Regrades, masks and returning to school – who’s asking the students?

James Cathcart
Friday, August 28, 2020

‘Algorithms’ ‘U-turn’ and ‘sorry’ are just a few of the words associated with the exam re-grading debate as the airwaves hummed with analysis and questions.

Then it’s back to school – to mask or not to mask, that is the question. But not one being put to students.

Young people have played their part in amplifying the grading/regrading issue on social media and through street demonstrations. They’ve told their personal stories and successfully called for a rethink. Erin Bleakley, a 17-year-old from Glasgow, was one of the first to take action at the start of August, by writing a passionate, well-prepared and very polite letter to the Scottish Education Secretary over the unfairness of the examination grading process in Scotland. She suggested to John Swinney that a “re-evaluation of the approach...would be a huge step forward.” She went on to organise a street protest by students in Glasgow to mobilise support. She was one of several young people in Scotland and elsewhere, writing, walking and subsequently exercising the ‘power of youth.’ Nina Mitcham, an A level student from Peterborough, was more forthright with the schools minister, Nick Gibb, on BBC Radio 2. “You have ruined my life!” after her assessed ‘A’s were downgraded to ‘D’s, denying her a place in veterinary college.

When John Swinney announced the Scottish government's change of policy, he acknowledged Erin’s and other young people’s influence on his decision. “I watched the pictures of the spirited, articulate young people demonstrating in George Square on Friday. I have spoken directly to pupils who wrote to me...I have listened and the message is clear. They do not just want an apology. They want to see this fixed and that is exactly what I will now do.”

It’s difficult to measure the effectiveness of the ‘power of youth’ but this is a great example of it being plugged in and connected. We have heard feedback to young people about the impact of their words and actions. Its a “you said – we did” statement. It is just the sort of direct acknowledgement that must become the everyday test of meaningful youth participation in decision-making. It is the sort of recognition many in power avoid for fear of encouraging lobbyists, but feedback is an essential test of whether youth voices are welcomed and heard.

Diana Barran, who shares the role of youth minister with a range of other responsibilities at the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) recently restated her commitment to youth participation in government: “We want the next generation to be actively at the heart of our decision-making.” This contrasts with the recent behaviour at the Department for Education and its associated arms-length bodies, and there certainly does not appear to be as much influence on policies as when the role of youth minister was embedded in the education department.

I wonder if, for example, young people are being consulted on the issues around returning to school – such as the wearing of facemasks? Harry Twohig, #youthvoice champion and former member of the youth steering group at DCMS took to social media to ask “why do only adults get to ask questions about returning to school. It’s just completely illogical...just talk to us about the things that impact us.”

Young people, many of whom are too young to vote (perhaps because they are too young to vote) systemically have less power and influence - yet their needs are just as great, their questions relevant and the views just as valid. Indeed Articles 12 and 13 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child enshrines their right to be heard and taken seriously – though they don’t set a test for what ‘seriously’ means.

As we move forward, a new-normal set of priorities should include putting the interests and representation of young people much higher up the nation’s agenda. Young people’s voices need to be heard at the head not just the heart of decision-making, with acknowledged influence and not just a hearing. The power of youth needs to be plugged in to get flowing to the places it needs to reach to effect change.

This will require something of a culture shift in attitudes towards young people not just by the decision-makers but by allies and supporters. The media are significant ‘brokers’ in taking this forward, and as I detect a shift in the balance of their coverage. Such effort will need to be matched by a much better response from decision-makers, especially in government, with equal access to high level points of contact that are already enjoyed by more powerful interest groups in society. Perhaps it is time to renew calls for a coordinating cabinet-level minister of youth affairs to chair a committee of ministers and to provide a focal point for youth voice to be channelled to the relevant departments.

I expect there will be a review of how decisions are being made during the Covid crisis, but will it be one that acknowledges youth voice was marginalised? Will it address this by empowering them to tell their stories, ask questions and represent their perspective, perhaps ensured by the inclusion of youth representatives on the review board?

The power of youth needs all the plugs it can get, to turn up the volume of youth voice so that it can be heard despite the mask, and by a wider audience.

James Cathcart, director, Young Voices Heard


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