The Hay Festival is always a great calendar entry: wonderful setting, fascinating talks, and an interested, thoughtful audience ready to discuss key issues. The festival also provided the opportunity for us to launch Nominet Trust’s new £2m social investment programme to fund new ideas for using digital technology to improve young people’s economic and social participation.
To discuss the issues that we’re looking to address through this funding, we hosted a panel session with the wonderful UK Youth. Chaired by Martyn Lewis (Chair of Youthnet and NCVO) a great panel made up of Emma Mulqueeny (CEO of Young Rewired State), Josh Cope (Youth Participation Officer at UK Youth), Shaun Bailey (conservative politician and youth worker) and Simon Milner (Head of UK Policy Facebook) sparked a great response and questions from the audience.
The themes of the debate mirrored the four key areas that underpin our investment programme.
Area 1: Digging deeper into the problems and addressing the root causes
It’s not difficult to construct a list of youth policy challenges - unemployment, social exclusion, political disengagement – but addressing these issues requires action from both young and old, as Shaun Bailey commented ‘young people need to show commitment, willingness and drive to create their own ‘personal legend’, adults need to help them find the opportunities’. To do this, it’s important to ensure we really understand the challenges and opportunities facing us. Resources such as the one being developed by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (which will allow users to compare the educational, employment and personal circumstances of young adults in every neighbourhood across England) might be useful in highlighting opportunities and then tailoring interventions accordingly.
But it also shows the significant challenges faced: young people from Middlesbrough are ten times more likely to be unemployed as those from wealthy Wokingham. Compared to the average, those from Middlesbrough are almost three times as likely to be unemployed. Only 1% of young people from Kingston Upon Hull go to a Red Brick University compared to 34% of those from Wimbledon. Lay that data on top of the well known context of over 1 million young people unemployed (including 260,000 for more than a year) – and finding those opportunities in traditional ways becomes even more challenging. It highlights the importance of digging deeper into the problems, using data and co-design to inform and shape new ways of addressing these challenges.
Area 2: Exploring the changing landscape and the nature of engagement
Our investment programme starts from an asset-based approach, rather than a deficit model – recognising that young people are active in communities, just not necessarily the traditional communities that we often think of. The support peer group of Beatbullying is an incredible example of a strong community of young people and although to many this is an unseen community, it is of vital importance and value to those involved. In the debate, Josh Cope highlighted that ‘young people are already engaged, just not in the way older people necessarily recognise’. Similarly young people have a range of experiences, skills and competencies that aren’t often recognised. In making this point, Josh highlighted how important it is to understand how we can make visible the skills and expertise that young people have and how we can help adults to understand the value of these activities.
Area 3: Renegotiating professional practice
Finding the best way of supporting young people doesn’t necessarily require tools directly used by them. It’s important to think about the changing roles of teachers, youth workers and other ‘intermediary roles’ that support our young people and to consider how they can develop new ways of working. It’s important not to polarise the debate and see this solely as criticising existing practice (and practitioners) but to recognise that supporting young people requires an evolving role: as the context and needs of young people shifts, so too must the support provided. Emma Mulqueeny expressed that ‘teachers need support in helping young people become ‘digital citizens’. Teachers are experts in curating the classroom yet other organisations and people can help with resources, content and approaches.’ Teachers don’t need to be experts in technology, but they need to be able to facilitate classrooms as young people engage with those experts. Similarly not all youth workers need to move their support online like Youthnet but exploring how on and offline worlds merge grows in significance.
Area 4: New forms of employment and reward
The importance of making and creating, and how such activity is rewarded provides another link between the investment programme and the discussion at Hay, with Shaun Bailey urging that ‘happiness needs to be found in production, not consumption’. The importance of making, with, and through technology is growing for economic and social reasons, and Simon Milner was clear that ‘not everyone needs to be a coder, but everyone needs to know about and understand the web’.
The digital world offers incredible opportunities to make: from being a content producer to creating apps for good (in fact we’re developing a programme with Nesta to extend these opportunities and activities). Clearly learning how to code is an important skill for some (and increasingly so) – but participating in digital making activities is broader than this, it’s about understanding how we can support young people to participate in a world constructed with digital and social systems (more of that here). Whether we take inspiration from charitable giving or Mozilla badges, how we celebrate and reward making and participation becomes ever more important.
The debate highlighted the scale of the challenges and the need to rethink and redesign the ways in which we approach them. But it also demonstrated the passion and possibilities of bringing together brilliant people, and we hope this social investment programme can continue and extend that.