Invite young people to the table - they won't bite

Maggie Atkinson
Monday, December 12, 2011

As I prepare to consult on the Office of the Children's Commissioner's 2012-13 business plan, I'm back from a weekend with the people I consulted first: my children and young people's advisory board, "Amplify".

They’re aged nine to 18, from all over England and have a variety of backgrounds. They tell it like it is.

They know they’re neither writing the plan, nor uprooting our emerging ideas to demand that we start our thinking all over again. But they want to be involved early on to ensure that their voices and views – and our duty to promote and protect the rights of the child – are central to all we do.

As 2011 draws to a close, there have been plenty of reflections on who was really involved in the August disturbances, and why; while youth unemployment and its mind-wearying consequences are starting to hit home.

Young people’s opinions

My own reflections are shaped by another year of listening to what children, young people and adults who work with them have said to me. They are also influenced by the fact that Friday, 16 December, is the 20th anniversary of Prime Minister John Major signing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child on the UK’s behalf, putting his name and our promises into an international human rights treaty that was then only two years old.  

The convention makes our pledges – yours and mine – to everybody under 18. So, if I may be so bold, here’s a ready-made New Year’s resolution for you: go and learn what it promises and make its articles live in your policy and your practice.  

How are we actually doing on the convention?  It’s a mixed picture, as the report in November from the four UK children’s commissioners to our governments made clear. In a 21st century Western democracy, we should be prepared to shine the brightest, most honest and cleansing light on what we do for our children and young people. Not just by testing the services we offer them, but by ensuring the reality of the invitation when we ask them to come to the table whenever any and all decisions are made about their lives.

This right to a say in these decisions, this "doing nothing about them without them," lies at the core of the convention. Try as critics might to deny it, the UNCRC is a fully-fledged international human rights instrument, and the UK is a state party to and therefore bound by it.  Indeed, it is covered by international rules that make it binding on all public bodies. Simple soul as I am, I dare to say we should judge all they do against it.  

Too often, children and young people of all ages, some in dire circumstances visited on them by the adults in their lives, tell me they are informed about decisions – including those made in their interests – when their views were at best tokenistic or peripheral. Would you put up with that? No? Then why should they?

My Amplify advisory board told me again:  children and young people are not waiting for the citizenship bus to pick them up when it deems they are old enough to take their seats. They are citizens, on the journey, now. They want to exercise their citizenship. The question therefore as we look into 2012, is this: "What’s so scary, and still so provocative of mass media angst, in wanting something as natural as that?"

Dr Maggie Atkinson is the Children’s Commissioner for England

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