‘Nothing about us, without us’: why services must listen to the voice of young people
Updated: Jan 17
Hannah Szczepanski argues that we need to do more to involve children in decisions about how services are designed and delivered.
Children and young people have a right to be heard in the decisions that affect them. This is well-established, in law (The Children Act 2004 and Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) and best practice (the principle of doing ‘with’, not ‘to’).
Yet, despite this, the voice of children and young people in children’s services too often remains marginal to how decisions are made. The recent government-commissioned Independent Review of Children’s Social Care found that there are ‘too few adults who are unequivocally on their side and able to amplify their voice’.
But if we don’t listen to children, we miss invaluable insight into their needs and experiences of support.
I have seen the value of co-producing services with young people first-hand. I worked with a group of young researchers to evaluate a programme to help vulnerable young people in their pathways to employment during COVID-19. Their involvement was instrumental to understanding new challenges young people were facing, including experiences of digital poverty and the negative impact of platforms such as Zoom on self-image and self-esteem. Listening to the group helped ensure our findings and recommendations were framed and disseminated in a way that addressed these concerns and was accessible.
Elsewhere, there are other examples that clearly demonstrate the benefits of strengthening the voice of children and young people in the design of services.
The Family Justice Young People’s Board (FJYPB) is a group of over 50 children and young people between 7-25 years old, many of who have lived experience of the family justice system. This Board has been pivotal in ensuring the Family Justice Board is child-inclusive, for example through their ‘Mind Your Language’ work which encourages professionals to reflect on their use of language during family law proceedings.
Coram Voice’s ‘A National Voice’ ambassadors (ANV) have worked with the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, Ofsted and the Department of Education, and have launched a ‘Support Our Journey’ mental health campaign – a cause that was chosen by children in care and care leavers.
In Newcastle, the council’s ‘voice and influence team’ lead a programme of engagement with children across the city, aiming to make children’s voices a conscious element of all its services. This includes working groups of young people in each of the four divisions of the city and regular meetings of young people that share the experience of being in care. A recent outcome of this has been to highlight the critical issue for them around the cost of transport and its impact on accessing education and employment opportunities. As a result, the council struck a deal with the Metro and bus providers to give care experienced children free public transport.
As much as involving children and young people in decision-making needs formal structures, it is also about a change of culture and attitude. The voice of the child needs to be built into existing processes and conversations. Where it is missing, we need to challenge ourselves to make space for children and young people in a way that is both accessible and supportive.
The principle that the child should be central to decision-making about the design and delivery of services is not new or controversial, but there is still work to be done to make it a reality. Ultimately, children and young people are best placed to shape the services that they need but realising the benefits of that means a genuine commitment to listening to their voices.
To learn more about Mutual Ventures’ work in children’s services, click here.