18 November 2013

Monday 18 November

Taken from a blog originally written for Changing London (http://www.change-london.org.uk/a-positive-vision-for-young-londoners/)

London should already be the best city in the world to be young; improving schools, thriving diversity, world-class art and sport, an economy growing strongly, one of the greenest cities on the planet. Even in recession, spending on youth employment, education and child health is well into the billions.

And there is no limit to young people’s ambition, creativity and potential. Loads of young people do really well with the support of dedicated parents, teachers and youth workers, despite facing a range of challenges.

Yet many young Londoners would not identify with the picture above. When a group of young people were presented with these facts just last week, they made clear this was not how their reality feels and that they are angry. They live in a series of interconnected villages; White City or London Fields or Streatham Hill, with little access to what else is on offer. I recently met a girl in Leyton who, what with caring for younger siblings, had never had the opportunity to get into town and see the Thames. And a group of black young men on the Tulse Hill estate, for whom the idea of a job is a million miles from their expectation of the future; they’ve been statistically predicted to be unemployed from an early stage in their education.

We often look for one big idea – the next game-changing initiative (preferably with a catchy brand). But the reality is that to make London the best city in the world to grow up in is far simpler in concept – and infinitely more complicated in implementation than finding the magic bullet policy idea. We already know what works – we know it in the way the wealthy invest in their public school system and young people know it whenever asked what they need; consistent positive adult support, a positive (and fun) peer group and access to opportunities to develop their confidence and skills.

So what could a great Mayor of London do?

Provide a meaningful, positive vision for young Londoners: every aspiring politician likes to talk about their vision. But for too many young people it often just feels like words they have heard before. Young people care about their health, their careers and their communities and deserve support to make the best of them. A great Mayor of London would recognise the challenges and concerns of young people, and truly involve them in a positive plan of action for the future. This vision wouldn’t start from tackling the negatives, of crime, disadvantage and anti-social behaviour, important as they are. Instead it would start with asking young people who and what they want to be; and then building their confidence to make positive choices, access opportunities, and make new ones where they don’t exist.

Hold all agencies in London working with children and young people accountable to this full vision, not just their areas of expertise: Institutions need to stop being individually held to account for ‘their bit’ of a young person’s development – health or exam results – and start taking a joint responsibility for the rounded success of young people. A strong Mayor could focus those agencies working with young people and hold all of them to account on a clear vision of developing confident, resilient, employable, healthy and socially responsible citizens. In Streatham, a GP surgery is now collocating with a youth club to make sure young people have easy access; and Spotlight Youth Centre in Tower Hamlets now has the local Langdon Park School delivering services within it. There are many great examples like these but often not joined up with what is going on further down the street. A strong Mayor could really incentivise, showcase and scale up this approach.

Invest in and value the professionals and volunteers working with young people: The quality of children and young people’s services will ultimately come down to the strength of the people who are working with them face to face; yet youth workers, for example, are in poorly paid and insecure roles with little investment in their personal development. The notion of joint accountability outlined above extends to people as well as place; and if the teachers, youth workers, health professionals and police in any local community are trained together, with real investment in their own capability and shared purpose, then they would better serve the young people in that community.

Ensure young people themselves are part of this conversation and involved in the design and leadership of the services they access. Young people tell me constantly that they want to be part of the solution to the challenges facing London – not seen as one of the problems. There are a hundreds of examples of young people doing positive things in their communities every week.  A group of young unaccompanied migrants at Project Dost in Newham are currently organising an intergenerational project with a local old people’s home. Young men on the Build-it project in Lambeth are volunteering to practically improve social housing on their estate. Yet there is a disconnect between young people’s intrinsic passion for changing things and their ability to connect and see relevance to formal political structures; and this is why they are angry. We need genuine outreach and support for young people to develop and define what kind of politics is needed for the rest of the 21st Century. In the meantime, the Mayor must embed and involve people meaningfully in the existing political structures including the governance of City Hall.

Inspire and reward other business, sports and cultural institutions to make access for children and young people a priority: Being genuinely inclusive means going to where young people are, not waiting for them to come to you, and working with them to understand and design their involvement in a way that builds their confidence and skills to access things independently in the future. While there are many organisations doing great work, particularly some football clubs, arts organisations and larger employers (Marks and Spencers, for example, are working with charity Gingerbread to prepare and provide flexible work for young parents), the Mayor should have a role in championing and scaling up these approaches.

As I said, none of this is a magic bullet. These suggestions are less about what we do and more about how we do them. For London to be the best city in the world to grow up we need to change the way we think about the children  and young people growing up here; trust, support and challenge them and give them a real stake in the future of this brilliant capital city.

We need a mayor with a strong vision and commitment to children and young people and the drive and passion to follow through on that.