they’ve contributed to changes and so become cynical about
the process.”

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