Willing Participants?

Hugh McLaughlin is director of social work and a member
of the Salford Centre for Social Work Research at the University of
Salford. He has been a social worker, team manager, service manager
and assistant director prior to moving to academia. His current
research interests include child care, partnerships, consultation
and empowerment.

Involving young service users in the evaluation of service
delivery comes with many opportunities and challenges. This article
seeks to move beyond research “on” young people to research “with”
young people and focuses on the experience of conducting a national
evaluation of the NSPCC’s young people’s centres using young people
as co-researchers.

The centres aim to provide a one-stop shop supplying a range of
child-friendly child protection services. These services seek to
support children and young people in finding solutions to their own
problems. Young people are the primary consumers of the service and
with the establishment of young people’s advisory groups were
provided with the opportunity to become partners in the development
of the service.

Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child provides
children and young people with the right to be informed, involved
and consulted about all activities that affect their lives. It is
also believed that by involving young people services would become
more relevant and accessible and that staff would be more aware of
the context in which young people lived their lives.

The first problem faced by the research was recruiting a group of
co-researchers. Initially recruitment was aimed at one of the young
people’s centres but when this failed to work we focused on several
centres using media, personal contact and networking. This resulted
in young people from the North West, the Midlands and Wales
volunteering. To make the project manageable it was agreed to focus
on young people from the North West and the Midlands. The research
tried to involve young people at all stages of the research process
including identifying the research instruments, data to be
collected, analysing the data, and presenting and disseminating the
findings. The intention was for the young people to take an active
role in writing the report but we were unable to achieve this. The
reasons for this are varied and may include a negative experience
of writing at school, a fear of being shown up or the view that
writing was the boring part of research.

However hard you try, it should not be forgotten that a power
imbalance is still present in this type of research. It was the
adults who decided there should be a research project, adults who
funded the research and it was adults who had the responsibility to
exercise professional authority in relation to the project.

Kirby (1) identifies several key claims for involving young people
in research as:

  • The range and quality of data can be enhanced.
  • Young people speak a common language.
  • Young people raise issues with peers that they would not have
    done with an adult.
  • Young people have ownership of the findings.
  • Young people presenting the findings has greater impact with

In order for these benefits to be realised there are barriers
that need to be addressed before young people can participate

It can be argued that young service users are sometimes more
vulnerable than other researchers, but this should not be used as
an excuse to avoid involving them in the research. They require the
same health and safety measures as other researchers, but there is
also a need for some special measures taking into account their
age, aptitude and ability. For us, this included providing
transport, taking into account the availability of joint
interviewing and the importance of support throughout the

There were also specific child protection and employment issues to
be addressed. This may lead to the research process taking longer
and costing more. In order to deal with these contingencies we had
an effective steering group including the NSPCC, millennium
volunteer representatives, co-researchers and lead researcher who
problem-solved and met on a regular basis to monitor progress and
plan the next stage.

Besides these practice barriers there are also process barriers.
Research, its language and its processes need demystifying to
promote participation. To address this the young co-researchers
came together for two sessions before we set up a residential
training event to consider the philosophical and practical aspects
of the research.

This residential training event was fundamental to the success of
the research. It helped build a group ethos, established a baseline
of research understanding, provided opportunities to practise
research skills and supported an ownership of the research and its
processes. This was critical for the validity of the process as any
research, and therefore the knowledge it generates, is only as good
as its weakest link.

On top of these considerations it must be emphasised that young
people are not mini-adults, their lives beat to a different rhythm.
School and college, work, exams and friends bind their lives
requiring a flexibility not often seen in adult research. As a
result the research is likely to progress at a different rate and
may take longer and cost more.

There is also the fundamental question of why should young people
give up their time, or “what is in it for me?” It cannot be assumed
the young people are doing it just for fun. As part of this
research a number of rewards were built in including overnight
stays and all the young people were registered as millennium
volunteers (MV). MV provided them with extra support and funding
and all achieved the MV Award of Excellence for giving up their
free time to help others. Rewards and payment need to be identified
for the young people participating or the relationship becomes one
of manipulating young people to meet adult ends.

Quite clearly, service user involvement is rightly receiving a lot
of attention within social work practice and social work research.
This article has demonstrated that young people are not necessarily
only receivers of services, but potential evaluators and
researchers of services. However, if this is to be a partnership
rather than tokenism several issues must be overcome.

In particular, power issues do not disappear and it would be
totally unethical to involve young service users as co-researchers
without first providing them with the training to undertake the
role effectively. However, it should be acknowledged that the young
service users can benefit from the process and the young people
involved in this research reported increased self-confidence,
enhanced influencing skills, the opportunity to be heard and to see
change. Young service users can become researchers but this is
neither a panacea nor a process to be entered into lightly.

This article highlights the issues and challenges of
working with young service users as co-researchers to evaluate
service delivery. The national evaluation of the NSPCC’s Young
People’s Centres is used as the lens to focus the article. In
particular the practical and ethical barriers are identified along
with some suggestions as to how these might be addressed. The
findings have potential relevance to other work settings
considering involving service users as researchers.

(1) P Kirby, “Involving Young People in Research:
Summary of the Key Points in the Literature”, Involve, 2004

Further Information

  • S Fraser, V Lewis, S Ding, M Kellet, and C Robinson (eds),
    Doing Research with Children and Young People, Sage, 2004
  • Involve: promoting public involvement in NHS, public health and
    social care research www.invo.org.uk
  • S Fraser, V Lewis, S Ding, M Kellet, and C Robinson, eds The
    Reality of Research with Children and Young People,
    Sage, 2004
  • H McLaughlin, with A Clowes et al, A National Evaluation of the
    NSPCC’s Young People’s Centres by Young People, Salford Centre for
    Social Work Research, University of Salford, 2004
  • R Smith, M Monaghan, and B Broad, “Involving young people as
    co-researchers: facing up to methodological issues, Qualitative
    Social Work, 1 (2) 191-207, 2002

Contact the author
By e-mail: h.mclaughlin@salford.ac.uk or phone: 0161
295 0727

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