A pioneering programme enabling young people to have a voice and influence decisions in their own locality continues to thrive at Tonypandy Community College.

Tonypandy is the only secondary school in the whole of the UK to employ a Youth Empowerment Officer whose designated remit is to empower young people to develop initiatives where they can have their own say on issues that affect them.

Cardiff-born Mark Eades-Jones has enjoyed a lengthy career as a youth worker and champion of children’s rights, including establishing youth parliaments for local authorities, children’s charities and health organisations.

Now in his first year as Youth Empowerment Officer at Tonypandy Community College he is already witnessing the benefits of the role with more and more students gaining the ability and confidence to implement change in their own lives and the lives of others.

Youth empowerment is often addressed as a gateway to intergenerational equity, civic engagement and democracy building.

His role is financed through the Big Lottery funded Community Voice programme, a national initiative run locally by Interlink. Within Rhondda Cynon Taf, Community Voice consists of eight partners, each working with a different section of the community to support and enable people’s views and opinions to be expressed.

Mark explained, “Community Voice inspires our students to fulfil their potential, develop skills and grow in confidence. We support and enable them to have their views and opinions listened to and acted upon across a range of issues both inside the College and out in the wider community.

“It also involves students from other secondary schools in the County Borough and is a great way of encouraging young people to debate and challenge everyday issues that matter most to them.

“We have developed the Student Council of 12 pupils including a boy and girl from each year and the school’s Head Boy and Head Girl who are voted into position by their peers. They meet regularly and address issues both within and outside the College.

“They are the first School in Rhondda Cynon Taf to be involved in Citizen Cymru’s “Brighter Futures” youth citizenship project which will bring them together with young people from across Wales to campaign on a range of issues.

“We also launched a community action group for post-16 students, called Get Involved, which is also reaping its rewards.

“It includes an impressive range of students who operate a mentoring service for young pupils, a Buddy Reading scheme, young journalists, anti-bullying ambassadors and a community group.

“Some of them made a presentation at the “Actions Speak Louder Than Words” conference and have held a coffee morning for MacMillan cancer charity. They are currently running the second of three “money for life” challenges, educating young students about living well on a budget.

“A number of them are also working on a new project aimed at improving relationships between the school, parents, teachers and the wider community.

“They’ve given presentations to a variety of organisations, debated youth sessions in the National Assembly which collectively has helped them develop and flourish.”

The series of initiatives support young people to develop holistically as human beings and not just academically, although participation does count towards their Welsh Baccalaureate.

The latest development is a new Rhondda Cynon Taf Community Voice youth forum, being established by the young people to enable them to work in partnership with peers from across the district.

Headteacher Helen O’Sullivan said, “At Tonypandy Community College we fully support the excellent work being undertaken to develop the youth empowerment process.

“Thanks to this inspiring initiative which is unique to our College as we are the only one in the UK with our own designated Youth Empowerment Officer, our students are gaining the ability, authority, and opportunity to make decisions and implement change in their own lives and the lives of other people.”