How can we transform education? Saeed Atcha speaks to Big Change

29 June 2020

“We can solve some of society’s greatest problems by empowering young people…”

#iwill Ambassador Saeed Atcha MBE, 23, is CEO of youth charity Youth Leads. Here, he is interviewed by Big Change, a youth education charity committed to an education system that gives young people what they need to thrive. 

Why are you so passionate about the role of young people in society?

We can solve some of society’s greatest problems by empowering young people. We don’t need to give young people a voice. Young people have always got the voice, it’s about amplifying it. Young people want purpose, they want to feel like they are making a difference. And because of that they want to see and feel the impact of what they’re doing.

How did you feel about school when you were in it?

When I was at school I was at risk of permanent exclusion, I was on the peripheries of criminal justice teams within a local authority. But even though I was the tearaway, I never wanted to be.

The way I’d describe school and education is whilst all the instability and chaos ensued at home, school was the stable thing. I’ve always said I was never there for grades, I was there purely because it was the safe place to be, knowing that it was there every day without fail.

In 2011, aged 15 and in my final year at high school, my life began to change. To start with, I took part in the Mosaic Prince’s Trust Enterprise Challenge. As one of five teams in the final we had to go to pitch an idea about education in London.

This was the first time I’d ever been out of Greater Manchester. On a trip with school, with five classmates, pitching an online classroom delivery service (ironic, considering the current situation!). We found out after the pitch that there were secret millionaires in the audience. It was like the Apprentice.

We had mentorship from professional individuals you wouldn’t ordinarily come into contact with. The mentoring and business engagement made me feel like there was something real for me, a bit of purpose.

What happened when you came back to school?

Later on in 2011, just after the riots, I went to a shop by school (to buy all the junk food which they’ve subsequently banned!) and in there to my left were all the newspaper headlines. All describing young people as feral animals and scum, yobs, thugs, evil, frightening.

And I thought I’ve got to do something about that. I want to do something to tackle that.

That was where I came up with the idea of establishing a magazine, being part of the press to showcase the positive things that young people are doing.

But a teacher pulled me aside and said that the school magazine was going to be pulled because it was GCSE year and I needed to focus on getting the grades.  My rebellious nature said ‘eff that’. ‘I’m definitely doing this magazine and it’s going to be bigger than this tiny school.’ So that gave me a bit of motivation.

I’d got hold of a phone that was on O2 so I wrote to them and said ‘you’re a youth brand, do you want to back my idea?’. Amazingly, they called the school directly, asked to speak to me, and told me they’d back the magazine.

A lot of people have said to me that it’s down to luck. But I don’t believe that luck just comes to you, I believe you create your own luck.

Today, the magazine is part of the larger charity Youth Leads where I’m Chief Executive. We’ve supported over 7500 young people into employment, we support skills development. We have 10000 copies printed and distributed to 25 high schools. My entire organisation is youth-led, nobody is above the age of 25 – me included.

And I’ve never been in trouble since.  Now I support peripheral justice teams.

Do you think there’s a role for extra-curricular opportunities to be part of education? 

We need to end the culture of questioning young people’s ambitions, because that could’ve thrown me the other way.

Teachers are only humans, they’ve got to get the grades just as much as the students. But that can give them tunnel vision, they don’t see the impact of what things like social action can do to a young person’s life. 

The #iwill campaign has been working over the last seven years to show how youth social action and education can work together, that social action can boost young people’s wellbeing and skills, and connect them into their school communities. Education settings are one of the very best places for social action to take place, as it makes it accessible for young people from all backgrounds, not just those with the time or money to travel to extra curricular clubs.

We’re seeing young people really stepping up during this time… how is Youth Leads responding to Covid?

Well, young people have told us that they are facing increased mental health and wellbeing issues.

They’re also saying to us that they’re very worried about the world of work. A number of them are on zero hour contracts, many have been told they might not be reemployed after their furlough ends. So there’s real anxiety about the future.

But there’s also a desire to do something, they’re bored, they want things to do. We’re actually launching a campaign called Unleash Your Voice and that is for every young person.

Ordinarily our magazines are only produced by the young people we work with because it’s part of a bigger programme. But we’re opening this up, creating a brand new online resource, we’ve got interviews with leading journalists on there who are doing five tips to a perfect story and other writing advice. So young people are able to learn things as they’re contributing to the magazine. We’ll publish every single article that we get online and the best will then be taken forward to a printed version when everything gets back to normal and we can get back into the Asda stores that we partner with.

What’s your one hope for change in education as we emerge out of this crisis to rebuild and renew?

That schools and the education system understands better not just that everything is not about exams, but also why it’s not all about exams.

You can sign up to Unleash Your Voice and learn from Youth Leads’ free trainings at your own pace here.

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