Young people are experts about young people, and their voices should stop being ignored, writes Lois Rance
Have you heard young people complain they aren’t consulted on issues that matter to them?
That they feel overlooked, ignored and disempowered?
If not, I suggest you aren’t asking the right questions ̶ or perhaps you aren’t listening closely enough.
Since November 2021 I’ve been part of a network of 16- to 20-year-olds, working with people aged ten to 21 living in different regions of England, and coming from all walks of life.
I was among 45 people conducting a research project between November 2021 and January 2022.
We spoke to 209 ten- to 21-year-olds over six regions: north-east and Cumbria; north-west; Yorkshire and Humber; Midlands; London, south-east and east; and south-west.
Overall, we found young people want better support for and awareness of mental health issues. They are concerned about poverty and inequality. They want greater access to opportunities and local facilities and they want help staying safe.
These issues are interconnected, because addressing one would lead to improvements across all areas. That’s something I hadn’t thought about before doing this research.
Of the young people I spoke to personally, many were concerned about the lack of support for “low-level” mental health worries and the long waiting lists to access professional services.
Over the past couple of years, I have seen the positive impact of my education provider’s investment in mental health support, both for myself and my peers.
Unfortunately, I learned this is an anomaly and not the norm, and students living just a few miles away have little to no access to such services.
Participants also highlighted that professional mental health support is needed by increasingly younger students.
I can’t imagine that we would have heard these comments with traditional research approaches.
The outcome of our research was a publication called The Youth-led Peer Research synthesis report and regional outputs (coordinated by The Young Foundation, with funding from The National Lottery Community Fund).
Peer research is authentic because it’s led by “experts by experience”. The average FE student is far more likely to speak openly and honestly with me than they are with a university academic ̶ especially when discussing sensitive issues, such as mental health.
The average FE student is far more likely to speak honestly with me
I am able to provide a comfortable environment in which the participant feels they can express their views without judgment or fear of “saying the wrong thing”.
That means we can increase our understanding of youth priorities. The results of this research are already being shared.
By listening to young people and finding out how they think, England could be a better place. We can inform decisions in future through speaking with funders, education and youth organisations about the findings.
In terms of myself, running this research has helped my confidence grow exponentially. I have gone from being unsure whether to ‘unmute’ on the initial regional training sessions, to presenting my ideas and experiences to The National Lottery Community Fund’s England leadership team.
The skills I learnt in questioning, pitching the right tone, and working in a team (as well as safeguarding and GDPR training) will be invaluable.
Please remember that students’ ideas are worth listening to. We might have less experience in this world than the adults making policy, but we are experts at being young people ̶ and we know exactly what issues England’s youths are facing right now.
We want a seat at the table to discuss the big issues so education leaders, policymakers and young people can come up with meaningful solutions together.