Child’s play

Nancy Kelley  is a policy officer for Barnardo’s, where
she is working to develop campaigns led by children and young
people. Her background is in children’s rights and mental health
advocacy. She has worked for the children’s rights commissioner for
London and mental health charity Mind and as a mental health advice
worker, advocate and group worker for unaccompanied asylum-seeking

“If the government makes decisions about children and young
people without asking – how do they know they are right?” This is
what one child said about the Children Bill – and it has been a
common refrain among young people.

When the government published Every Child Matters it
appeared keen to acknowledge the role that children and young
people should have in shaping policy and service provision.
Alongside the green paper, it published a child-friendly
translation to support children and young people’s involvement in
the public consultation.

At Barnardo’s we welcomed this move and embarked on our own
consultation with the children, young people and families who use
our services. We submitted a separate response to the government,
based only on their views. Fifteen sessions, more than 150 children
and young people and several reams of paper later, a crucial
question still remains – what will become of their input? In their
words: “Will any of this happen?”

The Children Bill shows the gulf between the views of adult policy
makers and the experiences of the children and young people they
aim to support. On one level this can be explained by the bill’s
focus on structural reform but there is also a fundamental
difference of perspective. For example, where the government offers
a structural solution to problems of co-working, a child might
offer a different solution. One said: “A director of children’s
services is a waste of money. There are already people in charge of
education and social services. They should talk more.”

Many of the children and young people we work with want existing
services developed or improved. They told us they wanted “more help
for people with problems, for example dyslexia, things to help stop
bullying, more people available to help at school” rather than set
up new services, or existing services moved to co-locate. A common
theme was the wish to keep social services out of schools.

This difference in perspective is nowhere more evident than in the
main outcomes in the bill: physical and mental health, protection
from harm and neglect, education and training, the contribution
made by children and young people to society, social and economic
well-being. Language aside, it is striking that these key outcomes
for children include achievement but not enjoyment; education and
not play.

When we talked to children about key government proposals,
opportunities to play in and outside were a central theme of their
responses. Sometimes their ideas were wild and creative: “a zoo
(but you might get bitten)”, or “a submarine that takes you to
school”. Mostly, children wanted more everyday fun such as a disco
or a swimming pool. Many were attending schools without reasonable
outdoor space, and they wanted things we might assume all children
can easily access: football pitches, slides and monkey bars.

It was clear from our consultation that play and fun were seen as
an integral part of being happy, learning and staying out of
trouble. “We want a club that could be just for young teenagers or
kids who can’t find things to keep them occupied and things that
would prevent graffiti and vandalism, and kids get total say who
gets hired.”

The ability to have fun and be fun also played a key role in
children and young people’s descriptions of their ideal workers,
not only good at listening but joyful and “good at making games”.
The children’s workforce “must be fun”, and that capacity for play
seems to be linked closely to the caring relationships children
want to have with their support workers.

Ministers have said the main outcomes in the bill reflect what
children and young people said in response to the green paper
Every Child Matters. On the basis of what children told us
about the importance of play and fun, this seems unlikely. At best,
the outcomes reflect only part of the picture. A focus on
“education and attainment” without a focus on “play and enjoyment”
suggests a view of children as adults in waiting; play and
enjoyment are in their very essence about the quality of children
and young people’s lives.

This disjunction between government policy and children’s views is
even more acute in relation to information sharing, specifically
identification, referral and tracking. So one respondent said: “We
should have all our personal records scrapped and started again – I
need mine scrapped.” Children and young people revealed a different
view of how information sharing should function and a different
understanding of the role and impact of information sharing.

In contrast to government proposals, children were adamant that
they should decide who knows what about them – that children with
the support of a worker should control information sharing. They
felt information should only be passed to organisations and
individuals seen as relevant or trusted. They told us “housing
don’t need to know anything, they might not house you and we should
all be treated the same, unless you need supported housing” and “it
should be the teacher who the child or young person really likes
that is told”.

They were also clear that they should have access to their own
records, and should always know what was written about them. Again
in contrast to government plans, they say information should only
be shared without consent “if you are self-harming or are a risk to
yourself or other people or are being sexually or physically
abused”. In these circumstances, they also felt they should be told
what should be disclosed and to whom.

Most challenging was the attitude to information sharing. There is
a danger that the government’s proposals see information as a
commodity that if transferred efficiently can have protective or
preventive outcomes. For the children and young people we spoke to
information was highly personal, and information sharing was a
process embedded in relationships.

Many of the looked-after young people had been told distressing
family information in an offhand way. They felt that children and
young people “should be told carefully about things” and that
information sharing should be built into relationships of

This understanding of information as personal, and information
sharing as something that can damage as well as protect, is not
well reflected in the Children Bill. In order to incorporate the
views of the children we spoke to, the government would need to
restrict the kinds of information that can be shared without
consent and ensure that information sharing is embedded in practice
based on strong personal relationships with children, young people
and families.

So, as one young person asked: “Will any of this happen?” It is
difficult to see how some of the government’s flagship proposals
can be reworked to accommodate the views of the children and young
people we spoke to. They offer a different view of what might be
most important by prioritising play and fun, as well as workable
alternatives to specific government proposals – information sharing
as a personal process, where children and young people play a key

Asking “what do you think?” was an important step for a government
seeking to engage with children and young people. The next step is
to give serious consideration to their views, even when that
process is uncomfortable or challenging. Unless the government
finds a way to respond flexibly to the views of children and young
people, they run the risk of providing services that may only work
for the organisations and professionals involved.


When the government published the Children Bill it promised that
the views of children and young people had been taken into account.
But research by Barnardo’s with more than 150 children around
England found their priorities and concerns were very different
from those of policy makers – particularly on the importance of fun
and play and in relation to the government’s proposals for
information sharing.

About the research   

Barnardo’s produced a set of child-friendly activities based on
key questions in Every Child Matters, including extended
schools, workforce development, information sharing, children and
families in trouble, and listening and becoming involved.   These
activities, alongside the government’s child-friendly version of
the green paper were used in consultation sessions in 15 projects
in England. The youngest people consulted were two; the oldest were
members of a parents group. The materials from the consultation
were then written into a single response that has been presented to
Margaret Hodge, minister for children.

Further information

For copies of Barnardo’s Children, Young People and
Families’ Response to Every Child Matters
, or to discuss
issues raised in the article contact:
For more information on Barnardo’s campaigns and services go to

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