Not just making your voice heard…

Posted on: 9th January 2015

…but believing you have something to say and being supported to express it.

A blog from Anny, Head of Teen Spirit.

A slightly long-winded title, but I’ve been thinking more and more about this issue over my two years as Head of Teen Spirit. Looking ahead in 2015 makes me think about what we’re aiming to do for 13-19 year olds at Body & Soul. Much of recent youth policy and programming in this country has focused on amplifying the voices and position of young people in society. The 2013 Positive for Youth – What it means for Young People paper states that ‘The Government wants every local authority to have a group of young people that is able to represent your views in decisions about local services… (that) your achievements and positive contributions to society (are) recognised and celebrated. It wants you to speak up when you see negative media images and reporting that you think is unfair or unhelpful.’

This is an admirable aim and one I would always support, but sadly too often the basics of ensuring all young people believe in their own value are overlooked.

I was surprised when in a recent mock election at Teen Spirit members voted against lowering the voting age to 16. Many thought that they weren’t knowledgeable or experienced enough to take on the responsibility of picking the next government. I would argue they have not been encouraged to take part, that there has been little in place to support young people’s engagement in politics. Despite highly successful local authority youth mayor programmes, recent evaluation with the young people taking part illustrates my concerns: ‘It was acknowledged by participants that to play an active role in the Young Mayors scheme, a high level of self-confidence and motivation is required. Some of the young research participants also felt that it was the more popular young people who excelled in the scheme, for example one young person said ―’I think you need to know a lot of people and you need to have good connections so people tell people to vote for you and stuff like that’ 

This report, is the reason for the long-winded title. So often policy is focused on making the space for young people to be seen, heard and applauded, assuming there is a population of young people waiting for the stage and the audience to unleash their passions and opinions. It’s easier said than done. I would rather focus on building every young person’s confidence to a point where they can express their opinion to their peers, parents or carers. When I asked a group of 25 members who felt they had an adult in their life that listened to them, 4 people raised their hands. That’s not good enough. With the rise in youth unemployment since 2009 there is a real need to build the confidence of young people to believe they deserve a place in society and that they have something valuable to contribute.

The Infed website illustrates further the gaps in youth policy and specifically the Positive for Youth initiative, despite their claims and aims: ‘Local authorities are under no obligation to provide youth services, and given the government line is “where practically possible” this means many areas could be left with no effective provision. It is likely that the number of commercial organisations offering activities and experiences for young people will increase to respond to demand for those who can afford to pay for provision. The number of private organisations involved in National Citizen’s Service will increase’ Any decrease in free support services for young people would clearly further polarize those who are able to ‘speak out’ and those who are not familiar or confident enough to do so.

Figures released to BBC Radio 4 by The Department for Education outline the decrease in local authority spending on services like youth clubs and other out-of-school activities, which has accompanied the rise in youth unemployment and university fees. ‘The amount of money spent … in England has fallen by 36% in the past two years. Former children’s minister, Tory MP Tim Loughton, said the £438m reduction in spending was “disproportionate”.

This is why organisations like Body & Soul, youth charities supporting young people and the sadly decreasing local authority youth clubs are so badly needed. In our case, working with young people living with or closely affected by HIV, we know how the isolation, confusion, anxiety and pressures that all teenagers face can be exacerbated by ill health, caring responsibilities and bereavement. It is therefore the aim of Teen Spirit to not just make young peoples’ voices heard but to encourage them to believe they have something to say and supporting them to express it. Whether with health professionals, teachers, social workers, friends, partners, siblings or the bus driver to school, I hope members of Teen Spirit will feel they do have something to say. It should be heard by us all.

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