These are extremely 'initial' reflections on two great workshops run last week by Children England and the RSA with children from four of their academy schools.

Our shared purpose for the sessions was to find out what the children see as the great social ills facing the welfare state today (compared with Beveridge's want; disease; ignorance; squalor; and idleness) and what they thought the solutions might be. But before we put the main findings into the context of our respective wider pieces of work - which for us is the ChildFair State Inquiry - I wanted to note down some general and cross-cutting observations about the way children discussed and felt about these social issues, which might have implications for how we re-design the welfare state and how we empower younger generations to shape society.

To give an idea of what sort of issues were under discussion, here is the 'long list' agreed over the two workshops, which were later voted down to six issues with a wider group of students.

  1. Mental health
  2. Homelessness
  3. Environment
  4. Knife crime / violence
  5. Technology (including social media) 
  6. Child abuse
  7. Family financial problems
  8. Bullying
  9. Attitudes towards young people
  10. Health problems
  11. Brexit

A sense of agency and optimism

The age range of the children in our sessions was 8 - 18. We didn’t tell them, when we asked them to brainstorm the major issues facing society, that we were later going to ask what they thought the solutions were. But when it came to prioritising the issues they all wanted to see on a list of ‘great social ills’, an unexpected reasoning emerged: they wanted to concentrate on the things they could act on themselves, rather than the few that they didn’t feel they had power to affect. And when discussing individual problems, from mental health to climate change, every child and young person’s first thoughts were of the many actions they and their communities could take.

I often worry that we’re responsibilising young people – not only with the various drives for volunteering and resilience (not to mention depriving them of equal pay, protection and welfare support until they’re into their 20s) – but through the very act of asking them to think about social problems not of their making. But their ideas for local campaigns, fundraising and peer-to-peer support seemed to stem from feelings of power and optimism – not obligation.

 

Generosity

Linked to their sense of agency, everyone in the groups (especially the youngest!) had a generous reaction to local problems. They were ready to share their time, money, empathy and skills. They also had a generous view of their communities – both what their communities were capable of and what the motivations of older people might be. And that’s despite their feeling that adults often had negative, stereotyped views of younger people and would rather impose their own opinions on the younger generation than listen to young people’s own views. Many are involved in running projects to benefit the neighbourhoods around their schools and recognise not only the benefits to other people and the environment, but to themselves through intergenerational activities.

They weren’t letting the state off the hook though – they expect similar generosity on a national level, including more leadership on internet regulation and more central investment in scientific research for diseases like dementia.

 

Inequality

This wasn’t a term used by any of the young people but it could be used to summarise their concerns about an increasing number of people not having enough to get by. They described issues like homelessness and family financial problems in terms that suggested a tide rising inexorably, with more and more people lacking the basics to get by through no fault of their own. This was one of the few areas where they didn’t see the solutions lying with themselves and their communities and I wonder if, had we had more time to explore potential solutions, they would have identified a need for national, structural change in addition to all the local help they were so ready to give.

 

Big v. bad issues

This is my instinctive sense that there were two different reasons for children feeling certain issues were important. One was that an issue affected so many people it ought to be addressed – a ‘big’ issue. The other was that, while an issue might or might not be widespread, it was simply so wrong it should never happen – a ‘bad’ issue. I think they would put child abuse in this latter category. Knife crime, sadly, seemed to be crossing the line from remote to real. For young people at one school, knife crime was happening often, close to home. For children at another, it was a tragic but more distant issue. Both teachers and students at a third school were still in shock from the murder of a young man locally – the area’s first experience of knife crime.

  

Nuanced debate

Lest we assume children’s views are polarised, or co-opt them for reductive policy-making, I want to note how nuanced the opinions and discussions were. Aside from one or two ‘bad’ issues where their calls were for fairly unilateral and authoritarian responses, all the discussions appreciated how social issues change over time, with various causes and effects and potential solutions. The children listened to each other and altered their views when they heard persuasive information from each other (is it only adults who struggle to do that?!).

A particularly good example is their discussion of technology, which is worth citing because it’s so often characterised in national debate as either a panacea or curse. I can’t do justice to the full debate here, but hopefully the paraphrased list of views below will show you how rich an understanding of technology the children and young people had:

  • Technology has become hugely beneficial in education for most children, but in doing so has created a new type of inequality for children whose families or schools don’t have access to it
  • The vast, unregulated landscape of the internet makes it a democratic space, but also a ‘wildwest’ (to use the NSPCC’s metaphor) for hackers, bullies, fake news and election-influencing that undermines safety and democracy
  • Social media started off friendlier and more positive, but has changed over time to exert a lot of pressure over young people, with the most popular ‘influencers’ having a potentially unhealthy amount of power over followers’ views and self-perceptions
  • One group suggested that while use of communication apps like WhatsApp were helping children learn informal styles of communication very quickly and effectively, they would actually prefer to have been taught the formal styles of communication that will help them find and do a job, for example, before they got so used to social media
  • Age-inappropriate games and films that parents and grandparents don’t / can’t restrict their children’s access to can have unhealthy effects on children’s attitudes
  • Toys in general are becoming very tech-based and some of the younger children expressed a preference for old-fashioned toys – ‘teddies without screens in their tummies’

 

We’ll reflect more on the content of the workshops and feed it into the ChildFair State analysis soon, but for the now I think we can rest assured that children and young people have ambitious expectations of themselves and their society, and we would be doing them a huge injustice not to match their optimism and sense of potential by putting our own power to good use.