I’m at a tough referral centre in inner city London. Each morning students shuffle through an airport-style metal detector that alerts onlookers for possible knives and other sharp objects.
Bags are opened and if the alarm is tripped male or female security guards are on hand for a body search. All doors are locked, including the toilets, and have to be opened on request by teachers. The doors to the school are locked after everyone is inside; the gates to the playground are padlocked. Lockdown.
It was in this intimidating atmosphere that we first launched our Voice of the Child campaign a few weeks back.
The idea was to take along several well-known personalities and celebrities to meet the students, these included world championship boxer Nigel Benn, rapper MC Flux, former London gang leader turned youth policy adviser Gwenton Sloley and Philippa Wall, director of the local Young Women’s Project. The event was on the fly, we had no clue what to expect. These teenagers were the toughest of the lot and not inclined to open up to strangers.
Our speakers had turned up to tell the children about the obstacles they’d faced in their lives, how they had overcome them and how these children could do the same. But, above all, the idea was to encourage these kids to talk about themselves, their lives and aspirations. It was a tough ask.
To help us record the session we used the new live-streaming Periscope app, which feeds into Twitter and Facebook networks, and also film the speakers and record any questions by the children. We knew we were setting the bar high from the start – and there was a long way to fall if this didn’t work out.
As it turned out, the result was beyond our wildest dreams.
The children were very vocal, asking about the lives of our speakers and how they achieved success from tough backgrounds. The teens then talked openly about their struggles in life and how these had affected their life chances. They wanted to know how they could achieve similar successes to our speakers – or simply lead normal lives.
It was magnificent, eye opening and often incredibly sad.
We heard from children whose lives amounted to zero hope. Their environment, their family life, their lack of opportunities and general hardships all came under the spotlight. At the end of the session all the adults in the room were humbled and silenced until the spell was broken by the teacher overseeing the event who admitted: “I’ve never ever seen them like that – the children were engaged, eager, talkative, happy even. Unbelievable.”
This was the first of three events we ran in London. Each one had the same hugely positive outcome involving engaged students who were eager to talk and to be heard.
Voice of the Child campaign
The aim with our Voice of the Child campaign is to highlight the ever present dangers to young people of youth and gang violence, sexual exploitation, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence and radicalisation.
The backdrop to the campaign was the publication of the June report by the Children’s Commissioner who advocated promoting safeguarding children by listening to what they have to say. Simple really.
It’s worth quoting: ”The Children’s Commissioner for England promotes and protects children’s rights in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and, as appropriate, other human rights legislation and conventions. The Commissioner and her team does this by listening to what children and young people say about things that affect them and encouraging adults making decisions to take their views and interests into account.”
Key headline themes from the series of events we ran:
- We do matter – one student thought it would be a great opportunity for a “have your say” style session about the services available to help and shape the way they work and live. “After all, we understand better what young people need today than you think we do!”
- Listening to us – they spoke of how confusing they found the process of help, which in their eyes lacks transparency. Several students asked for meetings to discuss how to improve services that could help them speak up and contribute to discussions about decisions that affect them.
- Exploitation, gangs, violence and mental health – the central thread running through the event was how young people deal (or fail to understand) the risks they face. This was closely associated with where they came from and who they identified with.
- Role models – they clearly wanted role models to look up to. The main thrust of their questions were “how did you become successful – how did you manage to get away from crime, peers and pressure? Which life skills did you need to have to achieve what you have achieved?”
- Getting heard – they voiced the importance of being heard separately from their parents and being listened to by independent observers.
So what’s to be done?
Involving young people in decision making can help to create a sense of belonging and ownership and also support services to become more effective.
The views of these students and all young people are often only sought for evaluation at critical points in time, such as leading up to an annual report or inspection. It is essential that embedding these ‘voice activities’ and methods of gathering, recording and collating information becomes a day-to-day practice.
Most of all we wanted to bring forward some clear and straightforward suggestions to address these issues and ensure we provide the right sort of support for parents and children alike.
Although many organisations are already doing a good job in working with children and young people, there is much more scope for ensuring effective up-to-date and creative strategies of engagement.
I am confident this campaign recognises the need for professionals to step up and be as good as the very best, involving young people in key and topical areas. Above all, professionals – that’s social worker, teachers, healthcare wokers, the police – need to encourage feedback from our young people recognising that they should have a much larger say in what is appropriate or desirable for service delivery.
I want young people to feel empowered and, if they are not happy with the way they are treated, to feel that they can bring about change. They ought to feel that their concerns will get a fair hearing, and organisations should benefit from having their feedback.
The response to the Voice of the Child Campaign has been overwhelming and there’s never been a more timely campaign than this one.
If you would like to get involved please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mdsccltd. These children need a voice, they need to be heard – and I’d like this campaign to make that happen.