A critical interrogation of policy texts suggest that the way in which education policymakers understand young people’s lives is often problematic – tending to value them largely for their future contribution to society, and stressing the importance of duty rather than more questioning, critical and creative contributions that young people may make. In this short article, I suggest that, in the run-up to the 2015 election, politicians need to be pushed to articulate their understanding of ‘youth’ more clearly and encouraged to place more value on the diversity of contributions young people can make – in the here and now – to wider society.
Insights offered by youth studies
Over the last 40 years, scholarship within the broad field of youth studies has paid considerable attention to education policy and practice, and provided important insights into the way in which these impact on the lives of young people – in the UK and other parts of the world. One of the key contributions of this body of work has been to elucidate some of the assumptions about young people that pervade policy texts but are rarely articulated explicitly. Identifying and exploring such assumptions is important if we wish to understand better the ways in which policymakers and other social actors conceptualise young people, and engage in critical debate about the efficacy of particular educational interventions.
In the text below, I outline two assumptions about young people that have underpinned education policy over recent decades. Both are evident, I suggest, in policy that has been formulated under the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition. However, they have a longer history, and have been evident in particular strands of education policy under the previous Labour administration in the UK, as well as those in other parts of the world.
Firstly, young people are constructed in policy texts as ‘dutiful citizens’. The current Coalition government has sought to develop such citizens in two main ways: through strong encouragement of volunteering and the establishment of a National Citizen Service. through strong encouragement of volunteering and the establishment of a National Citizen Service. Both are aimed at furthering young people’s own development and inculcating “the skills needed to be active, responsible citizens”, and engaging disaffected young people. Very similar constructions were evident under the previous UK government. Indeed, citizenship education was introduced in 2002 as a statutory part of the National Curriculum in England, comprising strands on political literacy, social and moral responsibility, and community involvement. While this initiative was welcomed by many educationalists, it was not without its critics. Indeed, Coffey argued that, under New Labour, practice tended to mask “a contradiction in the discourses of citizenship – whereby citizenship can be perceived as part of a system of social control, or as a recognition of rights and social inclusion”. She went on to suggest that the Labour citizenship curriculum focused on the skills and competencies necessary to make a contribution to the economy and the realignment of concepts of social and moral understanding, rather than more innovative and democratic understandings of citizenship. This is a theme that has been pursued by others who have contended that the particular emphasis that was placed on community involvement within citizenship education (and also within policies to promote youth volunteering) had the effect of undermining a Marshallian form of social citizenship (with emphasis on an individual’s rights as well as his or her responsibilities) and promoting, instead, an emphasis on voluntarism.
While the Coalition’s emphasis on developing dutiful citizens shows strong links with the initiatives of the previous administration, its explicit discussion of the character of these citizens can be seen as more of a departure from the education and youth policies of the previous government. The Coalition policy text, Positive for Youth, devotes 12 pages (out of 96) to outlining the importance of ‘Building Character and a Sense of Belonging’ and the measures that are to be put in place to achieve this. This desired character is constructed as independent, autonomous and competitive.
Although this explicit emphasis on developing character is an apparent discontinuity with the policy of other UK administrations, the values emphasised above are, in many cases, not out of line with those that underpin – albeit implicitly – previous education policies. Indeed, Read et al. have argued that the way in which the ‘ideal learner’ is often understood (by policymakers, but also by teachers, lecturers and students themselves) is as bold, individualistic and competitive. They suggest that this is a particularly masculinist construction, which privileges traits commonly associated with men, and disregards qualities which may be of equal (or greater) value for effective learning, but which are commonly seen as ‘feminine’ (such as collaboration, dependence and mutual support).
Although such an explicit focus on improving the character of young people is a novel element of Coalition policy, its emphasis on developing for the future is in keeping with many other youth-focussed policies worldwide. Indeed, Lesko has argued that since the early twentieth century, the transitory nature of adolescence has been emphasised. Young people have been defined as “always ‘becoming’, waiting for the future to arrive”, a definition which has provoked, she maintains, “endless watching, monitoring and evaluating” on the part of adults, and a passivity on the part of young men and women as they are told that only the future matters, and that it is the end of the adolescent story that is key.
In outlining these two constructions of young people, I have suggested various ways in which they may be problematic – because of the contested nature of some of the assumptions they make about the purpose and nature of ‘youth’, and what are deemed to be ‘desirable’ characteristics of young people. I consider that a useful starting point for political debate in the run-up to the 2015 election would be for all political parties to be open and explicit about how they see young people’s lives in contemporary society. Perhaps most importantly, such lives need to be valued in the present, not only for the future, and for the contribution they can make to a fundamental rethinking of political processes and policies.
This article draws on a paper published in the Journal of Youth Studies in 2013, The social construction of young people within education policy: evidence from the UK’s Coalition government.