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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