“I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside…”
It’s not every day you’ll hear me quote Whitney Houston lyrics. And yet in this song, Whitney got it absolutely right. Letting children and young people lead the way is our challenge today. It takes record-breaking determination, dedication, perseverance and, above all, trust to lead and to serve others. That’s a big ask of anybody, but for young people who are also contending with issues of depression, self-doubt, insecurity and fear, the challenges are greater still. One in 10 teenagers reports strong feelings of anxiety over current world affairs. At the other end of the scale, octogenarian Dame Judi Dench was on the radio recently saying that she had stopped watching the evening news because of the huge anxiety it triggered.
Young people at risk
The Institute for Public Policy Research last year revealed the number of students disclosing a mental illness at university had risen almost fivefold in the past decade, with an increase in alcohol and drug misuse, self-harm and even suicide. Yet local authority mental health services for children have been cut or are facing closure.
It deeply troubles me that although at 11 years old children in the North are roughly on track with their Southern counterparts in terms of educational attainment, by the age of 16 the gap has widened markedly.
Four million children are now living in poverty in the UK. Of the top 20 parliamentary constituencies in the UK with the highest levels, nine are in the North, including constituencies in Manchester, Leeds, Salford, Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Sheffield and Nottingham, with 40 per cent of children in those areas living in poverty.
We need a step change in the North.
Youth Trust initiative
There are hugely valuable life skills that don’t make exam targets – such as compassion, patience, self-control, gentleness and leadership – and it is these lifelong skills that my Youth Trust aims to instil in the next generation, regardless of an individual’s faith or background.
Our Young Leaders Award provides resources for primary and secondary schools to take their pupils through a structured programme of volunteering, leadership and social action. The award is designed to boost confidence, emotional resilience and life skills while learning about inspirational global leaders such as Mahatma Ghandi, whose famous phrase “Be the change you want to see” represents a core value of our charity.
We’ve supported more than 50,000 pupils to date and have embarked on a fundraising campaign to extend our leadership courses to an additional 15,000 young people living in disadvantaged communities in 300 primary and secondary schools across the North in the next 18 months.
When I visit schools, which for me is invariably a great joy, I’m endlessly encouraged by how fantastic young people are, and this is in such contrast with the bad press they so often receive. I know many of you who do amazing work in schools will agree with me. Young people can and do achieve remarkable things, given the right circumstances and opportunities. They have an innate sense of social justice, impassioned minds, and care deeply about things that matter. We can learn from them.
Given today’s challenges, our young people need compassion and a sense of direction now more than ever.
Citizenship modules are completed as part of the awards, which encourage youth-led volunteering and positive social action. Students are guided and encouraged to run their own projects such as litter-picking, fundraising for their local hospice, organising a Christmas party for older people or supporting their local food bank. I’m proud to report to you that independent research from the University of Gloucestershire, showed that, overall, 60 per cent of pupils said they “agreed” or “partly agreed” that they would continue to volunteer in their communities after our programme had finished. It found increased confidence and emotional resilience, with young people demonstrating significant improvements in three core areas: personal development (maturation, self-awareness, confidence), social and community development (respect, tolerance, social awareness) and future thinking (world of work skills, practical knowledge and personal interaction).
Interviews with teachers also revealed the potential of the award to enthuse disengaged learners or children from challenging backgrounds.
As the stats around the North-South divide show, background and social class are still predictors of educational attainment and success in life.
I believe that Young Leaders can help narrow the social class divide, increase social mobility and create a kinder and more resilient generation. As one of our greatest leaders, Nelson Mandela said, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." I hope you will join me and embrace and support my Youth Trust work in your schools. #BeTheChange
Dr John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York. He tweets @JohnSentamu