must encourage the engagement of young black people if youth inclusion policies
are to work, says Patrice Lawrence.

"unruly" children do not spring forth fully formed with a spray can
in their hand. Neither are they animalistic, nor invincible. But is their
future written before they have had a chance to influence it?

The Social Exclusion Unit’s (SEU) policy
action team’s report on young people officially recognised that families in
difficulties were not getting what they needed. The SEU picked out the salient
factors affecting young people’s life chances. Come from a disadvantaged
neighbourhood? Been in public care? Excluded from school? And then add to that
heady brew a black or minority ethnic background, and you may as well try to
push treacle up K2.

It is depressing to review the statistics.
Young black people are over-represented in the public care system, school
exclusion figures and at all levels of the criminal justice system. Children
from certain ethnic groups are less likely to do well at school, and even if
they do achieve good qualifications, are on average paid less than their white
counterparts. So what is being done about it?

There has been some progress. In the most
deprived areas there are initiatives aimed at promoting children’s development
– healthy schools initiatives, Sure Start, Connexions, and so forth. On a wider
scale, the neighbourhood renewal agenda demands the involvement of local
communities in shaping their area. Yet with black-led organisations and young
people often marginal to these schemes, how will the voices of young black
citizens be heard?

There has been some response from the top.
The government’s Children and Young People’s Unit (CYPU) aspires to address
issues arising from the SEU’s reports. But action needs to come from the bottom
as well – the government also has a role in prompting the statutory services to
adopt a confident approach in engaging young people.

Social care professionals work with the most
disaffected young people, including black young people. But are we really
listening, and acting on what they have to say? Are we making the most use of
existing mechanisms such as family group conferences, youth panels, recruitment
panels, to offer these young people a clear voice in influencing their future?
Are we prepared to surrender power and let young people make mistakes, as well
as get it right? What do we need to do it? Because how can we expect these
young people to connect with wider society if we can’t offer them trust on a
smaller scale?

If the CYPU’s aspirations for children are to
be successful, they need to permeate down and inform our work. They must be
beyond aspirations. They must be commitments.

Patrice Lawrence is a policy adviser at the
Family Rights Group and co-ordinator of the black and minority ethnic children
programme at the National Children’s Bureau.

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