Young leaders want local solutions for a better welfare state

February 17, 2021   By Chloë Darlington, Children England

When Children England asked young people to lead their own inquiry into how to create a welfare state that’s fair for children, they focused on local community-led solutions. Chloe Darlington looks at their ideas, from community health hubs to school community days.

When we started a youth-led inquiry into the welfare state, and what a more child-centred state would look like, we didn’t have an obvious category for local issues.

The welfare state is national by design. It aims to provide uniform support to a ‘system-shaped citizen’ (to paraphrase Frank Cottrell Boyce’s idea of school-shaped children) wherever they live.

Of course, when we started we had no idea how much more time we’d all be spending locally. How children and young people would be pushed to reflect on what they had loved, lost and wanted to change about their local support networks.

In the ‘tree’ visualisation of the welfare state we created, we knew we needed a neighbourhoods ‘branch’. This was important to create a space to talk about both the physical spaces children grow up in and their lack of power in many communities. Our young leaders might want to talk about more green spaces and how to get a seat at the local council’s table.

Meeting for the first time in October 2019, the young leaders brought together a wide array of life experiences that would qualify them as an expert team more effectively than any set of academic qualifications.

Some common ideas quickly emerged. Positive ideas of the welfare state such as accessibility, universality and our beloved NHS, which they felt was an under-resourced gem. But also frustration at the de-humanising consequences of national systems:

  • The punitive benefits regime that cannot see individual families’ needs
  • The bureaucracy that makes accessing help stressful
  • The transactional relationship between students and teachers who are judged by a national measurement scheme, not by the quality of their classroom relationships.

Our young leaders valued the interdependence of people and services, and lamented the power imbalance between their communities and politicians making the big decisions.

Our young leaders’ research

Feeling that the pandemic only made their development of a new vision for welfare more important, the Young Leaders moved their research interviews and workshops online last March.

They spoke to children and young people with as many different experiences as possible, and asked us to help them reach even further when they felt their first round of research had missed certain groups – children in rural communities, for example, and children whose families had migrated to England. They generated hundreds of discussions about how our youngest citizens are experiencing housing, health, social security, education and their local communities.

Their findings on the theme of ‘neighbourhoods’ are a rich insight into young people’s day-to-day lives.

Key issues children and young people would like to change:

  • Many young people feel unsafe when they go out, and don’t have public spaces they can relax in
  • Widespread lack of accessible design in streets, venues and transport
  • Lack of community cohesion and disempowerment caused by inequalities

Children and young people’s priorities:

  • Children and young people hugely value community and a sense of belonging
  • Young people need a voice in decisions about their neighbourhood
  • Public spaces and events to build relationships, exchange ideas and enjoy nature

The desire for community cohesion is tangible across respondents of all ages – right from 9 to 21. It comes through in the negative:

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘belonging’… it just feels like one long road, it’s not based around religious places or community centre, there doesn’t feel like a community.”

And in the positive:

“People in my neighbourhood, they’re all really friendly and the road where I used to live, they used to shut off the road once a week so the kids could play in the road which I thought was pretty nice.”

Scattered through responses was the fear that community initiatives and inter-generational relationships are dwindling, both over the past few years and as the response to the pandemic fades.

Young people do not simply want to consume or depend on their neighbourhood’s resources: they want equity and agency. They currently feel that they have little power, both because of their age and their economic status, with decisions being made by wealthy older people.

Young leaders’ local solutions

It’s telling that our Young Leaders, having analysed findings across education, housing and the rest of the ‘tree’, are developing proposals rooted in local approaches. For example:

  • Every neighbourhood should have a ‘Community Health Hub’ which is designed and staffed by local people. The hub would be a base for outreach by community health workers, a centre for universal, non-stigmatising services for all, and a channel for NHS records so that no one needs to repeat their story and everyone can expect consistent treatment. It would include early help for mental health , designed by young people, and available according to need, not rationing.
  • Schools should be physical and educational hubs for the community, opening their facilities seven days a week for a broad, flexible curriculum including practical projects, that local volunteers can contribute to. Students should have a ‘Community Day’ once a week for projects beyond the school gates.
  • Co-produced, community-owned social housing sites should be developed, with homes designed around people’s needs and amenities such as childcare, public green spaces and youth spaces that provide support for young people to move into independent living.
  • Streets, transport and venues should be designed accessibly, with support available so young people with disabilities can participate in community life. Young people should be represented in all council policy design. Even the social security system could be “a nationwide equivalent of a family providing emotional, social and financial help”.

Our Young Leaders’ visions build on one respondent’s description of their youth service:

“The centre helps us exercise our human rights, to feel safe, and we might not always have equality outside, but we’ll always have that at the centre.”

As one of our Young Leaders proposed, all young people should be able to feel “safe, heard, respected and included”.

It’s not enough that children and young people experience belonging and agency at their local youth centre. They should experience it in all relationships – with the state and within their community.

Our Young Leaders see the model of the local ‘centre’ or hub as vital to that – in bringing generations together; in facilitating transparency and sharing information; in breaking down silos between specialisms; and in putting ‘welfare’ into the hands of people so that it is valued as a collective good, not a stigmatising dependency.

Taking these ideas forward

The values on which our Young Leaders have built their ideas for a ‘ChildFair’ welfare state are values we’d all benefit from: citizenship, neighbourliness, interdependence, and valuing lived experience.

This hugely motivated and inspiring group of young people are continuing to develop their ideas into resources for policy and practice change, at local and national level. They’ve been clear since their first meeting that they want their work to be a live discussion, complementing other initiatives and campaigns.

As we help them to create a conversation around their visions for change, they would love to hear from people involved in local services and systems. Why not get in touch to arrange a meeting and hear from the Young Leaders themselves?

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