The what and why of youth participation

Participation, engagement and involvement are popular terms, and whilst there are differences in the meaning of them there is also a lot of overlap. They are all associated with the importance of involving wider groups of people in decisions, services and design, especially those that impact directly upon them, such as the recipients of a service, e.g. healthcare, policing and education.

What is youth participation?

Youth participation is often used interchangeably with the term ‘active involvement’. This means more than simply taking part in an activity. It refers specifically to the involvement in the process of identifying needs, exploring solutions, making decisions and planning action within communities and organisations that seek to support civil society.

In relation to young people, youth participation is often regarded as the involvement of young people in decisions that are made that affect them. However many people believe that young people should be treated as citizens now (as opposed to the citizens of the future) and should be involved in all decisions that are made about the community and society in which they live.

There is a hierarchy to be aware of here, and Hart’s Ladder of Participation is commonly referred to, but a simpler model is the ‘telling – selling – supporting – supervising’ model.  If you find you spend most of your time either telling or selling to young people what to do and how they should be, then that’s not participation.  Youth practitioners must actively support young people’s sense of ownership, making real decisions and taking positive action. The ultimate aim of which is to develop the opportunities, creating the skills, experience and confidence for young people to take responsibility for themselves, informing and influencing directly on the decisions that impact upon them and their communities.

Why have youth participation?

There are many reasons for involving young people actively in decision-making, here are just four:

  • it is young people’s right to be involved and have their voice heard in decisions that will impact on them. This right is enshrined in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, article 12;
  • participation of all citizens is essential to a healthy democratic society. This obviously includes the participation of young people. This is a particularly relevant reason given the context of declining engagement of young people with the traditional political processes
  • improved, better targeted and more effective services and projects. By involving young people in the planning and management, services can remain relevant and effective as they are based on young people’s reality as opposed to a professional’s perceptions
  • skills development for young people. Young people (in fact any people) can gain a huge amount of confidence from seeing their opinions and experiences valued and directly contribute to positive change in their community. Many skills are also developed which can directly lead to improved educational performance and better prospects of gaining employment in the future.

A little word about student voice?

Student or pupil voice is a term often used meaning the engagement of young people in the decision making processes of their schools.  However this popular term doesn’t correctly elicit the fundamental requirements for effective youth participation and engagement.  The term would appear to suggest that it is enough to simply provide the opportunity for young people to voice their opinions, which may either be ignored or acted upon by adults.

This is a mistake that many schools and youth services make.  They provide the opportunity for young people, often a select few, to engage in decisions which don’t really impact on the work, focus or direction of the organisation, for example, the toilets, the decor, uniform, food, outings, etc.  This tokenism may look good on paper, and might even tick all the relevant Ofsted boxes, but it only begins to touch on the four reasons for participation as stated above.  Additionally this approach will often lead to disillusionment, despondency and distrust, which can prove extremely hard to correct.

The introduction of effective youth participation must include a cultural shift in the institution, with genuine, active and vocal support from the top.  Rigorous structures and systems must be put in place, seeking to include everyone in the school at all levels of decision making, including Governors.  It is amazing how many schools begin on this long journey by writing their student voice aims into their three year school development plan, whilst failing to engage any of the young people at these early stage.

For more information read my 15 top tips for effective school councils

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