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A lot has changed in the Tees Valley in the last few years.

We’ve seen political boundaries redrawn, a shift in allegiance from Labour to Conservative, political change linked to the devolution agenda, the creation of the Tees Valley Combined Authority, and a new post of elected mayor.

This has created some green shoots of optimism about the area and a new momentum for change.

One of those green shoots has been the establishment of the RSA Tees Valley Fellows’ Network – a local group of RSA members like us committed to creating social change. To make the biggest impact, our first project is about young people and democracy.

Empowering young people in the Tees Valley

Despite encouraging political changes in the Tees Valley, there remains a great deal of pessimism and cynicism. This is unsurprising – growing frustration with politics and an increasing sense of disempowerment are, ironically, unifying aspects of modern British life according to recent analysis by the Hansard Society.

In this area, many children grow up believing that they have little control over their own lives and environment.

As a whole, the school system fails to tackle these problems head on. It’s easy for civic skills training and democratic education fall by the wayside in many schools. Disheartened societies tend to produce disillusioned young people – and these same young people go on to shape our future. We need to break the cycle.

Hence our choice of topic. When Matthew Taylor gave his 2018 Chief Executive’s lecture on deliberative democracy, he asked for a formal pledge from Fellows to pursue the extension of democratic participation. Creating a more responsive and participatory democracy, he argued, will require a culture-shift – both in government and in wider society. And what better place to start spreading this culture than in schools.

How our sixth form democracy enlightenment programme will work

For one of our first project’s the RSA Tees Valley Fellows’ Network is bringing sixth formers from across the region together for a ‘Democracy Day’.

There, helped by inspirational speakers and RSA Fellows acting as mentors, teams of students will compete to produce the best Manifesto for a 21st century democracy. We want to make sure each team has students from different schools. This will allow participants to learn from each other, whether they come from a state or independent school, or a different part of the region.

We want students to take new ideas back to their own school. They’ll produce a ‘school democracy action plan’, reflecting on the democracy day and how to improve democracy in their own school. We think democracy in school matters, helping to teach young people that their voices should be heard.

Then each school will elect 2 representatives to our new Tees Valley 6th form Democracy Council. We want local politicians to take part at this stage, so students can see local democracy in action.

That council will pick one school to present their ideas at the RSA in London – connecting this project back up with the RSA’s work on education.

We’re excited that this local idea has been awarded an RSA Catalyst Grant and the first democracy day will take place at Barnard Castle School in the Tees Valley in October 2019.

Giving students confidence, rebuilding democracy, and having fun

We hope this work will inspire local young people. But whatever the outcome of this project, we want to send the message that young people are citizens who deserve to have their voices heard.

We want students to feel more confident in their ability to change the world and more equipped to think critically and maximise their positive impact in the world. We also hope that by spreading democratic skills and trialing a new model of civic education, we will lay the foundations for more transformative democratic experiments in the area.

It’s easy to be cowed by the magnitude of the challenges we face. We need root and branch change and a genuine paradigm-shift. None of this will happen until we start to rebuild faith in our system of governance. And this won’t happen unless people are given the tools and opportunities to participate meaningfully in political life.

We think working with young people is an exciting place to start. Not least because they are more open to ending cynicism and having some fun – we want people to enjoy democracy and debate.

We’ve already enjoyed working with young people and getting them excited about how they can change things. We look forward to continuing to grow as a network linking Fellows across the North!  

Thanks to David Cresswell, Jon Elphick, Eric Sandelands, and Riley Thorhold for contributing to this blog. The RSA Tees Valley Fellows’ Network is led by Eric Sandelands, Andy Price, and Paul Ingram.


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