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Les politiques de la jeunesse au Royaume-Uni et en France

Sarah Pickard
Corinne Nativel
Fabienne Portier-Le Cocq

Des politiques axées sur la citoyenneté

Involving Young People in Democratic Political Structures in England

L’implication des jeunes dans les structures politiques démocratiques en Angleterre

Tom Cockburn et Frances Cleaver


This article explores young people’s engagement with ‘democratic mechanisms’ in England. It sheds light on the potential and limitations of these mechanisms’ in including the voices of young people. By utilising four contrasting case studies, the research looks at what young people think of democracy and their attitudes to a broader sense of ‘active citizenship’. The article explains the reluctance of most young people to engage with formal institutions by arguing: a) Their previous experiences of ‘democracy’ has been broadly negative, be it through experiences with schools, authority figures such as the police and local authorities and their own family experiences; b) the spaces for participating in citizenship and democracy are not appropriate for young people; c) the model of democracy in England around representation does not encourage direct, participative citizenship but a more passive role of merely voting.
Where young people have seen little evidence of adults actually listening and acting upon their voices, a cynicism emerges towards democracy in general. The young people in the study assumed that their voice would make no difference and there is little to choose between the mainstream political parties.

L’article analyse l’engagement des jeunes dans les « mécanismes démocratiques » en Angleterre. Il met en évidence le potentiel et les limites de ces mécanismes lorsqu’il s’agit d’intégrer la parole des jeunes.
À travers quatre études de cas contrastées, ce travail de recherche s’intéresse au ressenti des jeunes sur la démocratie et à leurs attitudes face à la « citoyenneté active » au sens large. L’article explique que la majorité des jeunes répugnent à s’engager auprès d’institutions formelles. Ils justifient ce désengagement par une série d’arguments. Ils invoquent tout d’abord leurs expériences passées très négatives de la « démocratie », qu’il s’agisse d’expériences faites en milieu scolaire, auprès de figures d’autorité comme la police et les collectivités locales, ou encore au sein de leur propre famille. Deuxièmement, les espaces pour participer à la citoyenneté et à la démocratie ne leur conviennent pas. Enfin, en Angleterre, le modèle de démocratie axé sur la représentation n’encourage pas la citoyenneté directe et participative, mais un simple rôle passif du vote. Lorsque les jeunes constatent que les adultes ne les ont effectivement pas écoutés et qu’ils n’ont pas pris en compte leurs opinions, une forme de cynisme envers la démocratie se dégage. Les jeunes consultés partaient du principe que leurs opinions ne feraient aucune différence et qu’il y avait peu de choix entre les partis politiques classiques.

Texte intégral

  • 1 ‘Active citizenship’ is the type of citizenship that emphasises responsibilities throughout society (...)

1The participation of young people in democratic processes, in particular voting rates, has been a source of concern across Europe since at least the end of the twentieth century (Hooge 2004). A recent analysis of the United Kingdom 2010 General Election by Whiteley et al (2010) found approximately 49% of young people ages 18 to 25 voted, up from 37% in 2005 amidst unprecedented efforts to get young people to register and declare their intentions to vote. There has also been interest in the nature and quality of young people’s ‘active citizenship’.1 Notable lines of enquiry have explored how adults working with young people can help them in community decision making with consistent high quality participation standards (Faulkner 2009); how Information and Communication Technologies could be used to connect young people with democratic processes (Cockburn 2005; Wells 2010); and how to evaluate young people’s participation and decision making (Harris et al. 2010).

2There is corresponding work at a European level, including the European Commission’s White Paper on Governance (2001) and the path towards promoting active citizenship as well as implementing the European Youth Pact (European Commission 2005). One European policy review (Mokre, Puntscher Riekmann 2006) highlighted the importance of developing young people’s identity around democracy and inclusion; it also identified the potential dangers that some forms of democracy possess to exclude people.

  • 2 Since 1999, the three other main countries of the United Kingdom have devolved responsibilities to (...)

3It is these issues that the following paper addresses by looking at democratic processes in young people’s lives exploring some of the reasons why young people become cynical or feel excluded from the public realm of politics. Firstly, the chapter argues that young people’s previous experiences of democracy with schools, authority figures such as police, local authorities and their own family experiences profoundly shape the levels of cynicism and trust with democracy. Secondly, the chapter maintains that many of the spaces for participating in citizenship and democracy are not necessarily appropriate for young people. Thirdly, we suggest that the model of democracy in England,2 based upon representation, does not encourage active, ‘direct’, or participative citizenship but a more passive acceptance of merely voting and leaving decisions to others.

  • 3 ‘Youth Services’ in England are teams of people in local authorities that aim to empower and optimi (...)

4In this chapter, we stress the importance of informal contexts for young people’s learning, experience of and participation in democratic forms of social action. Even the young people, who participated as ‘representatives’ in a Youth Parliament (YP), identified the importance of informal education through the Youth Service3 as opposed to school as being of greater importance. They felt happier and more listened to in more informal spaces and they required an enormous amount of support from adults in their duties as representatives.

Methodology: Entering Young People’s Worlds

  • 4 Carnegie UK is a charity that has recently directed funding research into aspects of ‘civil society (...)
  • 5 A full report can be downloaded from: (...)

5Our research is based on a project conducted in 2008 and financed by Carnegie UK4. The project explored young people’s associations, including their experiences of democracy and citizenship.5 A mixed-method approach was adopted in this research that combined a number of standard techniques, including an extensive literature review; formal and informal interviews with ten key informants (academics, activists, practitioners and policy-makers) chosen for their expertise or responsibility for engaging young people in democratic mechanisms at a local, national or European level. Additionally, three case studies of groups of young people were constructed that involved informal interviews, focus groups, observations and participatory exercises.

6For logistical reasons, the case-study research primarily focused on the English context and experience. Undertaking Northern English case studies enabled us to capture the delicate social ecology of particular neighbourhoods. The primary data collection was undertaken in a district which has the third largest population of under-16s in Great Britain outside London, of whom 34% are from minority ethnic backgrounds.

  • 6 The Youth Parliament was established in 2000 modeled on Westminster and consists of 600 directly el (...)

7The case studies included a series of participatory observational visits to a social housing estate; a focus group with 4 under 20 year-old young women in a project for young mothers; and a focus group with 10 members of a city Youth Parliament.6

  • 7 Not the real name.

8The ‘Stoneyshaw’7 social housing estate was chosen because it is predominantly white, but has a large number of residents with no formal qualifications, high levels of youth unemployment and low levels of economic activity. The ‘Royde Hill’ area was within Stoneyshaw but was negatively perceived by most Stoneyshaw residents. The young people in Royde Hill were seen by local practitioners as being particularly “hard to reach and disengaged from any local youth activities”. A series of informal observation was undertaken with a group of five young people (four young men and one young woman); a focus group was also conducted with four young mothers who visited a Stoneyshaw morning group held at a local school (making thus a total of five young women and four young men).

9The Youth Parliament focus group was facilitated by the Metropolitan District Council Youth Service. It is comprised of elected youth representatives from constituencies across the district. Youth workers facilitated the focus group of elected members of the YP. Most of the youth members could be classed as ‘super-participators’, and most were young British Asians.

Previous Experiences of Participation

10The inclusion of young people’s ‘voices’ are being initiated in a number of public contexts. However, the representation of those voices is a crucial part of the process and this can be done in tokenistic or empowering ways. Ideally, dialogue needs to occur between young people and adults who have power over their lives. It is this process of ‘linking’ that correctly has formed the bulk of attention by government, academics, practitioners and policy makers (Field 2003). These processes of ‘linking’ include issues such as youth participation in service delivery, how decisions are made and how they can shape young people’s lives. The wider literature (Morrow 2005, Harris 2009, Weller 2010) looks at the success and failures of these processes, focusing on whether those in power listen to or act upon young people’s voices. The importance of listening and acting on the voices of young people is of utmost importance. As one of the policy makers we interviewed stated:

Young people have become skilled presenters. They have spoken to policy makers and made their needs known. However, they need to see change, because what hasn’t happened for them is the change in their situation regarding friends and a social life, education and money. If none of that changes for them, then what is the point?

11Thus, when young people express themselves, it is necessary for other people, notably adults, to listen. Failure to listen has an extremely damaging consequence on future participation in formal associational structures. As a Youth Parliament Youth Parliament member noted in response to the suggestion of youth ‘apathy’: “I don’t think it is fair to say that people are doing nothing – I think that people are doing something and the result is frustration. There is anguish, and you know, people have different response mechanisms”.

12What then have been the experiences of participation by the young people in our research? This section looks at children and young people’s experiences with decision-making and how this reflects on the so-called ‘apathy’ debates.

  • 8 In the United Kingdom, the voting age has been 18 years old since 1969.

13Held (1988) argues that democratic political institutions are usually divided into three categories – representational, participatory or deliberative democracy – although the strict differences between these forms are often fuzzy. Another study of Youth Parliaments in the UK explores how far young people adopt the accepted norms of representative democracy (for symbolic, legitimacy or effectiveness reasons) and how far they challenge these in order to bring to the foreground youth priorities and agendas (O’Toole, Gale 2006). These issues will be returned to later for now it is worth noting that meaningful involvement in democratic processes is linked to whether the young people feel that it was worthwhile and enabled them to exercise some sort of control over their own lives and community (Albanesi et al. 2007). Participatory approaches are frequently advocated, as facilitating this feeling of control over the decisions that young people make and this will result in a concomitant increase in their involvement in democracy and policy-making. King (2007) suggested a number of initiatives to enable further youth participation and interest in politics, such as the publication of youth manifestos by election candidates aimed at young people to be distributed to schools and youth groups; the lowering of the voting age to 16;8 the strengthening of youth mayors, school councils, local youth funds and youth parliaments; providing them with budgets; and finally, new laws requiring local and national government to consult young people. However, there is considerable debate about the perceived effectiveness of such processes, particularly as the requirement of participation and the structures through which it is solicited are often imbued with unequal power relations. Our research raises significant questions about the extent to which participation in the structures of democracy, including participatory and deliberative, promotes inclusion and makes young people feel that their participation has been a worthwhile experience.

14A further question about the perceived effectiveness of participation in politics is how to bridge the gap between young people’s interest in local issues and wider political debates, from which they feel distanced with children above fifteen years of age showing most cynicism about politicians and active citizenship (Buckingham 2000). Indeed the language and practices of politics and policy-making are often alienating, and yet young people’s preferred ways of expressing opinions need to be better understood and translated for policy processes. Such understandings are important as partial or poorly executed attempts to foster participation can have strong negative effects; leading to disaffection, social exclusion and lead young people to make choices which compound their disadvantage (Matthews 2003).

15In order to counter this problem, Thi Lan and Jones (2005) emphasise the need for greater reciprocity in participatory policy making projects with the young that can demonstrate their effectiveness, not necessarily in delivering outcomes (although this is the most effective demonstration), but in showing that their voices have been heard, recognised and noted. In our case studies, we directly made the connection between those who were alienated from democratic processes and the lack or poor experiences of previous political participation. Franklin (2004) demonstrated quantitatively that young people’s participation, or non-participation, leaves a ‘footprint’ of engagement which if low at any one point in time will leave a low voting pattern for a generation.

  • 9 The ‘Crick Report’ led to the introduction of ‘Citizenship Education’ as part of the national curri (...)

16The subject of engagement with politics and citizenship in general has been on the schooling agenda for several years. The Crick investigation in the 1990s (Crick 1998) led to a series of reforms to citizenship education in schools.9 However, in terms of encouraging active citizenship Holford and van der Veen (2003) have observed that school-based citizenship education programmes have had only minor effects on encouraging active citizenship amongst young people throughout Europe. Yet they have also pointed out the benefits of extra-curriculum on encouraging active citizenship, such as volunteering and participating in voting and political party membership.

17Schools do of course play a key role in promoting citizenship, as one young man in the Youth Parliament noted:

I think that what schools need to do is, instead of just focusing on the National Curriculum, focus more on citizenship … They just need to be told about what possibilities are out there in the world. They should be informed that they can get their voices heard, instead of just concentrating on maths, science and curriculum based activities.

18However, the young people identified the limitation of formal citizenship education. One young female member of the Youth Parliament made the following points:

I think it has something to do with the fact that I get bored out of my head in Citizenship lessons. They were teaching us all this stuff about what we should do in society but no action was taken on it. It was just what I call ‘practical citizenship’ lessons. That’s what we need in our society. People are bored with being lectured on what they should do – they need to go out and do it for themselves. They need to feel the joy that comes from helping other people.

19The young people were bored of Citizenship Education and they felt it had very little to do with encouraging their own, or other young people’s interests in politics. In the focus group, one young woman argued that it would be more appropriate to study Law or Government policy than Citizenship Education. Particularly, the ways in which the subject is taught today in Britain is seen as too didactic and uninspiring, ironically, containing very little ‘politics’. For instance a policy maker at a national level mentioned the limited nature of democracy in schools:

I don’t mean that they have a right to knock on the headmaster’s door and walk in and take a post on. But the school is enabled in law to support young people’s involvement in governance while they have no statutory right to be at their own exclusion.

20We concur with other studies that schools tend to neglect and not recognise the volunteering young people do in schools as being ‘active’ and instead having “a preoccupation with formally organised activities as a means of defining good citizenship” (Smith et al. 2005: 162). As Susie Weller (2009) has argued, “citizenship education is not only about creating future citizens but also about institutionalising, controlling and shaping the kind of participation in which teenagers may legitimately engage” (Weller 2009: 20). By way of contrast to the environment of schools that is based on hierarchies, testing, discipline and individualistic competition, it is perhaps better to pay closer research attention to processes of informal learning and the beneficial process of encouraging active citizenship by socially excluded groups.

21In our research, the young people in the Youth Parliament acknowledged the importance of learning out of school to reduce the effects of social exclusion within schools. As a young woman involved in YP noted: “What the Youth Service does offer is not having the same barriers as you would probably find in other institutions in the education system, such as racism, such as economic barriers, and teachers’ understanding and labeling”. Furthermore, one of the interviewees, who was active in promoting political knowledge in schools noted that one the difficulties of raising political issues in schools was the possible accusations of ‘political bias’:

  • 10 An Inconvenient Truth is a documentary film released in 2006 presenting a bleak picture of a future (...)

There is that concern about backlash from parents getting it wrong, and I am not sure – there was a recent ruling, wasn’t there: The Inconvenient Truth High Court Ruling.10 We [a civil society organization] certainly have some restrictions on what we can and can’t do with young people.

  • 11 This was part of the anti-Iraq war series of protests over the weekend of 15 and 16 February 2003 o (...)

22Even with the Youth Service, there was concern over the ‘type’ of politics that young people might associate with, participation was to be only on adult terms. As the following interviewee pointed out in relation to a question about whether young people’s participation could be extended to a bus to an anti-war demonstration11 in London:

to use the minibus to come down to London on Saturday to exercise their democratic right of dissent? Could we use this fund? Of course the official froze and half-heartedly laughed, but at that point for me the betrayal of participation in the public debate we are seeing is that we are ultimately in a situation where we are talking about what you can participate in on my terms. It is not about being able to actively participate as citizens, including the right to dissent and protest.

23Lopes et al. (2009) point out only a handful of studies have looked at parental influences on shaping citizens and the role of families in young people’s attitudes to political participation is often forgotten. However, it is vital to work with families as young people have dual lives: a public and a private life. In our findings, we note the importance of family in a number of ways: first, whether or not young people receive family support can be crucial to the ways in which they participate. One of the young women in Youth Parliament said of her motivation:

I think in my case, it was the status and title! My parents thinking ‘oh God, our daughter is becoming a councillor!’ They were very proud! They didn’t really understand it but they were still proud. You know, I’m a young person and I am doing something in the community … I am in the newspapers.

24Secondly, family members serve as role models for young people, as the following extracts illustrate from the Youth Parliament illustrate. One young man stated:

I think role models comes into it a lot. … I looked up to my dad, because of where he is, he is in quite a position of power and he makes decisions … So I took my cue from him in that I understood, from a very young age, that if I wanted to change something, I shouldn’t just let it go, I should get up and try my way and make a difference.

25Another young woman said: “So I have always had my mum and my foster sister who has done extremely well – she’s an extremely successful Crown prosecutor now, but I have always really looked up to people like that”. Finally, a young man involved in the Youth Parliament captures the importance of parental influences in raising young people’s aspirations:

Whilst you are a child you are learning each time the habit of your parents, so I think that has a very big influence. It’s very obvious with my parents – they came from India and my dad had to work extremely hard to get a living and to survive in England.

26Thus families form a crucial role in shaping children’s identity in a number of ways, including gaining an ethic of high aspirations. Furthermore, family connections can be built upon to bring children and young people into projects, but this must not be done in a way that reinforces the status quo (Bailey, Jones 2006). The attitudes of high aspirations in the Youth Parliamentarians is in marked contrast to the cynicism and disinterest in politics from the young people in Stoneyshaw or Royde Hill, the latter group of young people refer to the “politics and stuff”. One of the young mothers in Stoneyshaw referred to political language, amidst much laughter: “you might as well talk Swahili to me”. No young people in the area we talked to had parents who were interested in politics. The disinterest appeared to impact across generations.

Applicable Spaces: Democracy, Participation and Space

27Investigations into what young people want to improve their lives emphasise the desire for more ‘informal’ space (Elseley 2004), both safe and free of adult supervision. As the majority of social activities begin to move outside the home when children become teenagers, young people have to negotiate the attendant tensions. This is balanced against parent’s perceptions (particularly in poor areas) that teenagers ‘hanging out’ on the street are strongly associated with crime and anti-social behaviour and that tackling this would be the best thing to do in order to improve their neighbourhoods. There is a need to recognise the range of negotiations between individual adults and youth at a societal level about where it is safe ‘hang around’ or participate. Usually ‘invitations’ to participate are entirely defined and controlled by adults and upon adults’ own terms.

28Despite the overwhelming recognition of the importance of local variance there is, nevertheless, an underlying belief in the assumption that young people will be willing and able to share their wishes, beliefs and views with bureaucrats if they are offered any structures and spaces to do this. Yet it is important to pay attention to the specific spaces where children and young people are invited into and ask questions about whose terms are defining these spaces. As Cornwall and Schatten Coelho have pointed out, these spaces need to include: “involvement by a wide spectrum of committed bureaucrats, and inclusive institutional designs that address exclusionary practices and embedded bias” (2007: 9). This can be very time-consuming and requires enormous commitment by policy makers to getting it right.

29There are three ways in which spaces are a crucial component of analysis. Firstly, participation is situated in practice. Often in policies and practice, spaces are romanticised and homogenised through self-evident evocations of ‘the local community’. Who forms this local community and who ‘speaks for’ the community is a complex process that is simplified through representational structures. By way of contrast, local communities are complicated social worlds where social identities become shaped by local dynamics, constructions of space/place, as well as being shaped by wider social forces. Young people by not having a sufficiently loud voice can be silenced in social constructions of ‘the local community’. Indeed quite often local young people are constructed as ‘the problem’ by the ‘voice’ of adults in local communities. In Royde Hill for instance, this would result in young people feeling excluded and persecuted by those around them.

30Secondly, places are shaped by market forces and material wellbeing. This has implications for how a geographical space is shaped and how it relates to adjoining spaces that may be richer and poorer. For instance, the Royde Hill district was relatively poorer than surrounding areas; most people from more affluent adjoining districts understood the poverty in the area negatively and thus viewed the young people from Royde Hill through disparaging stereotypes and perceived them as a ‘danger’. However, even the Royde Hill area is not homogenously poor, but rather it consists of a complex series of relationships that drew distinctions of ‘respectability’ between themselves. Unfortunately, the young people in Royde Hill perceived themselves as being at the bottom of the pile.

31Finally, it is important to focus analytic attention to how participatory spaces are presented. For instance, ‘provided’ spaces, such as council meetings, are paradoxically disempowering to local people. Those subject to discrimination and exclusion entering these spaces can find them intimidating. How they talk and what they talk about may be seen as incoherent, irrelevant, or even disruptive by those adults offering the spaces. Here we contrast these ‘provided’ spaces with ‘claimed’ spaces where association occur in a more ‘organic’ process. This had ramifications on the young people of Royde Hill and the young mothers in Stoneyshaw who felt distant from local authorities and services, yet feel comfortable with those who come from within their own immediate local communities and not from outlying districts. Marian Barnes (2007) has described how young people were coached by youth workers to present versions of their concerns that were seen to be ‘acceptable’, rather than if they were expressed in their own language.

32Attachment to place, to a locality with particular social networks may be seen as positive in supporting a sense of identity, responsibility and relatedness. However such attachment may also be restrictive to young people; for youngsters in deprived areas, attachment to place, family and friends can provide them with social support and encouragement but also can act a ‘brake’ on their seeking opportunities outside the locality. Notions of place were a fundamental element of the lives of the young people with whom we talked. The young people involved in the Youth Parliament (who came from different parts of the district) emphasised the importance of their city identities; as one young woman said: “I guess that as individuals we have a social responsibility and if a place is your home then surely you should make it a better place to live”.

33For those who were experiencing social exclusion the place of living was of paramount importance. In the Royde Hill district we found space impacting in a number of ways. Firstly, there was a suspicion of outsiders and a perception that nobody was interested in people from their community. They felt let down by police, the local council and to a less extent by the schools. Activities and activists needed to be initiated by members of their own community, there was so much of a history of being let down that levels of trust with outsiders were weak. Outsiders were accepted, such as a local clergyman, but this often involved a long process of getting to know the local community and gaining trust.

34Secondly, the young people felt that their local community was a place in which they felt safe, but that it was surrounded by danger. They felt comfortable in the specific street, but frightened about straying too far from home. This has implications as activities were near but as a young person said: “it is near but you need to go down an alley by a farm track, it is not well lit, we can’t go there after dark”. Thirdly, schools were a vital part of the community for young people; they were the focal point where young people formed friendships. These friendships persist long after leaving school. Living in proximity with each other and having a relatively low geographical mobility reinforces these friendships. After leaving school a local Youth Service presence was deeply valued by all the young people with whom we talked.

35Social media is perhaps a site of radical change in young people’s associations. A focus on social media is beyond the remit of this chapter and, as Livingstone and Haddon (2009) demonstrate, there is a burgeoning literature elsewhere. However, the young people were involved in’chat rooms’ and social web sites. Youth workers believed that this would deter young people coming out to a local Youth Café and other facilities, especially in the winter. This had implications for the policy makers who wished to connect with young people in new ways. A policy maker we talked to was aware of using new media to encourage a better way of connecting: “I think that the way we are defining social media is very much as part of our mainstream work. So it is in a sense trying to separate, and also loosen up and also to move presentation to dialogue”.

  • 12 School Councils are groups of students who are elected to represent the views of their peers and to (...)

36In short, a better understanding of the spaces where young people’s participation takes place provides a more complete comprehension of their willingness to participate in the future. The more formal the space, perhaps within institutions with hierarchies and invested with power relations, the more put off were young people. As Weller (2009) has found with ‘school councils’12 in England, only a minority of young people feel comfortable in the surroundings and they are still subject to existing staff-student power relations and staff listened more to the voices of particular (favoured) students. These spaces are in marked contrast to the informal spaces provided by the local youth service that even the most comfortable participators of the Youth Parliament valued most. A young man stated: “Finding a place, particularly as a British Pakistani, is sometimes hard. The Youth Service shows how everything comes together, it doesn’t discriminate, or hold anything against anyone, and it is just making a change like”.

37Finally, it is worth noting that there are fewer and fewer spaces available for young people to be safe and free of adult supervision, as spaces that young people occupy are increasingly more regulated and under surveillance (Prout 2000).


38David Marquand (2004) has characterised the current ‘Westminster Model’ consisting of two elements; the first ‘public opinion’ sets the overall agenda of their representatives, the second is where these representatives take care of the difficult or ‘technical issues’ of governance. This delegation of power encourages further distance between electors and representatives and establishes a passive citizenship. The picture Marquand paints is one where an elite (further distanced by Party bureaucracies) undertakes decisions where citizenship interference is seen as time consuming, inconvenient and even subversive. This is in marked contrast to a community of equal, active citizens engaging ‘horizontally’ with each other (Anderson 1983). Cairns identified a number of problems with representative democracy and young people (Cairns 2006).

39Our research found that the problems associated with young people’s democratic participation reflected that of adults. Processes of social exclusion affect adult structures, so too are those of young people. Adults from minority ethnic backgrounds are more comfortable with more informal organisational structures and the same is found among those with disabilities or who suffer from mental health problems. It is unrealistic to expect all young people to readily adjust to representational structures of chaired meetings, minutes and ‘speaking from the floor’. We recognise the enormous work young representatives undertake to ‘represent’ the views of others. The young people in the Youth Parliament undertook huge attempts to be inclusive. All the Youth Parliament members were extremely anxious to be inclusive and actively sought the voices of young people they felt were not heard, such as those from asylum seeking families or the poor.

40But representational structures are not necessarily the best way of engaging with young people and gaining some sense of dialogue. A female Asian Youth Parliament member put the problem of representation succinctly:

Why one leader? Why not a committee of leaders? So that one person doesn’t have to have all the responsibility. Why not have one with young people and the senior citizens? Working together for our country? From all backgrounds.

41Other research shows that it is necessary for participation in decision making to be entwined with children and young people’s everyday lives as well as with personal and family decision-making. It is necessary for the dynamics of these relationships to shape the outcomes (Hill et al. 2004). This has significant implications for establishing and embedding ongoing relationships through which adults and organisations relate to children, rather than simply focussing on one-off participatory events or isolated structures. Tisdall and Davis (2004) for instance ask whether adult-led promotional groups are more effective than representational groups of children as they have more political skills and are less likely to be dismissed as ‘unrepresentative’ by policy makers. These two authors also note that there is a need for adults in organisations to be more competent in engaging with children and their participation. Participation (especially in including hard to reach young people) require significant time and consistent effort. Turner and Martin (2004) suggest that resources need deploying in order to develop the capacity of professionals to do this.

42In summary, it is necessary to ensure that participation is not tokenistic but transformative and representational democracy struggles with this. In all the contexts we conducted our research, the most meaningful experience of democracy consisted of where young people are able to speak and be listened to. The more informal the context, the more comfortable children and young people were in expressing themselves. This has been corroborated by other studies (see Scheve et al. 2006). Young people were less likely to express themselves in more formal contexts and only a few felt that they could do this meaningfully (Mayo, Rooke 2008). Indeed, even the most articulate and older young people required support by adults in expressing themselves.

43While it is expecting too much for education within the school environment to compensate for this, it is important for educators to listen and engage with children and young people rather than see them as passive recipients of learning (Warwick 2008). Good examples have been made in schools that have given children democratic structures and processes in school life (Apple, Beane 2007) which they have taken with them into their lives after school. However, the best response has come from the informal education sector and at a time of budgetary cuts to this sector, the deficit in democracy is likely to deepen.


1 ‘Active citizenship’ is the type of citizenship that emphasises responsibilities throughout society to others or the environment. All citizens are encouraged to participate in being involved within their communities, such as volunteering or running a social group, although they do not have a governing role. It is often associated with volunteering and engaging in ‘civil society’.

2 Since 1999, the three other main countries of the United Kingdom have devolved responsibilities to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, where they hold their own separately elected Assemblies or Parliament.

3 ‘Youth Services’ in England are teams of people in local authorities that aim to empower and optimise the potential of young people, between the ages of 11 to 25. They do this by working in youth centres, through projects, including street-based youth work and working directly with young people. Youth Services offer a range of opportunities for informal and experiential learning in order to gain knowledge and skills to assist in their personal development to enable them to become active citizens.

4 Carnegie UK is a charity that has recently directed funding research into aspects of ‘civil society’ in the UK, Ireland and across the globe.

5 A full report can be downloaded from:

6 The Youth Parliament was established in 2000 modeled on Westminster and consists of 600 directly elected delegates to represent the views of young people to government and service providers. Some local authorities have established their Youth Parliaments to represent the views of young people within the district.

7 Not the real name.

8 In the United Kingdom, the voting age has been 18 years old since 1969.

9 The ‘Crick Report’ led to the introduction of ‘Citizenship Education’ as part of the national curriculum in British schools, thus making Citizenship Education compulsory.

10 An Inconvenient Truth is a documentary film released in 2006 presenting a bleak picture of a future environmental catastrophe. In the UK the film was sent to all secondary schools to form part of the science curriculum. This was contested legally by some parents.

11 This was part of the anti-Iraq war series of protests over the weekend of 15 and 16 February 2003 organised in London by the Anti-War Coalition.

12 School Councils are groups of students who are elected to represent the views of their peers and to feed into improvements of the school.


Senior lecturer in Applied Social Sciences at the University of Bradford. He has undertaken research into children and young people with The Childrens’ Society, Carnegie UK, Drugs charities, The YES Forum, various local and national government organisations in the UK. He has published on a wide variety of issues concerning children and young people including: citizenship, theorising participation in public spaces, bridging feminist theory and the sociology of childhood, the history of child welfare organisations, use of ICTs, drug use and research methods with practitioners.

Reader in Social Sciences at the University of Bradford. Her interests are participation, especially in water resources and sanitation; basic infrastructure and health care delivery; social and gender aspects. She has worked at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and has researched in India, Lesotho, Philippines, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2012

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