Game Changer Children in Care conference - visual agendaBringing together almost 200 young people and their youth workers from across the North West of England to discuss what it’s like to be in care and how it could be better for young people could be a challenge. How to make it fun, meaningful, inclusive, just the right balance of formality and informality?

On Saturday in Blackpool, Youth Focus North West made it look easy. I went along as an observer, keen to exchange the data and desk-work of children’s policy for a day with the children whose day to day life is supported – or undermined – by that policy. A full report of the event will be available from Youth Focus North West soon, which I will add here, but in the meantime I wanted to share my reflections as a relative outsider – non-local and non-practitioner – in case they’re useful to others working in children’s policy, youth participation and children in care.

Children and young people from Children in Care Councils from 16 local authorities in the North West, one in the Midlands and two voluntary organisations attended, accompanied by two or three staff from their area. The age range was huge – from about 10 upwards – and I’m sure the range of experiences amongst those young people was vast too. Sitting with one of the groups (Trafford, thank you for having me!) I was struck by the brilliant relationship between young people and youth workers. There must be an alchemy to it that takes years to develop and can’t be distilled into a marketable potion but to paraphrase one of the young people at my table, when I asked what made these ‘trusted adults’ so good at trusting and valuing young people, ‘They’re friendly and they aren’t too formal so you don’t feel like there’s a right or wrong answer to everything.’ The conversations I heard between adults and young people were almost all of the chatty, challenging type of banter you hear in a family – from arguments about who’s having the last sweet to heartfelt jubilation on someone’s recent excellent exam results.

My question was in the context of a session revealing the results of a survey completed by participants in advance of the event, each question asking the young person to prioritise a series of issues for children in care. On the day, each group tried to anticipate what the top priority in each category of issues would be across the whole region, leading to interesting discussions and some surprising revelations. The use of this pre-event survey, both for the views it gathered and the structure it gave to the event, was inspired, and leads me to try and identify why the event worked well and what implications it might have for children’s policy and participation.

What made it such a good participation event?

The pre-event survey gave young people confirmation that their views would be heard – and that they would be able to hear other young people’s views at the event. It wasn’t a long survey – perhaps 4 questions asking respondents to pick what was most important to them from lists of five – but all the issues were carefully picked from the Coram Voice survey of young people in care, such as feeling safe and free from bullying, having regular contact with siblings, getting a second chance if you make a mistake, and having access to key trusted adults. Discussing the survey results at the event gave everyone a sense of revelation and surprise but also empathy and recognition.

The hosting and general structure of the day was organised, but relaxed. With a young compere and different leads for each session, there were many different voices, ages and skills on show, and never the sense that one adult or set of adults was controlling proceedings and judging whether people were participating ‘properly’. Each group of Children in Care Council representatives sat at their own table so they weren’t forced to hold any of the more serious discussions with unfamiliar people, but there were plenty of activities where everyone could mingle and no sense of competition or separateness.

Young people’s opinions were invited through music and humour. The (very popular) creative theme of the day was rap, with local celebrity Afghan Dan participating both as a young person with experience of care and as a performer whose lyrics the other young people found really inspiring. Hopefully a write-up of the ‘bars’ the young people wrote themselves will be available soon, as some of us adults were involved in a separate discussion while they were writing, but the sentiments the lyric-writing session evoked sounded, to my distracted ear, very eloquent and more heartfelt than might have come out of a traditional writing task. All the young participants, whether lamenting the use of jargon about their lives, or celebrating the strength and resilience of young people like themselves, seemed to love the opportunity to write a few lines about care in order to hear them put to a beat by a successful young person with a shared history.

It didn’t try to do everything. With big annual events that can be so difficult to arrange, some of us try to cram in every possible question and activity, and stretch participants to frustration point. Change Makers played to its strengths. It made the most of well-known locations and people, only ran from 10.30am – 3.30pm and didn’t attempt to force consensus or behaviour change. While young people’s opinions were accepted immediately and intrinsically, a few of us adults were invited to make pledges for action after the conference (look out for pledges from representatives of Ofsted, a Director of Children’s Services, a local lead councillor and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – plus me). The format of the day might also have been similar to what young participants were familiar with from more local meetings.

Event organisation was delegated to people with the right connections. In purely administrative and resourcing terms, Youth Focus NW has a model of sharing out tasks with the people best placed to do them. For Change Makers, Blackpool contacts took care of things like the goody bags and access to the fairground, while individual sessions were devised by staff from other Children in Care Councils using their understanding of the needs of children in care. Youth Focus NW has also spent around 14 years building up extremely strong connections with local authorities and, whilst local authorities might not all fully appreciate what it brings to the youth sector in the North West, they clearly trust it to provide a meaningful channel for young people’s voices.

The venue was Blackpool Pleasure Beach! This alone might have been enough to persuade participants to stick around till the 3.30pm juncture where wristbands were distributed and the conference gave way to roller coaster rides.

 Game Changer Children in Care conference - visual minutes

What can adults learn from young participants’ views?

Again, the survey was really instructive. Whilst a simple interpretation (and possibly one commissioners and policy people would turn to for ‘efficient’ or ‘evidence-based’ service provision) would be that because, for example, the majority of young people in care think having contact with siblings is more important than having contact with parents, or that being safe from bullying is more important than being trusted by adults and listened to, systems for sibling contact and protection from bullying are worthier of resourcing than supporting contact with parents or trust between adults and young people. But it hits home as soon as you hear a discussion of these issues among the young people concerned that ALL of these things are important. Not one of the issues suggested in the survey was dismissed by young participants as irrelevant – in fact there are all too many aspects of their lives affected by professionals’ decisions and available resources.

Averages, majorities and prioritisation cannot get to the heart of what each young person needs from their corporate parents, and no individual young person in care should be called on to represent all other young people in care. Whilst the young people at my table felt there were more important types of support than being safe from bullying (hopefully because they haven’t experienced it) and if even one young person in the region flags up bullying as an issue, can we really focus on other types of support and ignore the fact that a young person has been bullied for being in foster or residential care? Of course we can’t.

Children and young people should be able to represent themselves – as themselves. Related to the above point, a young person should only be expected to represent themselves, unless they’ve been supported to gather other young people’s views. It’s tempting to see the label of the group / council / forum and apply it to individual members, so that whatever they say comes from an ‘in care’ perspective which must somehow represent or refute what other young people ‘in care’ say. But this risks missing the unique experiences of all young people, and simplifying their views into the ‘right or wrong answers’ they’re keen to avoid. We need to involve as many different children and young people as we can, and not confine them to the particular forum where we deem some of their experiences or needs more relevant than others.

A framework for children’s rights. If the system is to meet each young person on their own terms and be prevented from rationalising support down to a few ‘winning’ issues, a consistent idea of children’s rights and entitlements is essential across local authorities and services. The Ofsted leaflet Young people’s guide to good corporate parents, used in Blackpool and distributed at the event, sets a basic level for young people’s expectations of their local authority, and the incoming Corporate Parenting Principles will be important in giving all children and young people in care a robust but flexible framework within which they can demand the best of their corporate parents – whatever best means for them. (Government consultation on the guidance for the new Corporate Parenting Principles, including a young person’s guide to the consultation, is open till November 27th.)

Jargon. It’s pernicious in almost every context, but for young people whose lives are constantly mediated by processes and professionals (and, rightly, by laws and safeguards that rely on a common language), it’s particularly life-changing. Change Makers devoted a session to challenging the jargon of pathway plans, sibling contact and, as one boy put it, ‘strategy meetings instead of ‘me’ meetings’. It’s not up to children and young people to bridge the gap between how they see themselves and how decision-makers speak about them – it’s up to us. Looked After Children was the most unwanted of the lot: one Director of Children’s Services said simply ‘we call them our children.’

We can’t learn if we aren’t there. I was lucky to have met Liz, CEO of Youth Focus North West, and be invited to join the Game Changer conference. But many useful decision-makers – DCSs, DfE ministers and staff, the Children’s Commissioner herself – weren’t there, despite Youth Focus NW attempts to engage officials. I hope they’ll read the report and get some sense of the quality, as well as quantity, of sentiments expressed – but I know they won’t be able to appreciate the full impact of the young people’s views because they weren’t in the room, either to observe the myriad little moments of true ‘corporate’ parenting where young people were treated with such respect and care, or to hear so many young voices refusing to be labelled, side-lined, or streamlined into service specifications.