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London Youth Speaks, Are We Listening? 'White Working Class Children': Classism, Racism, 'Extremism', And the Young Voters of 2015

28/06/2013 13:14 BST | Updated 27/08/2013 10:12 BST

Young people are an easy target for new governments. They don't vote; their voice is not yet taken seriously; and any policy embedded in schools both represents and functions as the projection of political ideology into the future.

Are policymakers talking to young people about how they feel? It seems not. Research at Goldsmiths, University of London through the Illuminate Student Researchers Project indicates that young people are unaccustomed to having their concerns taken seriously.

The London Youth Speaks event at Goldsmiths on 11 July 2013 aims to bring together young people who have something to say with a group of influential listeners. Introduced by Doreen Lawrence, a panel of politicians, representatives of the Metropolitan Police, and a leading screen writer will all be at the event to hear what young people are saying. At the event, 200 children and young people aged 9-25 will present their views on youth-on-youth violence, stop and search rates, the treatment of young asylum seekers, and school exclusions.

I developed London Youth Speaks partially as a response to horizontal violence between young people in our cities. I want to suggest here that this violence is not simply a matter of drug-market related postcode territorialism. It might in fact be a response - the jostling of position often shown by an oppressed group- to institutional racism and classism.

Most people are familiar with the recent vicious murder of a British soldier in Woolwich by two young men, and the subsequent retaliatory attacks on Muslims, Muslim schools and places of worship by others. Some people have responded to the death of Drummer Rigby by marching with the English Defence League (EDL). It is questionable as to whether all of those who are marching believe in the ideologies of the EDL, but their presence still indicates an underlying sense of unease, disconnection and isolation. These actions and reactions have been reported as race-related community antagonism. However, the protagonists have mostly been young, working class people of varying ethnicities. On one level, perhaps these events might be understood as highlighting a degree of ongoing unrest between the youth on England's streets. But what more can we learn from this?

What I'd like to suggest is that all of this might have something to do with policy-makers' failure to listen to young working class people from a range of cultural backgrounds. This idea requires us to understand the complex experiences related to the intersectional quality of a person's race, class, and age. It might be easier on the brain to think of things in more simple terms. Sir Michael Wilshire, Chief Inspector of Schools in England and Head of Ofsted, for example, has recently suggested that 'white working class' children form the group most in need of support in our schools. But whether, or why this may be the case is up for discussion.

Firstly, during this 'period of austerity', it suits this government to stir up discomfort between communities. Invoking the fate of 'white working class' children raises the spectre of 'immigration'. Concerns abound, in some newspapers, that 'immigrants are taking all the jobs' and using up all the welfare resources. One of the counter arguments is that immigrants have traditionally created industry and jobs in this country (Marks & Spencer started life when Jewish immigrant Michael Marks came to the north of England), but this government is focussed quite doggedly on reducing immigration- perhaps to win votes, or to give the impression of saving money for the public purse.

Secondly, if 'white working class' children are indeed struggling, it may partially be down to the fact that it has become openly acceptable to be classist. As Owen Jones explains in his book 'Chavs: the demonisation of the working class', 'Chav' has become a readily used insult. Attacks on working class people are endemic in politics and the media. Working families, forced through low wages to claim tax credits and housing benefit, are being attacked as drains on the state. Classism is endemic in schools, too: one of my trainee teacher students conducted a research project on classism in the academy where she did her placement. One teacher told her that the school was proud of the fact that that they didn't 'take any of the kids from the estate'. Parachuting lone special teachers into those coastal schools where 'white working class children' might be struggling, as suggested by Michael Wilshire, won't affect this sort of institutional prejudice. The change has to come from the head teacher, and would require the transformation of a school's culture.

Finally, there is a question mark over how 'white working class failing' children are identified. Statistics in schools are gathered under large catch-all terms. 'Failing' might refer to GCSE grades, but not include exclusion statistics. 'White working class' might include those on 'Free School Meals', but omit those who aren't (such as those in foster care, whose meals are paid for by local councils). If the data are compared to 'Black African' children as an amorphous group, the subtleties of the progress of, for example, 'Somali Girls' (who are, some suggest, actually the least well performing group at the moment) might be missed. And children of mixed heritage- who have been shown in research conducted at Goldsmiths to experience multiple forms of discrimination- are also omitted from this discussion.

In the meantime, young people might well have noticed that they are the target of many of this government's more unpopular ideas. However, many of the current policies are not merely ageist, but classist and racist, too. Immigration rules relating to young asylum seekers; GCSE and A-level reforms; university tuition fees; the lost Education Maintenance Allowance; and police powers to stop, search, and now spy on young black men are all adding to the weight of institutional prejudice of all forms felt by young people today.

London Youth Speaks, 11 July 2013, will discuss all of these issues in an event that brings together young people who have something to say with a group of influential listeners. Will policy makers be listening? Add to the list of grievances above the demonisation of young people in the media and the lack of employment for school leavers and young graduates and then remember: Young people who are now just sixteen or seventeen years old will be voting in the next election. Perhaps it's time to hear what they are saying.