Days after 17-year old Paris Brown was appointed the first youth crime commissioner in Kent, she landed in hot water over comments she had posted on Twitter. The tweets, all posted when she was between 14 and 16, were at the least reckless and insensitive.
For many, including the raft of journalists who took a keen interest, the comments were foul-mouthed, racist and homophobic, and her behaviour was simply unacceptable for someone in public office. Paris duly resigned in April.
I’m sure I am not alone, especially among teachers who routinely involve young people in their school’s decision-making, in feeling some sympathy for Paris. When we involve young people, we should expect the unexpected. We know from experience that when we involve young people in our work we should be prepared for them to make comments that jar with our adult viewpoints, as well as providing refreshing honesty and unexpected insights.
We need to invest time as we start working with young people to understand where they are coming from and to develop their understanding of the expectations of such roles, and Paris’s story certainly shouldn’t discourage us from seeking young people’s participation. There are any number of school councils where students make a positive contribution to the running of their school.
Their involvement provides a crucial element in tackling bullying for example, or implementing changes to school uniforms, providing healthy and appealing choices on the lunch menu, and even playing a part in the selection of teaching staff. However, as with taking on any role in life they need support and guidance to understand the role and ensure they can give their best.
Beyond the school, there is much to be gained from seeking young people’s perspectives. Of the many initiatives that I come across, two recent examples stand out. First, is the work of a group know as VIPER (Voice, Inclusion, Participation, Empowerment, Research). It comprises disabled young people aged 12 to 24 who have, for three years, been researching whether and how disabled young people have a say in how the health and social care services they use are run, designed and commissioned. They found that those with disabilities face significant barriers preventing them from having a voice, and too often participation is tokenistic.
Second, is a group of adopted children who have been recruited as young inspectors by Calderdale Council. They have been looking at how local services could be improved, contributing to training for adopters and creating guidance for children.
What both these projects underline is that children are experts in their own lives. When we tap into this expertise we add a new dimension to our work, while giving young people a valuable chance to demonstrate their growing maturity.
How much trust we are willing to place in young people’s opinions will be a question of some significance in the run-up to August 2014, when the referendum on Scottish independence seems likely to allow 16 and 17-year-olds the vote. Scotland’s deputy first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, recently said: “No-one has a bigger stake in the future of our country than today’s young people and it is only right that they are able to have a say.”
This seems a very credible reason for extending the mandate to those aged 16 and 17 in all UK elections. Critics that accuse children of lacking the understanding and maturity to take on responsibilities like the vote will no doubt take comfort from cases where things go wrong, like the unfortunate instance of Paris, without recognising the valuable contributions young people make in all sorts of ways, day-in, day-out. Children are ready to rise to the challenge, if we are ready to properly support them in the process.
Dr Hilary Emery is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk