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School democracy needs a trained electorate

YOUNG people have to be trained in how to take part in consultation, a leading expert in the field says.

Bill Alexander, head of service for children, young people and families in Highland, told a Glasgow conference last week: "Young people are contributing in a very big way and we have to provide considerable resources to enable them to do that."

Consulting young people is a central feature of policy since the advent of the Scottish Parliament, and there is now a statutory obligation under the 2000 education Act for schools to involve them.

But the conference, on planning for children and young people, heard a warning from Dumfries and Galloway that there had to be "a culture of participation".

Ian Donaldson, the council's youth strategy co-ordinator, said some young people were excluded because they were reluctant to go through the necessary "layers" in order to participate.

Steven Schwartz, a member of the Dumfries and Galloway youth strategy executive group (YSEG), said people "should not confuse democracy with elections". Flexible approaches could create opportunities for young people to become involved "at any time".

Mr Schwartz told The TES Scotland that elections attract "a certain type of person", who are often more involved with their own views than those of the people they are supposed to represent. "We have become more representative by eliminating that whole process and allowing young people from various backgrounds to come forward and dip in when they like."

The 23-strong youth strategy executive group ranges in age from 14 to 25 and has initiated a number of local projects involving up to 200 young people. A "ride-for free" scheme encourages young people to attend leisure centres. More controversially, the group has introduced a "C-card" which gives under 16s access to advice on sexual matters and contraceptives from qualified youth workers.

Mr Alexander said long-term planning was essential. "What is very striking today is that people are realising the scale of the change in philosophy and practice that is absolutely critical in improving children's services."

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