Research into practice

The maxim that “children should be seen and not heard” reflects
long-standing views about children and young people – views that
are increasingly challenged by the children’s rights and
representation movement. That is, there is increasing recognition
of the importance of giving children and young people a voice –
something that is now becoming well established as a basic
principle of good practice in social work with children, young
people and their families.1 Of course, in some respects
this is not a new idea, but certainly it is one that is beginning
to be taken much more seriously than before.

This research study2 not only supports that movement but
also takes it a step further – by seeking to involve young people
in decision-making about not only their own care and planning at a
micro level, but also local authority issues at a macro level. The
research, undertaken by the Institute for Public Policy Research,

  • Six focus groups with young people across different age
  • A questionnaire sent to all local authorities in England and
    Wales (with a 55 per cent response rate).
  • A case study using semi-structured interviews in six local

These were supplemented by a literature review and a review of
qualitative research.

There were various findings from the study, including a genuine
enthusiasm on the part of young people to be involved in
decision-making about such matters as crime, education, the
environment and housing. There was also a recognition by eight out
of 10 councils of the importance of raising young people’s
awareness of local government; and an acknowledgement by
interviewees that public involvement can be empowering,
particularly for traditionally excluded young people. There was
clearly much to support the value of involving young people.

One important conclusion drawn from the research is the significant
role of four stages in involving young people in such
decision-making processes, namely:

  • Creating the right environment: the right structures, systems
    and resources need to be in place.
  • Planning: for example, choosing the right issues and right
    methods to deal with them.
  • Doing: motivating young people, valuing their involvement and
    making the benefits clear.
  • Follow-up: this includes evaluating the impact on services and
    identifying the lessons that can be learned from the process.

While the term “ageism” is generally applied to discrimination
against older people, we should not forget that young people can
also be marginalised and excluded because of stereotypical
assumptions that fail to recognise their strengths and the positive
contribution they can make. This research therefore has an
important part to play in emphasising the message that we should
not write off young people because of such assumptions or their
ability to think clearly and carefully about important

Of course, this does not mean that we should simply treat young
people as if they were “fully-fledged” adults, as that too could be
problematic. However, what should be clear is that the time, energy
and effort required for involving young people in decision-making
can be a worthwhile investment in future generations, encouraging
more active citizenship and fuller participation in what public
life has to offer.

Neil Thompson is director, Avenue Consulting Ltd
) and visiting professor at the University of Liverpool.

1 Neil Thompson, Building the Future: Social Work
with Children, Young People and their Families
, Russell House
Publishing, 2002.

2 Vicki Combe, Up For It: Getting Young People
Involved in Local Government
, National Youth Agency,

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