Participation of children in shaping services

Although the word “participation” has been widely used in social care for some time, the role children and young people can play in helping to shape services has only been recognised relatively recently. While this is definitely a positive step forward, at times this can lead to the participation box being ticked by organisations because they can demonstrate that they have involved children and young people in a specific activity, rather than because they can provide evidence of change or improvement as a result of their participation.

Kirby et al (2003) suggest that organisations demonstrate successful participation when they recognise that it reaches “beyond specific events to include a whole overarching approach”. Recent guidance and research has reiterated this need to establish a whole-systems approach that includes specific consideration of the four main areas: culture, structure, practice and review.

The term “review” refers to monitoring and evaluating. Reviewing the participation of children and young people is particularly important without reviewing participation within an organisation, there is no recorded evidence that children and young people have been actively involved, contributed to change or stimulated improvement within services. As Cutler (2003) suggests, “any system of standards must require evidence to demonstrate that the standard has been reached”.

Evidence of participation

Unfortunately there is evidence to suggest that many organisations fail to review the participation of children and young people. Oldfield and Fowler’s mapping of children and young people’s participation in England (2004) found that there was limited use of “monitoring and formal evaluation procedures” in both the voluntary and the statutory sectors. Franklin and Sloper’s research into the participation of disabled children and young people in social service departments (2004) found that more than half of the respondents could not indicate change resulting from the involvement of children and young people. Where change had occurred, the majority of respondents referred to a change in the activities that they provided.

Research shows that the most effective review systems have clear pre-defined outcomes to measure against. In other words, organisations should try to measure outcomes not outputs. Organisations often create barriers to effective review processes, by either failing to establish proposed outcomes from the start or by defining outcomes that are unrealistic or impossible to measure. The process of developing outcomes should include what an organisation hopes to see change for its service, its service users (ie children and young people) and wider key stakeholders (eg the local community) as a result of involving children and young people.

These outcomes (Wright and Haydon, 2002) need to be:

● Realistic: the development of effective participation is time consuming and organisations should acknowledge how much real change is possible within a time frame.

● Measurable: outcomes should identify what will change/improve as a result of participation and should be measurable to evidence the change.

● Specific: outcomes should provide clear proposals for change (which both adults and young people can understand) so that it is clear where evidence needs to be recorded and collected.

The involvement of children and young people in defining outcomes for participation is crucial in enabling adults and young people to have shared influence over the development, delivery and review of services. Involving children and young people in the review process also helps to build relationships, generate more contact between the young people and the organisation and give authenticity or credibility to claims of involving children and young people.

Issues practitioners have identified when reviewing the outcomes of participation include:

● Reviews should consider the reasons for change and improvement. Change might happen for a variety of reasons and not specifically because children and young people have been involved. “I can’t honestly say that we’ve changed purely because children and young people have told us that’s what they wanted. I would say there is a hidden agenda: the fact that it’s cheaper.”

● Reviews should recognise that it is as important to identify the small changes as well as the larger ones. “Reviewing our outcomes has highlighted a lot of really quite small and subtle changes in practice, but really important ones.”

● Reviews should include an evaluation of the current cultural climate and organisational practice so that, over time, an organisation can evidence changes that occur as the process of developing participation continues. “You need to know what you have got to start with – some sort of measurement of organisational culture, and then introduce participation and carry on measuring and hope that things change.”

● Review frameworks should be flexible enough to enable innovative and creative methods of evaluation. “They don’t talk about their pledge [proposed outcomes], they play and they make their pledge in a creative way and then they review their pledge and say what they’ve done with young people. That’s been a very useful way of highlighting some really good changes in practice.”

Further work needs to be undertaken on which parts of the process young service users can be included in and where their involvement results in change in service delivery or service outcomes.

Further information

* Kirby, P, Lanyon, C, Cronin, K, and Sinclair, R (2003). Building a culture of participation, Department for Education and Skills.

* Oldfield, C, and Fowler, C, (2004). Mapping children and young people’s participation in England, National Youth Agency.

* Wright, P, and Haydon, D, (2002). Taking part toolkit: Promoting the real participation of children and young people, North West Children’s Task force.

* Involving children and young people in developing social care. Available from

A National Voice

Children’s Rights Alliance 

Related article
Research abstracts: Participation of children


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