This month we hear from Zahra Hedges, Chief Executive of Winning Scotland, a national charity working with partners to build confidence and resilience in children and young people.

Our CEO, Lorraine Gillies, is involved in your work on something called ‘Planet Youth’. Can you tell us about it?

Planet Youth is the brand name of the Icelandic Primary Prevention Model. Around twenty years ago, teenagers in Iceland were drinking, smoking and taking drugs earlier and more often than other teens in other countries. So a group of social scientists and researchers decided to take a more scientific approach, replacing the traditional Just Say No campaigns. They started by listening to their young people; surveying teenagers to understand what risks they were taking, but also what their lives were like at school, at home, their friendships and how they spent their free time. The data identified that there were certain things that meant a teenager was more likely to make healthy choices, what we’re calling protective factors, and others that meant risk-taking behaviour was more likely.

For example, in Iceland, when teens got home before 10pm, that correlated with less risky behaviour, as did taking part in quality extracurricular activities several times a week, and spending time with their parents over the weekend.

This information was shared locally, with all sorts of people and organisations who had a vested interest in creating a generation of healthier, happier young people and they were challenged to come up with ideas to increase the number of protective factors in young people’s lives. The communities worked together over several years to increase the number of kids who had access to these sorts of positive environments. It wasn’t easy, but gradually, the number of young people drinking, smoking and taking drugs decreased to such an extent that they are now considered the ‘cleanest living teens in Europe.’

That’s fantastic. But how is it relevant for Scotland?

We started testing this approach in 2021, when we did our first lot of surveys with teens from 13 high schools. Interestingly, the proportion of young people smoking, drinking and taking drugs, and the age at which they are doing it, is very similar to where Iceland was in 1998.

So, we can fairly extrapolate that change is possible, although of course, Scotland is a much bigger country than Iceland. The Planet Youth approach is now in 30 countries, and it’s starting to bear fruit – lots of the challenges our kids are facing are the same the world over, and we’re lucky to be part of that learning network.

Is that why you and Lorraine were in Rome recently? 

Yes, there is an annual Planet Youth conference, bringing together all the different countries involved, and we took a small but mighty delegation from Scotland! It was great to share our journey, and also to learn from the different areas. Planet Youth gives a robust framework and model but it is, and should be, applied differently depending on the local context. So, in some places it’s being led by charities, in others it’s the local and national government, and in one it’s even the local police! We all came back buzzing with ideas and can’t wait to accelerate our work here. 

So what’s next? 

We’ve been working with 5 local test of change areas in Scotland and will be doing the second round of surveys this autumn. We have had enquiries from a few other places so we’re looking at how we can bring them in to the fold too. After 5 years of working on this below the radarwe were delighted that the Scottish Government agreed to invest in Planet Youth in Scotland for the next two years. This will mainly be spent building capacity in local areas, but we will also be looking at how we influence broader change so that this becomes something every young person and family in Scotland can benefit from.  

Why did you want SCSN to be involved? 

I think there is a huge overlap between what Planet Youth does and what your members do. It’s about creating safe, healthy communities because we know that young people growing up in these environments fare better. 

Although the surveys are done in schools, the solutions need to come from the whole community, especially given the challenging financial situation. Everyone will need to come together to look at the data and see what part they can play in creating solutions. Community Planning Partners in particular are already involved in our five test of change areas and we want to encourage more of that, as well as a reaching out beyond the usual ‘kent’ faces.  

Where can I find out more? 

Visit the website and you can contact us there.