Programme Updates

Change the Narrative for Policy and Young People

by .

Co-authored by Lynne Guyton, CEO, John Lyon’s Charity and Matthew Gwyther, Partner, Jericho Chambers.

In early March John Lyon’s Charity hosted a roundtable discussion titled ‘The UK’s Children: Is it Time for a New Deal?’.  Participants included heads of charities, policymakers, journalists and think tanks amongst others.  As the largest independent funder for children and young people in North and West London, John Lyon’s Charity has become increasingly concerned over the past five to eight years, that what used to be considered core for state provision seems to have shrunk.  Consequently, the Charity has seen increasing demands for its grants, as it knows others also have.

Aside from Brexit, a glance at the headlines on any news site or newspaper shows that the lives of children and young people in Britain are under considerable stress. The social and psychological pressures on the UK’s children cause the whole nation concern; from the impact of knife crime to the pressures of social media; from the anguish of increasing numbers of those excluded at school to the burden to perform at school or you are considered a failure. For those children and young people who need help along the way, that assistance is not always there. At a time when government resource continues to be stretched, demand for children and youth services has risen dramatically.

Austerity has not helped. By 2020, local government in England will have lost 75 pence out of every £1 of the Government revenue support grant that it had to spend in 2015. Overall, councils are facing a £3.1 billion funding gap for Children and Young People’s (CYP) services by 2025. The impact has seen the loss of 4,500 jobs, more than 760 youth centres and 130,000 youth club places for young people.  We know that in many areas universal youth work has all but disappeared, with funding being diverted to short-term and targeted provision. Increasingly high thresholds for support are also leaving young people behind. The result of this is that we have reached the position where grant-making by independent foundations for children now exceeds that of grants made by government. This is unlikely to change. The social contract we had all assumed was in place is changing.

Before the discussion commenced, the CEO of John Lyon’s Charity (Dr Lynne Guyton) made it clear that we needed to have balance“…it is worth remembering that there are over nine-and-a-half million children and young people in the UK aged between 10-24 and, despite what the media would have us think, they are not all gun-toting, knife-wielding criminals.  So, for us, we do not see children as a problem, or even the problem, and we feel that young people’s views should matter more and more.

“As a charity with a very defined Beneficial Area, we will continue to challenge government around cuts, and we will try to resolve these issues, but we know we can’t achieve this alone and that is why I wanted an open  discussion in terms of how we can work together to set a new agenda for the future.”

So, what is to be done? Is it time to reconsider how we regard the young? Which interventions work and which are less successful? Why have there been seven ministers for young people since 2010? And, is it time for a dedicated, full-time minister for young people?  Many themes came out of the discussion that followed, including the perception of children, the lack of government representation for the CYP sector and children’s and young people’s voices remaining unheard and unsought.

The first guest speaker was Sir Al Aynsley-Green who was the first independent statutory children’s commissioner for England.

“We’re the fifth richest country in the world. We have amazing children, families and staff, but the hard reality is that we have some of the worst outcomes in the developed world for children’s health, education, social care, youth justice and poverty”.

Sir Al asked two stark questions about the sector:

  1. Why should we care about children?
  2. Why do we have such dismal outcomes?

On the first question of why we should care, Sir Al offered that “we have more and more older people living for much longer than previously, so it means there will be fewer working-age adults to support their needs, and the statistics are startling. So, there is an economic argument for why children should be taken seriously.”

On the second question of why we have such poor outcomes in the UK, Sir Al suggested there were four underlying reasons: “The first is our public and political attitude to the importance of children. The second is that national government focus for children has been short-term, inconsistent, ephemeral and untrustworthy. ‘Every Child Matters’ was the world’s most powerful and respected overall policy for children, under New Labour. However, it was systematically unpicked by the coalition government of 2010. The third reason is that we have failed to be effective political advocates for the best interests of children. Finally, it is the bunkers and silos that are everywhere; exemplified best by Westminster, but right the way down to localities within and between sectors. We can do better, and we have got to find the examples, share the tool-kits, and bring the willing together to work together to improve the outcomes for our children.”

The second provocation came from Ravi Chandiramani, editor in chief of Children and Young People now. He began with three points. “First: the treatment of youth policy in England over the past decade is a national scandal. We not only have had seven ministers for young people since 2010, but the brief itself has been cast adrift from the rest of children’s services and shunted around Whitehall.  We need a dedicated minister to set the policy framework for improving outcomes for all young people outside the arena of formal education. National treatment of youth issues continues to see adolescence as a problem. It is reactive, negative and highly politicised around high-profile issues such as child sexual exploitation, harmful social media content or knife crime.

“Second, children and young people need ‘continuity of care’. The churn in ministers for young people is mirrored elsewhere in hugely important roles. The turnover rate of local authority directors of children’s services – those with ultimate oversight of children’s and youth services within their council boundaries – is 40% a year. Moreover, 20% of children’s social workers are interim agency staff. So, there is a fundamental problem in the continuity of care at all levels afforded to vulnerable young people and families.

“Third, we need to stop (focussing on) innovation and intervention programmes. Innovation is a good thing. But the increased weight of emphasis on discrete programmes of intervention risks losing sight of the importance of everyday good social work or everyday good youth work in building relationships – where professionals gain the trust and respect of young people who may otherwise lack such a figure in their lives.”

A discussion then ensued on attitudes towards children and young people.  Kathy Evans the CEO of Children England said that while members of the organisations she represents do “some extraordinary work” she was dismayed at some prevalent attitudes towards children and the young. “I think in recent times there have been two phenomena that underscore societal problems we have in our attitude to children. The first is the growing phenomenon of schools having isolation and confinement booths for punishment of often very minor things like uniform breaches. Zero tolerance of misbehaviour is zero tolerance of childhood, and they are…sending those children away in silent, motionless confinement, rather than deal with the reality that children behave in all sorts of ways.

“The second phenomenon is the welfare and benefits system that has decided to implement a two-child limit. As a society, we have really to grasp what we are saying about the value of any child, however they came to be here. Fundamentally we must change our idea of who children are, because children are just new people. If we can’t connect with childhood, then we have disowned our true selves.”  This was a powerful sentiment and one that echoed around the room.

At this point it was becoming clear that themes were emerging of children and young people being marginalised. There was a general feeling that unlike, for example, in the Netherlands, Scandinavia or Canada, children are frequently under-valued or supported. Consequently, the contribution of those that work with children – whether as childcare providers, teachers or social workers is not appreciated.   This problem magnifies further when we consider children and young people with special needs.

The youngest person in the room was Hamza Taouzzale, aged 19, who is the youngest councillor ever to sit on Westminster City Council (when elected he was too young to vote himself).  Hamza’s views were stark and to the point: “We don’t have a cabinet member for young people. We don’t have anyone who…wants the burden, because that’s how they see it – as a burden. If they have young people on their portfolio and they’re responsible for it, then anything that goes wrong they think is going to be tied to them…and then they will get blamed for it.”

Hamza continued “… for some young people, it (the loss of funding) is (the end of the world). Two days in a row now, next to the ward in which I live and which I represent, three young people have been stabbed. What we’ve realised is that we’ve gone into a dangerous system where young people’s lives don’t really count anymore.

Hamza put forward two actions points for consideration: “I think the voting age needs to be lowered. I think the main reason why politicians don’t care about young people is that we can’t vote. We can’t turn around and say to them ‘We don’t want you in (power) anymore.’ We don’t have a say. The second thing I would say is that we’ve strayed away from looking at young people as normal people. We look at young people as ‘these criminals’ or ‘these knife-wielding menaces,’ as these angry people who don’t want to go to school, who don’t want to go to university, who don’t want to do anything in life, they just want to go out there and stab someone. That’s not true.”

There was much support for Hamza’s comments and a sense that the media focusses on the negative stories only. There was discussion about the role the media plays in providing sensationalist news headlines. However, it was also conceded that charities should be aware of only releasing negative, headline-grabbing case-studies and stories in a desperate search for coverage. They also had a responsibility to share the good news stories and successes as well.

The discussion moved on to the mental health of the young where it was felt that in some regards there was a real mixed picture. The current generation of young people are the most peaceful and the least aggressive for decades; they drink, and smoke less than their parents and grandparents and yet public perception is clearly different. However, pressures on children and young people, appear to be far higher than previous generations.  The issue about thresholds for mental health intervention being very high, was raised by numerous panel members. Things had to have got very bad for a child or young person before professional help was made available.  Quite simply, thresholds are now high because funding for services has been cut.  This is affecting an increasing number of children and young people, and particularly those with Special Educational Needs (SEND).  It was recognised by many participants that there was a direct link between a cut in funding for schools, a lack of funding for Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and the increase in pupils excluded from schools.

Many participants also had deep concerns about the issue of the social contract – the progressive withdrawal of both central and local government money from children and youth services. The boundaries of statutory provisions are being redefined.   In John Lyon’s Charity there is a recognition that while it may disagree with funding cuts, it must work with what is in front of them and be flexible, by funding activities such as youth clubs or children’s services. There is acknowledgment in the Charity that while there are funding cuts, if it can work with local authorities and central government to affect policy change, that is better than the alternative of constant frustration and conflict.

John Lyon’s Charity stressed how it put a lot of its success down to the longevity of funding and its presence as a steady constant in its Beneficial Area for the past 25 years. It saw one of the biggest problems being large grants (from any source) being given for a short period of time, only to then withdraw funding and support.  That is as damaging to CYP groups as not having the funding in the first place.

Pamela Dow (Chief Reform Officer at Catch 22) was a mildly dissenting voice from other panel members. She drew to attention to the book Obliquity by John Kay, “that is all about the concept of unintended consequences. The first unintended consequence is the idea that a Children’s Minister is going to change anything. But if you want to stop a sort of a neophiliac love for innovation, I guarantee the best way you can do it is getting a load of Children’s Ministers who want eye-catching initiatives to be personally associated with.”

Finally, the need for the young themselves to find a voice and ensure they are heard was expressed by many. “Young people generally are a particularly disenfranchised group,” said Lisa Hackett of Frontline. “They lack the agency of adults and we don’t give them a voice.” Hamza Taouzzale urged, “Put young people at the front of things. Have a young person there to speak about it and don’t assume that we know what young people want.”

Emma Ackermann from The National Lottery among others, talked about the necessity to listen to and heed young people despite there often being a lack of trust to get over. Bharat Mehta added, “Politics is alive with young people. In Scotland [where they can vote at 16] they voted in droves…young people are alive to what’s going on.” Ciaran Rafferty, the Funding Director of City Bridge Trust even advocated “a trade union for young people – with a block vote…then they might get listened to.”

In conclusion, the key themes that emerged from the discussion were:

  1. Pressure on children and young people from different sources
  2. The impact of funding cuts (particularly on SEND)
  3. The perception and value of children and young people
  4. A silo mentality amongst organisations and government working on CYP policy
  5. No government representation of children and young people
  6. Innovation in grant making in the CYP sector is not what is always required
  7. Children’s and young people’s voices are unheard and unsought.

If we are going to change the narrative, t was felt that a refocus on children and young people as a government priority was imperative. It was also strongly felt that as a society – and for us as a group of key influencers – we should bring attention back to children and young people.  Children and young people should be listened to and given respect.  As a start, we should be including their opinions and views into our organisations.  As a community of CYP bodies we will look to forge opportunities to work collaboratively together – whether that’s through co-funding or sharing ideas, as there was a recognition that our voice is stronger together to enact some real change in a sector that sorely requires it.  A re-think is required that will require joined up thinking across the participants at the roundtable and across national and local government to ensure that policy places children’s and young people’s lives at the centre of its focus.


The discussion was attended by:

  • Dr Lynne Guyton, CEO, John Lyon’s Charity
  • Sir Al Aynsley-Green, retired first Children’s Commissioner for England
  • Ravi Chandiramani, Editor in Chief, Children and Young People Now
  • Matthew Gwyther, partner, Jericho Chambers
  • Emma Ackerman, Deputy Director (England), Big Lottery Fund
  • James Banks, Director, London Funders
  • Helen Charman, Director of Learning and National Programmes, The V&A
  • Pamela Dow, Chief Reform Officer, Catch 22
  • Kathy Evans, CEO, Children England
  • Abdirashid Fidow, Anti-Tribalism Movement
  • Ben Gadsby, Research and Policy Manager, Impetus
  • Lisa Hackett, Delivery Director, Frontline
  • Emily Martin, Governor, HMYOI, Feltham
  • Bharat Mehta, CEO, Trust For London
  • Erik Mesel, Senior Grants and Public Policy Manager, John Lyon’s Charity
  • Keith Morgan, CEO, Young Camden Foundation
  • Cathryn Pender, Grants Director, John Lyon’s Charity
  • Ciaran Rafferty, Funding Director, City Bridge Trust
  • Hannah Richardson, Senior Education and Social Affairs Reporter, BBC New Website
  • Hamza Taouzzale, Councillor, Westminster City Council
  • Professor Miranda Wolpert, UCL

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