Saeed Atcha

Meet Saeed Atcha MBE DL, a Big Change Youth Associate and Big Education Challenge Champion, and social entrepreneur. After overcoming a difficult childhood, Saeed now dedicates his time to connecting young people to communities through his award-winning charity Youth Leads UK. In 2011 he was one of youngest people to become a Trustee of Step up to Serve, which led the #iwill campaign, empowering young people to make a positive difference. He is also the youngest person to become a Deputy Lieutenant and to receive an MBE in 2019.

What inspired your passion for youth action?

My upbringing and childhood made me who I am. I grew up in the care system and at school I was constantly at risk of permanent exclusion. I was battling on all fronts, yet the one thing that was constant was my education. Whilst school provided stability, it could have had a much more positive impact. I was that young person who asked a lot of questions. I always asked why, yet my teachers drummed into me that everything was about my exam grades. They didn’t realise that I wasn’t at school to get good grades, I was at school to escape the abuse I experienced at home.

My turning point came in 2011, when I was 15 and in my final year of school. There were riots in London and Manchester, and I noticed newspaper headlines describing young people as ‘yobs’, ‘threatening’, ‘feral animals’, ‘scum’. I was a tearaway, on the edges of the justice system, but I didn’t want to be. I realised then that the only person who could change my life was me.

The headlines in the newspaper angered me. I wanted to challenge their view about young people. This sparked my idea of setting up a magazine written by and for young people. When I suggested it to my school I was told to drop the idea and focus on grades. They were so fixated on my grades they even said they would close the school magazine that I was working on to help me focus on exams; threatening to remove the one thing I found motivating. Luckily, I spoke to my English teacher, my favourite teacher, and she urged me to pursue my idea. She suggested that I write to the Council, write to the Prime Minister, write to companies who might help.

My phone at the time was with O2, so I wrote to their Chief Executive and told him my idea. He wrote back, gave me £300 and said, “let me know how you get on”. I bought lots of pizza and coffee and rented a room. At the end of the day, I had a clear plan which I sent to the CEO. He sent me £3,000 and put me in touch with a mentor. Finally, I was being taken seriously. The mentorship was inspirational. I was given advice from a professional who I would never have met under my circumstances. This gave me a sense of purpose and direction and my idea came to life with the launch of Xplode, a youth magazine which is now part of Youth Leads UK, the charity I set up in 2011. Through our work we support young people with skills development programmes and help them challenge decision-makers.

What continues to motivate you?

My journey has been extraordinary and one I never thought I would have. I want to give the same opportunities to other young people, so they have opportunities regardless of their background. Through my charity work I see first-hand how social action can be life changing for young people, for our country,  and I truly believe it should be embedded in our education system. I am now a Governor at my old school, and I think more young people should be on the decision-making bodies of schools. It is a sad fact that only 2% of school governors are under the age of 30. We need more young people to challenge authority in order to inspire the next generation of leadership. Anything that boosts the skills of young people and helps them find their purpose, their calling, and their passion in life is important to me. I truly believe that we can solve some of society’s greatest problems by empowering young people. I am still in touch with the CEO who gave me my first opportunity. We meet for lunch, often in his penthouse in New York, which for a care experienced young person from Salford is incredible!

What excites you about the Big Education Challenge and what is one big change you hope to see in education and learning?

The Big Education Challenge is a fantastic opportunity for young people to come up with and execute solutions to make the world a better place. Young people need to be the ones that rebuild the system. They make up 25% of our population but they are 100% of our futures. My big hope is that we take young people’s voices more seriously. We need to refocus the education system to ensure children and young people develop a wide range of skills and attributes such as empathy, creativity, resilience, and how to navigate complexity. The current exam-factory approach means we are missing out on young people’s talent. Through the Big Education Challenge young people have an opportunity to rethink what the education system is for and how it operates. Many young people crave a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose. They want to see and feel the impact of what they’re doing. The Big Education Challenge is a once in a generation opportunity for young people to have their say in changing the education system.

What one piece of advice would you give to young innovators?

To borrow the famous phrase from Nike ‘Just do it’, because you’ll kick yourself if you don’t. One of my new year’s resolutions is to live with no regrets. It is important that we hear your experience and how you want to change the world. If you have a good idea, I urge you to apply for the Big Education Challenge.

"The Big Education Challenge is a fantastic opportunity for young people to come up with and execute solutions to make the world a better place. Young people need to be the ones that rebuild the system. They make up 25% of our population but they are 100% of our futures."