Blackpool’s youngest elected leader, who bravely ventured into the world of politics when he was just 15, has shared his vision of a brighter future for the resort’s struggling youths.
As Member of Youth Parliament for Blackpool, and the chair of the town’s Youth Council, 18-year-old Andrew Speight has championed the rights and opinions of young Sandgrownuns, pushing for better children’s mental healthcare, reforms to high-stakes GCSE exams and SATS, and the abolition of university tuition fees.
Now he hopes to tackle the ever-present problem of unemployment as he takes on the role of youth advisor at Blackpool Council, with a special focus on creating strategies to reduce the number of young people not in education, employment or training (NEET) in the resort.
He said: “I hope to prevent young people from becoming NEET in the first place by chaning the education system and various other factors that contribute to young people becoming NEET. I want to see options for young people are NEET at the moment, and introduce a strategy so that young people, when they are in education, employment or training, they are kept there.
“The numbers nationally for young people who are NEET is about 728,000, which is far too high.
“This can lead to poor mental health, poor sleep, and poor physical health. It’s also an economic problem as we have more people who are dependent on benefits to get by.
“I have learned a lot about how young people in Blackpool feel about how the education system sets them up to fail in some respects. In a conference in July, what young people told us was that education has a skills deficit. They are only taught to pass exams, and not skills that will help them in the workplace, so when they leave education and go looking for work and are asked what skills they have, they have none. This puts them at a disadvantage.
“One proposed solution is the establishment of courses colleges in deprived areas where schools can book half days for children to gain experience in key sectors, such as hospitality, beauty, and farming.”
Andrew, who lives in South Shore, was elected MYP in February 2019 with the aim of reducing terrible exam stress wreaking havoc on children’s mental health.
Since then, he has taken on all sorts of issues, from supporting local homeless charities to calling out academic corruption to diversifying the town’s economy – all while studying for A-levels in modern world history, psychology and sociology at Blackpool Sixth Form.
He said: “My biggest passion was tackling exam stress, which ties into mental health, which is such a big thing for people in Blackpool.
“Growing up in Blackpool, and speaking to young people from Blackpool, I think has given me the experience I need to help people going forward. But originally, what inspired me to take action was national factors that you would likely be experiencing anywhere in the country. It all started when my brother was taking his Y6 SATS in 2016, the new system had been introduced and there were major problems on the first day and children were in tears in the classrooms. I just thought ‘this is wrong’, and that’s what caused me to get into politics in the first place.
“It really branched out from there, but that’s where it all started.”
As MYP, Andrew’s prerogative was to be the voice of Blackpool’s youth on the political stage, both locally and nationally.
He was guided by the results of the annual Make Your Mark campaign, which asks children aged 11 to 18 to vote on the issues they would like Britain’s Youth Parliament to focus on in the upcoming year.
Mental health was given top priority by Blackpool young people three years running, from 2017 to 2019. Protecting the environment, cracking down on crime, ending child poverty, and providing a curriculum that teaches life skills in schools also ranked highly in the town.
Andrew spoke passionately in the House of Commons about the ‘immoral’ lack of funding for mental healthcare in December 2019, saying: “In my constituency we have the highest rate of boderline personlity disorders in the country, yet have the fewest BPD specialists in the country. We also receive the lowest levels of funding for our mental health provision. This is an explicit and an immoral injustice. In my constituency and undoubfully elsewhere there is a desperate plea that politicians lend their support to our mental health services, which are subject to radically unfair neglect.”
He liased with Blackpool MPs Paul Maynard and Scott Benton about the various challenges faced by young people, and wrote to the PM. Since then, the resort has seen an increase in its funding for its children’s and young people’s mental health services, with Blackpool Council recently pledging a £10m investment in children’s and adult social care for 2021/22.
Andrew also met Labour leader Kier Starmer and Fleetwood MP Cat Smith to discuss young people’s role in the future of British politics.
He was helped in his journey by youth outreach group Urpotential, on Central Drive, with funding from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, a charity which supports strong communities and social development.
He said: “(Becoming an MYP) has been the best decision I’ve ever taken in my life. I have very much enjoyed doing it. Sometimes it hasn’t been easy; before I was elected I wasn’t sure how national conferences worked and when I spoke against a motion I ended up with other MYPs standing up and shouting against me. But although it has been tough, it has given me a sense of purpose in life and has helped me make a difference for local young people, and young people nationally.
“I’m looking forward to helpint to make changes for young people. That’s what I’m really passionate about – making changes, making a difference – and I feel like that’s something I am going to achieve in this job.”
BLACKPOOL COUNCIL SAID…
Coun Jim Hobson, Blackpool Council cabinet member for children’s social care and schools, said: “Blackpool Council has been working for some time to support vulnerable young people who are at risk of ending up not in education, employment or training (NEET). The council recognises the importance of tackling NEET and in response to this a town wide strategy is in development which proposes to focus on three key themes – preventing young people becoming NEET, targeting further support for young people who are NEET and helping young people to stay in education, training or employment when they do start college or a job. A key part of this approach is to co-produce initiatives by working with young people. We are delighted that Andrew Speight is one of the youth workers employed by HeadStart to make this happen. There will be a consultation on tackling NEET in the Autumn with young people at the centre of this.”