I was delighted to get an invitation to the second GameChanger conference for children in care across the north west of England, organised by the brilliant Youth Focus Northwest. The first one in Blackpool last year was such a resounding success it immediately created an assumption that this would be an annual opportunity for young people. Why wouldn’t young people gather to compare experiences of care and tell decision makers about the change they want?

This year’s was in a smart new building on the Manchester Metropolitan University campus. Instead of the promise of the Blackpool illuminations after the conference, today’s offered the longer term aspiration of university study, with information on the local authority grants, accommodation and student support that universities are increasingly providing to make sure young people in care can get into higher education.

As usual, the role of the youth workers in supporting young people to attend and participate was striking – perhaps not because their warm, relaxed, unconditional respect and affection for each young person involves unusual skills or esoteric knowledge, but because such easy-going, child-centred support seems to be in such short supply in other systems today. Our evidence gathering for the ChildFair State Inquiry suggests this isn’t because individuals working with children and families don’t want to get to know them, to work on their terms and expect the best of them, but because systems and structures in education, health and social care make this sort of power- and responsibility-sharing a radical and risky proposition. We could all do with a return to the relationship-based approach of youth work.

There were four main issues derived from last year’s discussions that young people wanted to explore: family time; feeling safe; trust with professionals; and consistency. I only got to listen to young people talking about trust – both of them by adults, and by them of adults – but as the discussions moved from regularity of social worker visits to overly administrative ‘chats’ with foster carers, and brought out huge differences between young people’s experiences, I couldn’t help wondering if all four issues come down to the same thing: relationships, and the lack of space and resource in the system to allow and support them.

Young people in each discussion formulated questions to put to the ‘decision makers’ present – mostly Directors of Children’s Services. Young people in my group had several hard-hitting questions for the two DCSs in the room, to which the main slightly defensive response seemed to be that social workers should be clear about whether they can fulfil a request; should return phone calls; should get the balance right between maintaining professional reserve and sharing information to make the relationship more equal and human – but that this can be very difficult to do, with the time and obligations a social worker has. You get the impression it would all be a lot easier if every young person was the same, with exactly the same needs that could be scheduled into a professional calendar and budget. But each young person has a unique set of needs, that will change over time, and what they were asking for wasn’t that they all have an identical response from professionals, but that they have carers and professionals who see them as a whole person, and have the time to build a relationship that is real, flexible, mutually respectful.

Systems don’t tend to allow for individuality: relationships do. (Incidentally, the Buurtzorg model of community nursing, which we discovered through the ChildFair State Inquiry, seems to offer an alternative, using a framework of values within which each professional has the freedom to base their practice on their relationship with each client – ‘professional freedom with responsibility’.)

Most speakers at the event were older young people who have left care and are now using their experiences, skills and determination to bring about wider change – as social workers, performers and campaigners. Both the inspiring stories they had to tell about their own lives, and the young audience’s response to them, suggest it isn’t young people themselves who are holding back from ambitious lives outside and beyond the care system. Francis Taylor, now working with our member Become, exhorted the group to focus on the positive, to choose how they see themselves. I’d say those in the room (although they might not be the majority), applauding his performance, are on board with his message and it’s up to the rest of us to give them the support they deserve – no one achieves greatness alone.

Youth Focus Northwest’s Stuart commented in concluding that there is a growing sense of identity and collective voice amongst young people in care in the north west now, thanks to events like this. Long may that thrive, and long may decision-makers continue to listen, reflect and pledge to make changes.