By Linda Briheim-Crookall, Coram Voice
For almost a decade, our Bright Spots programme, in partnership with The Rees Centre at the University of Oxford, has worked with children and young people in care to explore what they feel makes life good. Through our survey – the largest of its kind – we’ve now heard the views of 10,000 children and young people aged 4-18 from across 38 local authorities, giving us unprecedented insight into their subjective wellbeing.
The Bright Spots programme is not just a research project but is focused on changing the culture of children’s services and putting children’s voices at the heart of social work practice in order to make their lives better.
Based on the findings from these 10,000 voices, we’ve put together five recommendations to help social care professionals put children’s wellbeing at the heart of the care system.
- Listen to the views of children in care
When developing policy and practice in the care system, the key question should be – will children in care feel that their lives have improved as a result? All local authorities should ensure they have mechanisms for capturing how their children in care feel about their lives in the areas that are important to them. Views may be captured through the day-to-day conversations workers have with the young people they support, through effective participation groups or through gathering the views of children in care through local authority-wide surveys.
- Co-produce improvements with young people
In our survey, one child (aged 8-10) said: “[I would like to] know that adults will listen to me, especially when I am worried, and help me.” Yet one in seven children and young people told us they ‘hardly ever’ or ‘never’ felt included in decisions made about their lives. It is important that children’s services do not only listen to how children and young people feel about their lives but also take active steps to respond to their views. Local authorities should seek to co-produce service improvements with children and young people to address the issues they say would make their lives better. We have some great examples of how local authorities have developed their services in response to the survey findings which we’ve collected in a new resource bank for other professionals to draw upon.
- Help to make life good
Our analysis identifies the areas that increase the odds of children and young people in care having ‘low’ wellbeing or ‘very high’ wellbeing. Therefore, particular attention should be paid to those areas, with services making sure they have mechanisms in place to explore and address them with young people. These areas include having social workers who don’t change, are easy to contact and that young people can trust; opportunities to build and keep relationships with people who are important to them; involvement in and information about their care and their families; and opportunities to have fun in their free time and to do similar things to their friends.
- Build trust
“I used to not be able to trust anyone and now I can trust people who I know won’t let me down like others have in the past” (respondent, aged 11-18 years). Our survey found that across all age groups of children and young people in care, positive relationships were central to wellbeing and the core of those relationships was trust. This included being able to trust carers and social workers, and also being given opportunities to be trusted themselves. The care system must put trusting relationships at its heart. Children and young people should be able to rely on trusted adults to look after and support them, whilst they are in care and into adulthood, and also be given opportunities to show that they can be trusted.
- Recognise difference
Child-centred practice should never use a one-size-fits-all approach. Each child will be different and need individualised care plans that meet their needs. Our findings point to broad trends that can help professionals be more mindful of the different needs of different groups. For example, we found that girls had lower wellbeing than boys, and a greater proportion of young people living in residential care or ‘somewhere else’ (mostly supported accommodation) reported lower wellbeing than those living in foster care and kinship foster care.There were also differences across age groups and ethnicities. For example, one in five of the youngest children surveyed (aged 4-7 years) did not know who their social worker was – twice as high as for the older children in care. Also, young people (11-18yrs) of Mixed or Other ethnicities more frequently had low life satisfaction and low optimism about their futures compared with young people of White, Black or Asian ethnicity. Professionals need to be aware of how identity can impact on wellbeing, and consider whether particular children and young people may require additional support. To take account of how wellbeing changes over time, social workers should regularly review plans and use active listening to make sure that children and young people’s views and experiences are reflected in their care plans.
Linda Briheim-Crookall is head of policy and practice development at Coram Voice.