Parkside Coleridge students unlock democracy in Cambridge


Year 9 students achieved by lunchtime what I had failed to achieve in over 2 years of campaigning, as young people show how they can change the cultures of our public institutions

My jaw figuratively hit the floor when one of my local councillors & leader of the Cambridge Labour group on Cambridge City Council, Councillor Lewis Herbert, responded to my question at Cambridge East Area Committee. I asked him what councillors had learnt from their recent visit to Parkside’s Coleridge Campus in Cambridge.

Some of you might be aware that I have been campaigning for quite some time (with probably reduced effectiveness/impact as time has gone on) about the need for local councils and councillors to listen to young people, and for more of them to start using social media. Despite all of my connections in local government and in Westminster, despite a significant social media following on Twitter through Puffles, despite working knowledge of local government policy in Whitehall/Central Government in London, and despite having been to lots of council meetings in person, I cannot match the achievements of what Year 9 students at Coleridge achieved in a single morning: They changed the culture and mindset of an influential institution – or rather the leader of it.

I’d also like to thank Andrew Limb and his team at Cambridge City Council, and to the head of Coleridge Bev Jones and her team for making this visit happen. I’m aware that the significant pressures on the curriculum, as well as demands on councillors’ time mean organising such things are very difficult. I’d also like to thank the other councillors that went along too – including Cllr Richard Johnson who informed me that the visit was taking place. I’d also like to thank Cllr Lewis Herbert too – to come out with a statement like that took a fair amount of courage knowing the past exchanges in previous blogposts I have had with other councillors in his party. (I cover this further down).

“Splendid stuff! Now that the council is more likely to be in ‘listening’ mode, what next for Coleridge students – and young people across Cambridge?”

There are elections coming up on 22 May – for the European Parliament (see here for a video guide) and for Cambridge City Council (see here for the council’s election information). Just because you do not have the vote does not mean you do not have a voice. You’ve already demonstrated that. Now’s your chance to really make a ***massive impact*** on Cambridge.


By using social and digital media to ask questions, make suggestions and most importantly, demand answers to the issues that are important to you. Councillors, political activists and people like me all have our own specific interests, but they won’t necessarily be the same as yours, and they definitely won’t be based on the same life experiences. Now’s your chance to make your influence count – in very big numbers and all at once.

“Where do I find my elected representatives?”

The easiest way is by going to the website – simply type in your post code and it will show you who your representatives are on Cambridge City Council, Cambridgeshire County Council, in the UK Parliament and in the European Parliament. There is also the Cambridgeshire community website ShapeYourPlace. If you want your concerns to be made public, you can post them on there. Also, Ms Ashley Whittaker of Cambridgeshire County Council offers schools and colleges free training in citizen journalism for those of you that want to use the website. You and/or your teachers can contact her via this form.

“What about Facebook, Twitter and things like that?”

I’ve tried to persuade local parties to improve their Facebook presence, but am having no luck. Not least because so few people outside the local democracy bubble make use of them. Only you can change their minds. Before you click on the links below, have a look at the guidance on staying safe online from the Information Commissioner’s Office – click here. The Information Commissioner is the official ‘Watchdog’ responsible for protecting your privacy.

Cambridge Conservatives

Cambridge Green Party

  • Facebook – They are here as a fan page, which at the time of blogging is standard. They also have a Cambridge Young Greens fan page too. While anyone can post content, conversations are limited.
  • Twitter – @CambridgeGreens, though as with the Conservatives, a few broadcast-style tweets. No local regular Twitter activists sparring at a Cambridge City Council level, though @FionaRadic covers at a county level, and @GreenRupertRead at a regional level.
  • Website/blog – they are here.

Cambridge Labour Party

  • Facebook – They are here as a fanpage. While anyone can post comments, only admins can post content. Cambridge Universities Labour Club’s Facebook page (see here) is much more vibrant, and anyone can post content.
  • Twitter – @CambridgeLabour – nothing since 2010! In stark contrast to a wealth of active Twitter users, including deputy leader @CarinaOReilly@CllrRJohnson and@AnnMSinnott.
  • Website/blog – They are here, but the new-style website based on a centralised template (see similarities say to Harlow, here) needs populating – particularly on campaigns and events.

Cambridge Liberal Democrats

Cambridge UKIP

  • Facebook – None
  • Twitter – None, though the (former) UKIP group leader @PeterReeve on Cambridgeshire County Council has been a regular tweeter for some time, and has a sizeable following.
  • Website/blog – the only one I could find was this one.

“What should I ask about – and how?”

Ultimately that’s up to you. You may want to ask about:

  • Something in your neighbourhood that could be improved
  • Something that is stopping you from doing or achieving something you are passionate about
  • An injustice – something that you feel is wrong and needs dealing with

Remember that some issues will be more suitable for discussing in public than others. For issues that are private and/or sensitive, you may want to speak to an adult in a position of trust first. In Cambridge there is also the youth charity Centre33 (see here – they were excellent with me a few years back) and nationally, there is Childline.

“How can we increase our impact – and get the changes we want?”

For a start, getting together with other people. If you and a group of friends post similar questions together to local political parties and candidates, the greater their incentive to respond. Remember at the moment, few people outside Cambridge’s local democracy social media bubble use social media to engage with councillors. You can change that.

There are also local campaign groups that might interest you. How many of you cycle regularly? The Cambridge Cycling Campaign (see here) is one of the most active. For those of you on Facebook or Twitter, are you following them? For those of you interested in the environment, how about Transition Cambridge? (See here). For both of those local groups, it would just take a couple of you from each secondary school or sixth form college in Cambridge getting involved with them to get them campaigning for and with you on like-minded issues.

“Just how significant is the achievement by Parkside Coleridge students?”

Very. It’s a ‘game changer’ potentially.

My blogpost and the conversation stream that followed in here shows just how entrenched the views of different people were. To note in the comments stream, George Owers and Carina O’Reilly are both Labour councillors for Cambridge City Council, and Ian Manning is a Liberal Democrat councillor on Cambridgeshire County Council – all based in Cambridge. Note that as recently as January 2014, both Cllrs Owers and O’Reilly were stating that as far as public administration is concerned, Cambridgeshire County Council has the main responsibility for young people – not Cambridge City Council. (Technically correct).

Fast forward less than three months, and the leader of their party is saying publicly that councillors need to significantly improve their relationship with teenagers. The point being that the way the councils are set up encourages councillors and council staff on Cambridge City Council to put ‘young people’ in a box marked ‘For Cambridgeshire County Council. Cllr Lewis Herbert has effectively said this has got to change.

“Message to students at schools and colleges across Cambridge?”

Start discussing the local issues with friends and family. Come up with questions that you want to put to councillors, candidates and parties. Just as importantly, please give them feedback on what you think of their responses. Did they answer your question? Did their response satisfy you? Did it annoy you? Did it make you want to ask even more questions/make more demands? Did you ask them further questions? Where appropriate, did you share the responses you got with other people? Finally, how will you use the new found knowledge? Will you influence how adults around you choose to vote? Will you join a local campaign?

If community action is your thing…

Have a look at National Citizen Service in the East of England – see here. It’s run 3 times a year and aimed at students in years 11 and 12. There’s lots of outward bound activities and lots of community action where you get to design and run your own project. Have a look at this.

Cambridge: It’s your city. Be the difference.


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