The global pandemic of 2020 has had a huge impact on the lives of millions of citizens around the world, with research showing that children and young people (CYP) have been the most severely affected. Here in the UK and beyond, governments and policymakers are expressing their determination to ‘build back better’ after COVID-19, while also asking populations to act collectively for the common good. In this blog, Dr Deborah Ralls, from the Manchester Institute of Education and the Manchester Urban Institute, suggests it is essential that any attempts to ‘build back better’ adopt a collective approach, which includes CYP as key stakeholders in core urban decision-making processes.
- The economic and social recovery from COVID-19 provides an opportunity for positive change.
- For children and young people, this means creating a more inclusive decision and policymaking process where they can be heard.
- One way to do this is by establishing urban learning labs, which bring together young people and local policymakers.
Building back better has its roots in disaster recovery. It advocates a determination to do things differently, to avoid a return to ‘business as usual’ and to focus instead on models of long-term economic and community resilience that prioritise wellbeing and inclusiveness.
Building solid foundations through active citizenship
It has long been acknowledged that we live in a rapidly changing world, but COVID-19 has accelerated this change and presented accompanying challenges that are beyond our imaginations. Yet the pandemic has also given rise to hope that societies can use the current situation as a catalyst for change for a more inclusive, socially just society.
Building back better for economic and community resilience requires a solid foundation that can futureproof inclusive towns and cities and improve citizens’ wellbeing. There is an increasing recognition that our understanding of the socio-economic functioning of society, and the active role that we can play in it, is shaped from childhood. However, particularly in the current climate, CYP’s fundamental right to participate in the matters that affect them is often overlooked. We need initiatives that can support young people’s efforts to safely and effectively act as agents of change beyond the pandemic, to actively participate in shaping responses, and to be meaningfully included in all aspects and phases of the response as existing, active citizens. It is clear then, that as societies everywhere undergo transformation, if we are to build back better, approaches to education must also change.
Experts are warning of the catastrophic and long-lasting impact of the loss of economic and social opportunities for young people as a direct result of policy choices made during the pandemic: “We’re talking about this generation not being able to contribute to a well-functioning economy … The implications couldn’t be more far-reaching for us all.” COVID-19 has brought into sharp relief that governments need to do more than deal with immediate threats; they must actively plan for our shared futures.
Engaging our youngest citizens as active partners in urban policymaking decisions and taking their opinions and concerns seriously, can contribute to individual wellbeing and self-esteem whilst also building a shared, intergenerational awareness of urban challenges and possibilities.
A rapidly changing world requires new approaches to urban education policy that are about more than classroom-based learning and a focus on individual academic achievement. Now, more than ever, it is vital that we remember that education is at the heart of both personal and community development. There is a need for education policy to focus on learning environments and on new approaches to learning for greater justice, social equity and global solidarity.
The city/town is a classroom
A large number of urban places are deliberately choosing to change the way they view education by identifying and developing a myriad of learning opportunities available beyond the school gates. Such an approach eliminates the limitations of learning within the school, turning the town or city itself into a classroom with a rich, diverse curriculum – a place of possibility to be explored by CYP.
It is vital that a wide range of CYP from all areas can regularly contribute to policies to improve their town or city. However, building back better requires CYP and policymakers to develop mutual knowledge, dialogue and joint ways of working where CYP must be considered as the experts in their own lives.
In order to address these issues, urban education policy can set out to develop a curriculum that is ‘more than school’, offering CYP regular, ongoing opportunities to ‘learn to do’ urban decision-making and to work collaboratively to build back better with a range of people from outside their local neighbourhood. Education policy needs to be redefined to generate collaborative learning opportunities where i) children and young people develop their knowledge related to urban decision-making processes and ii) policymakers learn about young people’s wide range of lived experiences, gaining an insight into young citizens’ hopes, fears and areas of expertise.
Learning to live and do together: building back better
Education is fundamental to any collective attempt by towns and cities to build back better for the common good. CYP have the right to a broad and varied education that encourages respect for their own and other cultures, and the environment. That right should start with the close-at-hand world of their hometown or city, via an approach to education policy that helps today’s CYP build the relationships, skills and knowledge they need to be active citizens and urban decision-makers.
One way of starting a collective approach to urban education would be through increasing awareness of the varied day-to-day lives of CYP through the development of urban learning labs. Labs located across diverse urban communities can be used to bring together CYP and urban policymakers from different areas to develop shared ideas for an inclusive town/city. These spaces give CYP a place to express their views in a variety of ways of their choice, offer CYP freedom of expression and the right to participate in the matters that affect them so that they can contribute collectively to improving policies for the benefit of all citizens.
In order to futureproof an inclusive town or city, urban education policy needs to improve participatory processes based on co-responsibility and active citizenship. It is essential for both CYP and policymakers to experience and understand the town/city in its many dimensions. To build back better we need to give CYP the ‘Right to the Town/City’, a form of urban apprenticeship beyond the school. Such an apprenticeship would position CYP as urban experts, who teach other CYP and adult professionals about the area where they live, its challenges and possibilities. Learning would give CYP and policymakers the opportunity to learn from others about lived realities in different areas, so as to better understand the town or city in all its diversity. Such participatory processes enable a shared understanding of what it means to build back better, developing co-responsibility for rethinking urban futures – with, not for, our children and young people.
Take a look at our other blogs exploring issues relating to the coronavirus outbreak.
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