Hackney’s Youth Parliament with Mayor Philip Glanville (centre).
Photograph: Hackney Council

Hackney Council has been challenged by members of its Youth Parliament, which represents the views of young people in the borough, for “underusing” them.

Town Hall officers admitted the point was “well made” by the parliamentarians and pledged to address it, at the conclusion of powerful testimony from the students at a council meeting on their and their peers’ experiences during lockdown.

In a joint presentation, members of the Parliament said that young people in Hackney are “disappointed” in the lack of information and communication shared with them by adults at a “very concerning time for all of us, especially young people”.

One representative said: “People who are supposed to check on us are not getting back to us. We have not received any updates. People in power are not really sure about how to answer our questions.

“Some of my friends are unsure about what is going on around them because teachers and schools are having conversations with parents and not directly with children. That is not right, because some parents are not aware of the education system, especially parents who are new to this country.

“Parents say, ‘You have to study and get a good grade’, but they’re not really sure about how the system works and the process of getting a grade. It is important to have a conversation with the young person themselves to let them know about decisions that have been made for them and allow them to make a decision about their future.

“We feel as if [the Youth Parliament] has been told countless times by the council that we are valued, but we feel like we have been underused, especially during this time when we have so many concerns. We are young Hackney. Without us and our voices, there is no young Hackney.”

Leading council officers warned at the end of May that children’s voices risked being “stifled” during lockdown, as concerns deepen nationally at the growing disadvantage gap resulting from the disruption to education caused by the pandemic.

The reps present at the meeting told of problems they and their peers have faced with “engagement and access” to education during lockdown, with some disallowed from emailing their teachers directly due to safeguarding policies.

One representative said: “There was no clear communication and impacted education on not saying what was important and high priority and how the course of the year was ultimately going to change.

“This added to a lot of academic anxiety. Some refused to engage in work which was not applicable to the course of study. A lot of young people felt disorientated and disengaged because the work they were being set was not compatible with the course of study, not tasks of high priority.

“We are now expected to return to education and what isn’t being addressed is the lack of engagement and how young people have not received the education that was delivered online.

“How are schools going to support students that are behind on their education? Will it be you haven’t done the work during quarantine so we can’t support you anymore, or will there be measures put in place to support the abundance of young people who are experiencing this issue of backlog and disengagement?”

Responding to concerns that patchy access to online learning had left many young people “alone with our thoughts”, Hackney Learning Trust head Annie Gammon said that the Town Hall is “very keen” to supplement government schemes to supply laptops to digitally cut-off families with a local scheme.

Gammon added: “We are conscious of some of the families who have not been able to access materials because they have no laptop or device, and I know schools have given out paper copies where they know that is the case, and have made local arrangements to give out laptops where possible. That has not covered everybody.

“There is a government scheme to give out laptops to children who have a social worker and Year 10 schools who are entitled to free school meals. Those have not yet arrived. Those for children with social workers should arrive in the next couple of weeks, and there is no definite date for the second group.”

Youth Parliamentarians, while saying that young people were “worried” about returning to school during the pandemic, were of the opinion that due to the likely long-term nature of the crisis, a return to face-to-face contact and interaction at school was essential for the benefit of mental health and wellbeing.

The reps poured cold water on the idea of  summer schools for students to catch up on what had been missed, adding that so much of young people’s lives have already been “taken away” by what has occurred.

Urgent calls were also made by reps for attention to be paid to the potential for unconscious bias and systemic racism around predicted grades being used as the basis for the final grades for students’ exam results.

One of the reps said: “A lot of us have turned to social media as an outlet to share our views and opinions, and I’m sure that everyone is aware of the recent murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. A lot of young people are at the forefront of this fight for the acknowledgement and accountability for the disregard of Black lives, and it can become frustrating and overwhelming.

“Recently I was sent a quite distressing and racist message from my teacher. Me and my peers were not sure who to reach out to, so we chose to take action ourselves. I am aware that Hackney have supported the young people who are going on the protest and have sorted out a hotline for young people to call and talk to, but concerned as to how many young people are aware of it.”

Gammon said that the Town Hall had been “conscious very early on” of research showing that unconscious bias can inform teacher-led assessments, and sent out information to schools in order to help ensure its absence “as much as possible”.

Cllr Sophie Conway, chair of the children and young people’s scrutiny commission, said: “I don’t think all the contributors could have summed up more eloquently how they have been thinking and feeling over the past few weeks. It was pretty hard-hitting and impactful for many of us listening.

“We agree that we as a commision have not utilised your voices to best effect and that there is definitely more work we need to do to ensure that we collaborate more.”