More than 100,000 of the record turnout at the Scottish independence vote were 16 to 17-year-olds, voting for the first time in British history. Such was their engagement, all sides of the Scottish Parliament called for the voting franchise to be extended permanently, and the idea is backed up at a UK level by both Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
The teenagers who felt empowered to play a role in the national conversation were born just before the millennium, as Tony Blair came to power. Few will remember devolution, but they will have grown up in the devolution era, as the Parliament at Holyrood matured and understood its potential.
Those even younger, born since the millennium, will have known nothing else. Sometimes called Generation Z, or the millennials, this generation faces some serious challenges. A question for politicians and public figures must now be how these subsequent generations can be as engaged and active as those who participated in the referendum.
At the Scottish Learning Festival, only a week after the vote, Education Secretary Michael Russell announced a children’s summit “Bringing together children, young people, those who support them and wider civic society. This gathering will, I hope, be the beginning of a process that will see a Children and Young People’s Conversation take place around the country – harnessing the renewed interest in positive, energising, consented improvement we’ve seen over the last two years,” he said.
The summit, he said, would take place by the end of the year. “We’ll need to find the mechanism to make it work, but more widely, I’m really open for whatever this throws up. We’ll bring together the widest group of people and out of that we’ll be guided to what the next stage is,” he told Holyrood.
The idea of children being the beneficiaries of a positive policy is not a new one, of course, but perhaps putting young people in the driving seat of those ideas is less known territory.
The Scottish Youth Parliament (SYP) is as old as the one at Holyrood, and has been pushing for further representation ever since. Non-party political but democratically elected by youngsters all over Scotland, the SYP campaigns on a wide range of issues, giving young people between 14-25 a national platform to voice their issues, in an attempt to influence Scotland’s decision makers.
16-year-old Kirsty McCahill is one of the youngest members of the SYP, representing Ayr, and insists interest in the referendum wasn’t exclusive to those who could vote. “I was thrilled to see so many young people getting involved in politics. Young people were genuinely engaged – my peers who had never discussed politics were talking about the vote regularly at school. Even my six-year-old sister knew about the referendum – politics definitely reached young people of all ages,” she says.
Even my six-year-old sister knew about the referendum – politics definitely reached young people of all ages” Kirsty McCahill, MYSP
This month the SYP is calling for a new generation of candidates to come forward for their next election in March 2015. Young people wishing to represent local constituencies all over Scotland are being invited to complete candidate expression of interest forms by 31 October.
“Even the youngest people of our country have witnessed how exciting and engaging politics can be. They have witnessed how one idea can potentially change a country, which I think has given them the drive and passion to consider becoming members of the Scottish Youth Parliament in the future,” says McCahill.
Aileen Campbell, Minister for Children and Young People, agrees the momentum of activism extended beyond 16 and 17 year olds. “Meeting all the different groups of young folk and children I do in my day-to-day business in my ministerial role, I’ve been quite impressed by how that enthusiasm has bled into younger age groups as well,” she says.
A meeting with two girls between 12 and 14 participating in the Indigo Youth Music Project in Castlemilk confirmed this for Campbell. “They weren’t old enough to vote in the referendum, but they were so engaged. They had been caught up in the enthusiasm and were very politically informed. They had their own very distinctive views about what they saw as the future of the country and wanted to contribute to it,” she says.
What legacy will McCahill, the Castlemilk girls and their younger peers be left with to contribute to, however? Global economic pressures are seeing ever greater challenges to public spending, with costs of healthcare and education rising. Most of Generation Z will enter the job market on the back of years of stagnation in wages and a rising cost of living.
The target to reduce child poverty by half by 2020 will not be met by the UK Government, according to a new report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. The report says 20 per cent of Scottish children are living in absolute poverty. “A decade of rising absolute poverty is unprecedented since records began in the 1960s,” it warns, adding that 2020 could mark “a watershed between an era in which for decades there have been rising living standards shared by all and a future era where rising living standards bypass the poorest in society.” Increasing pay, hours and skills are needed, advises the report.
Scotland has also lost its place as the country with the lowest levels of child poverty in the UK, it finds. “There is evidence Scotland is experiencing the projected increase in child poverty earlier than other nations and regions,” it reads, “More investigation is needed to establish whether additional factors mean Scotland’s relative success in reducing child poverty is more vulnerable than progress elsewhere.”
Campbell says Scotland is well placed to meet the challenges, starting with the aspiration to make Scotland the best place in the world to grow up. “I think there’s opportunity now with the additional powers I hope come our way to pave the way for that country we’re wanting. But absolutely, what we need to do is make sure young people have a voice in that process. I guess it depends what you think the Z in Generation Z stands for. Is it generation zeal, who are going to take it, move forward and contribute to society? It’s how we enable that to happen.”
The Children and Young People Act, with its commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child ( UNCRC ), along with the Getting it Right for Every Child (GIRFEC) policy and the Curriculum for Excellence, all point in the same direction, says Campbell, “building up the fact we want young people and children to be effective contributors to society, to have an understanding not just of society in Scotland but also Scotland’s place in the world, to know what our responsibilities are beyond Scotland as well.”
Schools regularly now undertake projects in global citizenship and human rights, she says. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity to build up the confidence of young people to make sure their voices are listened to, and government needs to take a lead in making sure our policies and direction of travel, if it’s impacting on children in society, then they need the opportunity to feed into that.”
However, if children are to be actively involved in strategy through things like the upcoming children’s summit, there needs to be an attempt to cut through jargon. The content for wellbeingforyoungscots.org, a government website, came from a competition in schools following the Children and Young People Act about what wellbeing means to the young people themselves. “It’s incredibly impressive, some of the messages we got from it. It’s also not just a tool that’s been used by young people, but people wanting to introduce the concept of GIRFEC, they can use it as well, because it’s cut through some of the jargon, and got some of the nuts and bolts of the concepts we’re trying to take forward through the Act,” says Campbell.
Engaging children with online content shouldn’t be a challenge. While Generation Y grew up with computers, Generation Z has grown up with the internet and touchscreens and is comfortable using social media to engage with the world. Studies by American entrepreneurs suggest this generation is likely to be more entrepreneurial than any before it.
Being comfortable with technology has its own challenges, however. This summer, a study of children’s behaviour from 15 countries found Scotland bottom of two tables: levels of physical activity, and for screen-based leisure such as television and video games. In short, they aren’t playing actively enough.
Research has shown children need to be active and playing regularly to set foundations for brain development and a healthier lifestyle as they grow older. As well as positive messages promoted through the health and wellbeing elements of the Curriculum for Excellence and increased PE provision in schools, Campbell says the Scottish Government’s Play Strategy is attempting to address this. “There are lots of good benefits around attachment, and promoting the fact if you’re playing with your wee ones from day one, it’s good for their emotional future outcomes as well as attachment, but also, if you can encourage them to be active and set a good example yourself by being active, those can have long-term benefits as well, in terms of those children when they grow older what habits they adopt. We’ve got quite an emphasis on outdoor play,” she says.
Children having access to the internet and smart phones can be a positive thing, says Campbell, in terms of access to information, but a balance should still be sought. Children still like the same things like drawing and nursery rhymes, she says. “The more things change, the more they stay the same. Some of those messages around things you can do with your child as a parent, with the play strategy and the parenting strategy, is not about the money you have. If you don’t have a smart phone, it doesn’t matter. It’s about what you’re doing. How you’re giving that child the best start in life. Nurturing that child, giving it the stability and love it requires. Singing and playing, having cuddles, those are the things which are important.”
This early years nurture is known as attachment theory, and Scotland’s commitment to the emerging science behind it is welcomed by Mary Glasgow of Children 1st. “What we now need to see then is how do we translate it from a professional audience into parents, families and communities, so everybody knows the single most important thing we can do to make Scotland the best place in the world to grow up is to make sure everybody cherishes, loves and engages with their children in an incredibly positive way and we understand actually what we sometimes call behaviour, and sometimes frame as naughty behaviour is actually appropriate developmental stages children go through. I think that’s the real challenge.”
After those early years, Scottish education’s Curriculum for Excellence aspires to equip today’s children with the tools to address society’s ills, by creating ‘confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors’. Graeme Logan, Schools Strategy director for Education Scotland, says persistent inequality stands in the way: “We’ve set out a strategic objective of building a world-class curriculum in Scotland, and for me, it won’t be world class until we’ve tackled inequity, because that is still the biggest single challenge. There’s too much of a gap. Too much is set by who you are in Scotland, and we’re all really determined to work together to address that.”
However, according to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, “Across Britain as a whole, at the current rate of progress, it will be decades before the attainment gap between the poorest pupils and their peers will be closed.”
The commission claims a new political agenda is needed, but will it be too late for Generation Z?