Putting Young People at the Centre of Scotland’s Future

Grant Costello, Member of the Scottish Youth Parliament

SYP celebrate the lowering of the voting age

SYP celebrate the lowering of the voting age

The 27th of June 2013 was the moment we’d been waiting for. As the Presiding Officer announced the successful passage of the Scottish Independence Referendum (Franchise) Bill, SYP (and our friends at NUS Scotland) were able to reflect on a successful campaign to give 16 and 17-year-olds the chance to vote in next year’s referendum.
Yet it was only a moment we took. Because with the end of the legislative process came the start of a new phase. We’d been given the chance to show young people deserved the faith placed in them by the Edinburgh Agreement.
We’ve argued effectively that young people are engaged in politics. We’ve been able to point to the 67,000 young people who voted in SYPs March national elections. We can point to the ESRC polling earlier this month which shows 69% of young people already plan to vote next September. But these are indicators. The real test will come on polling day. Whilst we believe lowering the voting age is a matter of principle, we’re aware if too few young people participate, it will make winning votes at 16 for all elections much much harder.
There are two key barriers to young people voting. The first is registration. Already it’s hard for young voters who are attainers to be registered, with parents often unaware that their children are eligible. Hopefully the full canvass for the young people’s register will make a difference. However, there will have to be significant work done to ensure every eligible young person is registered in time for 18 September next year.
The second challenge is even greater. The ESRC polling found only a third of young people felt they had enough information about the debate in order to make a decision. 57% say politics is too complex. Many of these young people won’t vote because they aren’t sure how to, or because they are confused about the issues.
For everyone involved in youthwork this is a huge opportunity. We have an enormously important issue which absolutely affects Scotland’s young people. But many of the young people we work with are those most likely to be deprived of their say. We shouldn’t let that happen. SYP intends to work across Scotland to provide information, guidance, and support for as many young Scots as possible. However, on our own there is a finite amount we can accomplish. That’s why it’s incumbent on everyone to work together to engage young people, to explain to them why voting matters, and to ensure as many young people as possible get involved.
Of course there is a final reason as well. Anyone involved in working with young people knows how amazing they are. By involving them in the referendum we make it more likely there is a better debate, a greater focus on the future, and hopefully a better decision. One of the instrumental benefits of democracy is that decisions are made by the broadest number of people, therefore making it more likely the decision is correct. Let’s make sure young people are part of that next September.


Sorry but SORI!

Gary Williams, Worker with Children and Young People, Scottish Methodist Church

Gary Williams

We asked for a head and shoulders shot!

Currently the context for third sector youth work in Scotland is probably more challenging than it has been in the last thirty years. The notion that youth work can demonstrate incredible ‘bang for the buck’ is much needed and the Social Return on Investment approach (SORI) seems to offer a helpful way forward in identifying the value of youth work. The idea that youth work stakeholders and funders can be enabled to identify proximal cash values in relation to the outcomes they value and require seems to make sense. Furthermore it would seem to hold true regardless of whether the stakeholder is an individual with needs or a custodian of a publically funded budget, a business donor, or the chief executive of a grant-making body. Almost all of these individuals are responsible in turn to local residents, voters, tax payers, trustees, business owners and shareholders. It appears to be a legitimate tool for the times.

There are some acknowledged areas of weakness within the approach, for example final SORI scores can’t really be compared across a range of organisations in order to find the highest performing or most ‘efficient’.

Despite these areas of acknowledged weakness, SORI seems to be regarded favourably and an increasing number of agencies appear to be adopting it, not only a pragmatic and necessary contextual response, but also as a means of evidencing organisational competence and efficiency.

However I want to suggest that the real problem with SORI is not in relation to weakness in design, but in fact is more about how it helps us to consider utility (based on achieving what is wanted or required), instead of worth.

Money is a medium of transaction. If we think about youth work in terms of transaction then there would seem to be a number of buyers and sellers in the market place. The budget holder for youth crime prevention in an area will seek a targeted, reliable and efficient intervention; a local church may live with a context which is less reducible in terms of outcomes for young people but its youth worker may still feel compelled to justify a salary and get ‘more spiritual young people committed to making a better world’, and a funder may want to know that self esteem has improved for young people on the margins.

When push comes to shove, what the budget holder wants is less crime, what the church wants is more spiritual young people and what the funder wants is improvement in the self esteem of young people in need. So what’s the problem? Isn’t this a symbiotic relationship with winners on all sides? It certainly looks like that on the surface but just imagine for a second that, for a mysterious and complex set of reasons, not one of these interventions worked; that is the outcome that was required did not happen. The conclusion which could be drawn is then that the intervention was worthless.

Now it’s hard for most of us to imagine a youth work process that is worthless as it’s an attack on our competence, and we are also becoming increasing adept at finding additional value in interventions beyond what might have been initially considered. Furthermore, the examples cited are deliberately provocative and simplified. But none the less, try to imagine somehow that you ended up with something which was in large measure volatile and incongruous and maybe even bleak! Now can we remember volatile and incongruous and bleak? A very small number of young people I have worked with have committed suicide, been murdered or gone on to commit violent crime. Was time spent with them worthless? Was it devoid of utility? Was it meaningless? I don’t want to write these things down as nil or negative returns as part of a wider SORI analysis. Sorry but no! Young people are worth more than that.


Alastair MacKinnon, Chief Executive of Fast Forward

“Everyone’s talking about it, everyone’s doing it!” says 15 year-old Darren. Two guesses about what he means…no, not sex, and not the demon drink! He’s been talking about the use of so-called ‘legal highs’ – that wide and ever-widening category of new psychoactive substances that have captured the media’s imagination. They are now lodged in many peoples’ perception as the drugs most commonly used by young people.

Last month the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drugs Addiction reported that there are 280 new legal drugs on sale in Europe. Last week the government announced a year-long ban on two “legal highs” – NBOMe and Benzo Fury while drugs experts assess their impact. NBOMe has an effect that is similar to LSD and Benzo Fury is said to act like amphetamines, such as speed.

The scale of the issue is immense. New legal highs and other synthetic drugs – mostly made in Asia – are appearing on the market at the rate of one a week.

Alongside the media frenzy that often accompanies awareness of a new or developing trend in drugs use, there has inevitably been a moral backlash with demands for a tightening of legislation and increased vigilance by the public. Some responses have been along these lines with a raft of amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act over recent years.

However, attempts to stem the tide of laboratory produced chemical substances that claim to mimic illegal drugs have seemed pretty futile as a response. The ease with which mass-produced and endlessly varying formulations get on to the market is staggering. The UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform reported on ‘legal highs’ earlier this year and they were pretty much of one voice in recognising that the current policy is failing. It might even be that the cycle of banning more and more substances simply increases the creativity and resolve of these dodgy chemists to produce more substances.

So, what should be our response to this as a sector engaged with young people, and as practitioners and agencies concerned to promote and protect the health and well-being of young people?

I venture tentatively into these murky waters as we know the debate is fraught with dangers of ‘moral certainty’ occasioned by panic, and the equally unattractive characteristic of adult hypocritical myopia. But I shall wade in.

I have been struck by the number of occasions in the last six months that the subject of ‘legal highs’ has come up in conversation. With fellow professionals – youth workers, teachers, medics, and police officers – there’s a huge interest in what they are, what they do, and what can be done to stop them. Often the subject of ‘risk’ has been raised.

“Do they not realise, what they’re doing! “, said the well-intentioned guidance teacher as she made clear to me that alcohol was “not as important for us (at the school)” and that ‘legal highs’ were “definitely on.” Oh really, that will be alcohol that kills over 300, 000 young people world-wide every year – or 9% of deaths in that age group.

Clearly then there is, at one level, an adult perception of risk that sees these substances as being in a different (though in many cases, legal) category to the risks that alcohol poses.

And, of course, the answer to that guidance teacher is “No, very often, they don’t understand the risks and it is increasingly obvious and important that we tackle the misguided belief that ‘legal drugs ‘are safer than illicit ones.”

And risk there certainly is. The most used legal highs, in our experience of older school-aged young people, falls into the synthetic cannabinoids category. These substances have cannabis-like effects but very often they are much more potent and the way they are sold risks users consuming quantities that would be unlikely with cannabis.

Young people often do not see that risk. And that’s probably no different from other aspects of risk taking that’s commonplace at this age – drinking too much, or mixing drink and ‘well-established’ illegal drugs. The attraction of the moment, the oblivion or the influence of peers can be overwhelming – and can many of us, as adults, identify with that? Probably.

But risk and risk taking behaviour is understood to be a healthy part of growing up, and our adult frame of reference of risk is, I’d suggest, often very different from that of the adolescent.

When these shiny new packets of ‘botanical incense’ ( a marketing ploy used by some legal high sellers) can be purchased in the centre of town from retail outlets that appear in many respects to be ‘legitimate’, who can blame a young person for thinking the risk is minimal?

But the reality is that there is no quality control, no dosage instructions, and no safety advice.

Marketing approaches have made these products seem like any other commodity – attractive packaging, with brand names that sound fun and risky – like Annihilation, Black Mamba (both of which recently became illegal), and Diablo. It’s very likely that this cynical and well-tested route to market of familiarisation and normalisation increases the perception of low risk for young people.

“It must be ok, if it’s legal”, and “they can’t sell it if it would hurt you”, may seem naïve to many of us, but it has a certain flawed logic. The attraction of legal highs, that can easily be bought without being ‘carded’ for your age, and that run no risk of you being embroiled in the criminal justice system, seem obvious when set alongside the less accessible and illegal substances that would vie for the attention of young people – most notably cannabis. But with easy availability on the high street, 100’s of websites selling this stuff and delivery to your door-step by post, it’s no wonder that their presence seems ubiquitous.

But please, let’s not forget that many young people do not use ‘legal highs’ , even if they are talking about them, and the attraction of the newest ‘cool ‘thing can equally hook us in as workers to believe that everything has changed. Sadly, some of the familiar issues around substance use remain well embedded in our culture.

The recent UNICEF UK Report card 11 reports a drop in the number of children in the UK who are overweight and records a fall in the numbers of young people smoking and using cannabis. Good news undoubtedly.

But alcohol abuse remains a major area of concern – with the rate staying stubbornly high for 11-15 year olds at around 20%.

I doubt if the public perception of risk is anything like as high for alcohol as that which seems to be around for the new kids on the block – the ‘legal highs’.

Whilst media attention and prevention activity may be skewed towards these new mysterious products there’s still a massive task to be done by all of us to tackle Scotland’s on-going destructive love affair with alcohol. That might not seem new and sexy, like the packets of chemicals that capture young peoples’ attention, but it’s crucial to the health and well-being of our young people and to the welfare of Scotland.

Furthering the franchise for future citizens

Lynne UriarteLynne Uriarte, Youth Development Office for yipworld.com

2014 is set to be a landmark year for Scotland with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, The Commonwealth Games, The Ryder Cup and most notably the Scottish independence referendum. The latter is dominating the media and will undoubtedly continue do so until the ballot takes place on 18th September 2014. The referendum will be the most important vote in Scotland in the past three centuries with the outcome of the vote potentially resulting in an overhaul of the current political landscape. The SNP have announced that the vote will be extended to those aged 16 and 17 years, a decision which has created a divide with supporters stating that this would be a seminal vote for Scottish democracy and those in opposition believing that it will result in catastrophic consequences.

Those aged 16 and 17 have the potential to play a valuable role in society in the form of engaging in employment, ability to get married and join the army. Therefore it seems wholly unjust to deny them the opportunity to make democratic decisions regarding their future. The younger generation will be most affected by the potential change in the political landscape thus surely their voice should be held as paramount. In this regard, it seems discriminatory that someone of 80 has the opportunity to be part of the decision making of the future of Scotland and deny those aged 16 and 17 as the future citizens and leaders of the country.

Further, including 16 and 17 year olds in the political process would provide an increased sense of belonging and pride in the country that they live in. The frequent negative portrayal and stereotyping of the youth in the media results in young people feeling excluded from the political sphere and increases apathy and disinterest from young people. If we educate and stimulate interest in the political process from an early age it would instil in them a lifelong interest in politics. This will result in a more democratic state as turnout will increase and thus the elected body will be more representative of society at large.

The standing that 16 and 17 year olds lack the required knowledge to be effective contributors to the democratic process has been put forward by those opposing the extending of the franchise. Yes, admittedly young people have not the benefit of life experience of the older generations, this fact we cannot change. We do however have the ability to change the fact that many of our young people are reaching adulthood without even a basic knowledge of the politics of their country and the realisation of the far reaching implications that it has on their daily lives. Perhaps the recognition of this gap in our education system could pave the way for change in the form of equipping young people with the necessary knowledge to allow them to take an informed and responsible role in the democratic process. The Educational Institute of Scotland (EiS) has expressed its overwhelming support for the extending of the vote and enshrines the two key principles of the Curriculum of Excellence of effective contributors and responsible citizens. Given the appropriate education there is no reason as to why those aged 16 and 17 are not capable of making as valuable a contribution to the political process as those of more advanced years. We need to empower our young people and reassure them of their role in our society. Moreover, when an individual turns 18 are they suddenly blessed with a wealth of political knowledge? I think not. Further what is to say a 16 year old is any less political aware of someone in their 30’s or 40’s? Age does not necessarily yield superiority.

Opponents argue that the SNP have extended the vote as a political expedient for the referendum stating that young people are more likely to favour independence than the older generations. However, according to research carried out this week by the University of Edinburgh and documented by the BBC this claim has little basis. Of a total of 1,018 young people aged 14-17 years questioned on whether they supported independence, the outcome of the study saw 60.3% in opposition to independence. The reliability of such research cannot be viewed as conclusive and only the referendum will expose the true picture.
Those contesting the decision to extend the vote further aver that the timing of the election in a year when individuals will undoubtedly have an increased feeling of being patriotic. Cynics argue that if there was a true commitment to engage the young in the political process then the extension would be applicable to all elections.

Whether a ploy by the SNP or a genuine commitment to engage young people in politics, we should regard this an opportunity to encourage our young people to take an active participatory role in the decision making process and reassure them that they can be the change that they want to see in the world.