We are the champions

The hand-held camera jerkily records a scene that could be from
any children’s home, in any town, anywhere in the

A care worker is accusing a teenage girl of stealing his
cigarettes. A bit of a troublemaker and a heavy smoker, the girl is
an obvious suspect. But this time we know she is innocent. Earlier
her best friend, whose video diary we are watching, has filmed the
real culprit removing the cigarettes from the care worker’s
jacket pocket.

The friend tries to intervene but is brusquely dismissed. “And
turn that bloody camera off,” shouts the care worker. Later,
confronted with the video evidence of his mistake, he tries to
shift the blame. “You should have told me,” he shouts. “I tried,”
is the reply. “Well you didn’t try hard enough.”

This vignette of care home has been acted out by members of the
Rights and Participation Project (Rapp), a young persons’
advocacy group based in Hull.

Acted so well, in fact, that its 15-year-old star won an award
at this year’s Hull film festival and the film is now being
used as a training aid for care workers in Hull.

It is just one of several initiatives that Rapp has been
involved in since 1997, seeking to give disenfranchised young
people in Hull a louder voice when dealing with officialdom.

The project was launched after a multi-agency conference
concluded that education, health and social services were failing
to engage with a large number of young people leading risky
lifestyles in the city

Children’s rights officer Craig Clark explains: “The main
theme that came from the conference was that these young people
felt they had been saturated by a lot of well-meaning adults,
rather than really listened to.” So joint finance came together
from social services, Save the Children Fund, the Warren [a young
people’s resource centre] and the health service to set up an
independent listening service.

The result was a service that works both on a one-to-one basis
with individual young people and on a more strategic level, helping
agencies develop systems that can respond to young people’s

“Firstly there’s the independent advocacy that we provide
daily across a range of services helping young people who feel they
can’t get access to services or they’ve been done a
disservice,” says Clark. “Then we use what we’ve learned from
that to develop other systems to make sure that young people are
listened to.”

Of course, this championing of children’s rights is much
in vogue. The government has issued National Advocacy Standards
requiring local authorities to communicate more effectively with
young people. And the Local Government Association, the NHS
Confederation and the Association of Directors of Social Services
have jointly published the Serving Children Well report proposing
that “children’s champions” are created to “walk the
services” identifying weaknesses and reporting areas of excellence
to be shared between agencies.

However, despite Rapp’s apparent synchrony with the latest
government thinking, Clark is acutely aware that the project must
also embrace its rhetoric. Rapp is therefore seeking to launch its
own children’s champion team which will try to extend the
project’s services over a wider range of agencies.

“Rapp’s core philosophy will stay the same,” says Clark.
“The difference is that we are widening the safety net approach by
trying to get other agencies on board. There’s a host of
stuff coming from government, like the national standards. So these
agencies are going to have to become involved in advocacy systems.
We are inviting them to do this through us.”

There is also a more pragmatic reason to expand the service.
Rapp’s funding from Save the Children Fund runs out in March
next year. Hence the drive for more partners.

Under the children’s champion banner Rapp will continue to
offer its one-to-one advocacy aiming to help young people deal with
a wide range of issues.

“These are young people who have fallen through all the various
safety nets,” says Clark. “They have been excluded from school, or
run away from home or care. They’ve got outstanding warrants
or they are being chased around town by frustrated education
welfare officers.

“Through the children’s champion programme we are trying
to look at that safety net approach with the other agencies. We are
not looking to become the ultimate safety net but to strengthen the
protection put in place by the other agencies. When the young
people fall through those system, we will try and feed them back

“The way we start is always from the point of view of the young
person; how they see the situation and how they feel about it. We
then try to help them develop allies to bring about a more positive

For instance Rapp works with a lot of children who are on the
brink of school exclusion. By encouraging them to become involved
in more positive pursuits (recent examples include making the
training film and speaking at a national conference) the project
aims to boost the young person’s self-confidence and combat
the feeling that the system has given up on them.

“The pressure for Rapp is to be creative, to be different from
the adults that these young people have had contact with before,”
says Clark. “We are trying to get away from the last chance saloon
and not write people off at the age of 12 and 13.”

Clark admits that Rapp’s approach can cause friction
within some agencies who may feel they are being undermined.

“The head teachers especially do feel threatened because, while
there’s a lot in the Education Act about parental rights,
there’s only a little about children’s rights. And in
the Ofsted world that we live in, it’s all

Nevertheless, Rapp does works closely with a number of services
to help develop procedures that young people feel comfortable

One of the most obvious ways of doing this is through the
development of complaints procedures that are responsive to young
people’s needs.

“We’ve tried to develop systems with the big bureaucracies
to ensure that young people are listened to,” says Clark. “One way
of doing that is through robust young person-friendly complaint
systems, on the back of the Waterhouse report, that give young
people access to an advocate within the complaint systems.”

Rapp has also managed to give young people a voice in the
recruitment and selection of social services staff. A group of
young people who have experience of local authority care have been
trained in interview techniques are now regularly used on social
services selection panels. Questions devised by young people are
also incorporated into every selection interview.

“It’s not tokenistic,” says Clark. “We are involved in
development work right from the beginning.”

It is this experience in developing young person-oriented
systems that has encouraged services such as Hull’s newly
formed Connexions scheme and the local health service to join up
with the children’s champion programme.

“The health service has, for a long time, been concerned that
they receive very few complaints from young people,” says Clark.
“That’s a bit worrying when you think of how many kids use
health services. They have systems in place but they are very

Connexions, meanwhile, is looking at setting up local
independent watchdogs to help young people access means of redress
when they feel the Connexions relationship has broken down.

In many ways it is ironic that Rapp finds itself touting for new
funding just at the moment when local and central government
appears to be backing the principle of children’s advocacy.
Nevertheless, with the recognition of children’s rights at an
all-time high, the potential for expanding the project’s
service has never been greater.

Certainly Clark remains enthusiastic about forging partnerships
with a wider range of services.

“As long as they value the experience of projects like Rapp and
others who have been doing this work for a long time then there a
great deal of potential for joint work,” he says.

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