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UK Government 'failing' to respond to calls urging it to directly engage with young people

UK Government 'failing' to respond to calls urging it to directly engage with young people

Downing Street has invited people to ask Prime Minister Boris Johnson questions ahead of children returning to school next week - however, school-age children will not be able to ask questions.

Parents have been invited to ask questions, but students, many of whom will themselves be returning to the classroom for the first time in months in just a matter of days, will not be able to ask their questions.

Over 18s can sign up to ask the Prime Minister a question about schools returning in an event to be broadcast on social media, though some are questioning why young people have been excluded from asking questions. 

Throughout the pandemic, the UK Government has only taken questions from over 18s when it has held press conferences and other Q&A events, despite calls for it to engage more with young people and hold a Youth Press Conference. 

Earlier this summer, youth representatives from across the UK and senior leaders from a large list of organisations including Unicef UK, Save The Children, Young Minds and the British Youth Council signed an open letter to the UK Government, calling on the Prime Minister to hold a dedicated press conference for young people to answer their questions about COVID-19.

Despite multiple calls for increased engagement with young people, the Government has not held a dedicated youth press conference. 

When asked for comment by The Speaker, a Government spokesperson said;
"The Government aims to ensure that people of all age groups receive the information they need about coronavirus and its impacts.
 
"The coronavirus public information campaign continues to reach a wide range of audiences whether that is through TV advertising, tailored content on Facebook or WhatsApp, or the PM directly addressing children in school."
Asked why a Youth Press Conference has not been held, the Government cited practical issues with having children asking questions on broadcasts but said they continue to actively consider alternative options for under-18s to submit questions to ministers.
 
The Prime Minister met with schools students aged 10 – 11 on Friday 19 June to answer their questions on coronavirus and returning to school and on Wednesday (26th August), Mr Johnson delivered a live address from Castle Rock High School in Leicestershire regarding students returning to the classroom - though he did not take questions during the live broadcast.
 
The level of engagement contrasts with that of countries, including in Wales where a large survey was conducted to gather the views and concerns of young people and Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams answered questions from school-age children in a broadcast press conference ahead of pupils returning for a short period before the summer break.
 
Harry Twohig, an Ambassador for the #iwill Campaign told us that he believes that the UK Government needs to do more to communicate with young people;

"The public information campaign that is being delivered at present may reach a wide audience, but we need to go further. We need communications that are specifically tailored to young people, and an opportunity for young people to be able to have their concerns and anxieties heard and addressed. It's time to stop turning our backs on the worries of the younger generation - our concerns are legitimate and deserve addressing."

Young people have been significantly impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic over recent months. The closure of schools to most pupils back in March has seen many young people staying at home missing out on months of education. Students in key transition years have also been majorly affected, in particular by the recent crisis over exam grades.

Beyond COVID-19, many young people are concerned about how there futures may be impacted.

Amanda Chetwynd-Cowieson, Chair of the British Youth Council told us that young people "deserve the opportunity" to ask questions of those in power.

"It is a huge disappointment that the Government continue to not only prevent under 18 year olds from asking questions at their press conferences, but that we also haven't had a youth focussed press conference at all. Given all the upheaval young people have faced over the last few months, they deserve the opportunity to ask legislators and the Government about how those in positions influence are working in their best interests. The longer we as a country continue to prevent young people being empowered by asking legitimate questions, the more disengagement we will see amongst children and young people with politics. With schools returning for the first time in months over the next few weeks, this is a missed opportunity for Government to engage directly with the young people their policy decisions will be impacting."

Labour MP and Shadow Minister for Young People, Cat Smith recently wrote to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson regarding "the government's failure to respond" to calls from organisations and youth representatives for the Government to "engage directly and meaningfully" with young people.

In the letter, Smith urged the Government to respond to the calls and engage with young people directly as a matter of urgency, "to prevent another devastating fiasco as we saw last week", referring to the u-turn over the use of a controversial exam grades moderation system.

Over past weeks and months, committees in the House of Commons and the House of Lords have conducted significant engagement with young people, in particular discussing concerns over exams, universities and the future beyond COVID-19. However, the engagement with young people from the Government itself appears to have been minimal.

The UK Government has said it is actively considering ways to engage with young people. However, at a time where the world is changing and so much is uncertain, many young people want to share their views, but some feel that the Government just doesn't want to listen.

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