04 March 2021

Returning to school in Aberdeenshire: Youth participation, children's rights and mental health

As Aberdeenshire Council's schools prepare at pace to welcome many more children and young people back from March 15, the local authority's senior councillors and officers are making a commitment to ensure an increased focus on youth participation, children's rights and mental health.

Regular now online meetings between the council’s Education and Children’s Services Committee Chair Cllr Gillian Owen, senior officers and youth representatives have been gradually expanding and are now welcoming all councillors from the committee as well as representation by Aberdeenshire Youth Council, local MSYPs and 20 members of the local authority’s Pupil Participation Forum.

This week’s meeting afforded the young people attending the opportunity to ask questions of senior leaders and vice versa.

The catch up also saw Director of Education and Children’s Services Laurence Findlay highlighting ongoing work with youth representatives to consider the implications of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) now this has been incorporated into Scots Law. The intention is to ensure clear and appropriate links between what is set out in national policy and how this is delivered by local services. 

Asked how remote learning is going and whether they’re getting enough help with their coursework, the young people attending were quick to highlight that the mix of learning materials and delivery methods teachers are providing is great, and this has improved greatly over time. But many are anxious to have access to more in-class time.

They want more to be done to address the widely publicised notion that children and young people will have to ‘catch up’ and the unnecessary pressure this is putting on them. Laurence agreed the media pressure was unhelpful and is keen to reassure families across Aberdeenshire.

He says: “It is clear to me that our focus should be on supporting learners at whatever stage they are at to feel safe and secure and confident in their ongoing learning. Much of what children and young people will have missed out on is actually the social aspect of learning and it’s clear from the discussion we enjoyed with young people that while they may welcome optional ‘drop in’ sessions with teachers when that’s possible, they certainly don’t want to be forced into extra lessons. Please – if you’re feeling the pressure rest assured schools and services are here to support you.”

Elected members acknowledged the unprecedented situation children and young people face and thanked them for all their hard work. Asked if there were any lessons to be learned from remote learning, there was wide agreement on the ask to keep course resources online – to save on printing, to use as a point of reference, to make everything more accessible at the touch of a button and to aid revision.

One young person highlighted the advantages for some young people with additional support needs to have more time to learn away from the busy nature of a secondary school. Many are also keen to see a heightened emphasis on independent learning in the future, and on choice in terms of use of devices versus more traditional paper-based activities, although it is clear there is no one-size-fits-all. Some have found motivation a challenge without as much direct interaction with their teachers and peers.

In terms of the development of digital literacy – among teachers, parents and young people as well as the agility of ‘the system’ to support learning and teaching – everyone agreed it feels like things have moved on years instead of months.  

Young people were also really keen to acknowledge the challenges for parents who are working from home and how well they have done to support home schooling. They agreed the younger the children, the more important it is they are returning to school where so much of their learning can be done through play.

Questions regarding what can be done to support children and young people’s mental health were raised on both sides. The young people were praised for speaking openly and honestly about the personal challenges themselves and others face and while they highlighted staff are very open and supportive, they all agreed more work is needed and perhaps from an earlier age. The young people’s comments were so insightful it has been agreed a group will be set up to enable young people to work alongside council officers to co-produce new supports around mental and physical health.

Education and Children’s Services Committee Chair Cllr Gillian Owen summed up after the meeting by saying: “Hearing directly from children and young people about the services we deliver for them and the impact of our decision making is so important. I really love these catch ups! Sharing our committee reports with MSYPs for their comments and suggestions is something I’ve been doing for some time and we’re building on that. Our young people are articulate, passionate and their feedback is compelling – and I think we have a lot to learn. Thank you to everyone who participated in Wednesday’s meeting.”

For more information about youth participation in Aberdeenshire, visit: Youth Participation and Engagement (girfec-aberdeenshire.org)

For young people looking for additional support with mental health, please reach out to your guidance teacher. You may also find these websites helpful: 

Young people may also be interested to find out more about Young Scot’s new youth volunteering scheme: What is #YSHive? | Young Scot