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FEATURE1 October 2004

Welcome to the club

PRACTICALITIES: Young people learn early to distrust so-called consultation exercises. but, says Moira Forrester, the right approach can offer them hope

Young people could understandably be suffering from consultation fatigue. Everybody's doing it; these days they are consulted through schools councils, children's parliaments, children's forums and children's panels – as well as research.

We know young people send a strong message that they need to be involved in the decisions that affect their lives, particularly regarding the services they use – be they social, health, education or childcare. But they are also clear that consultation is only worthwhile if adults are willing to listen to, and act upon, what they say.

Sadly, many are disappointed in this. We know that those young people with the most experience of consultation are also the most cynical, because they have the greatest experience of nothing happening as a result of the consultation.

The question is, then, how can we do this kind of research and consultation better so that young people feel that their voice is really being heard?

Imagine this. You have one hour to recruit and talk to a group of 11-to-16-year-old peers at an after-school club. Many are from disadvantaged backgrounds with literacy, abuse and/or exclusion issues. Your job is to get them to share their thoughts and feelings about deeply personal issues.

This might cover everything from bullying and peer group pressure, to sexual health; from their views on alcohol and drugs to those on education and their hopes and fears for the future. On top of that, you also want to know what direction they think the service should take in the future.

The question is not: is this possible. But, rather, how are you going to make this happen?

Everybody's talking
4Children seeks children's views on subjects as diverse as the regulation needed for children's services; what they eat and drink every day ( to provide more data for the debate on children's obesity ); experiences about bullying; and current affairs.

Children and young people at after-school clubs are so focused on enjoyment that it is critical to make any questionnaires bright, fun and easy to fill in – and even more so to make the face-to-face interviews and group-work fun. We always offer a small prize-draw, not so much to improve response rate as to encourage the assistance of the busy playworkers. We also send a feedback letter or brief summary of the survey to the clubs so they can tell the children and young people what happened.

Consultation and collaboration with young people is critical at all stages of the process, in the research as much as in monitoring and evaluating the programmes and services that are provided for young people.

Flexible friends
Consequently, the research toolkit must contain many approaches, so that respondents are given a choice they are comfortable with. It must also accommodate many different modes of self expression: visual, verbal, written, spoken, anecdotal, artistic, and musical. It is also vital to be able to deal with issues such as social deprivation, literacy, ethnicity, culture, special needs, and so on and to find a balance between the individual and the group.

But the data-collection methods available are often restricted because of the twin pressures of tight budgets and the need for robust data. The methods most frequently used by 4Children include paper questionnaires, facilitated by workers for the four- and- five-year-olds and those with special needs, individual face-to-face interviews, and group discussions. However, sophisticated techniques such as cognitive and social scales to measure change can be used.

Indeed, in a recent survey about aspirations, to which over 6,000 children and young people responded, we were able to measure 'linear' change over time, and across each year group from four to 16, using a chi square analysis, because the sample sizes were so robust.

And to evaluate the 'Come and Play' music programme, supported by Youth Music, which aims to give children the opportunity to get involved in music in a non-competitive and flexible environment, observation techniques were used in addition to 'before' and 'after' questionnaires.

Again, in the 'Food for Thought' research, the objective was to get a snapshot of what children aged between four and 14 are eating and therefore inform the debate about the causes of obesity in childhood. In this study, parents and children were asked to complete food diaries over a week. As a result of a careful recruitment process utilising the playworkers in the clubs, more than 500 parents and children took part. And this was despite the fact that all such parents had busy working lives.

And one final example. We also conduct an annual 'Buzz' survey, which canvasses the opinions of children and young people on current issues. In 2004, however, parents were also invited to participate with a separate questionnaire. Nearly 300 replied, giving insight into the issues which worry them most about bringing up their children. Nearly 30% said they did not have enough quality time with their children – a figure which could be used to lobby government with the initiative for a Children's Bank Holiday.

Open doors
Good research involves understanding and measuring the depth and breadth of experience around certain issues or concepts. We need to find a way of getting each young person to contribute, be heard and be involved in a way that is comfortable for them. In some settings, particularly with disadvantaged or marginalised young people, this represents quite a challenge. It requires us, as researchers, to accommodate the quiet/socially shy ones; to manage the dominating attention-seekers; to allow for social desirability and then transcend it; and to gently validate and yet set limits about what is – not to mention what is not – acceptable.

4Children's 'Make Space' campaign works to ensure a positive future for teenagers by creating a network of clubs for 11- to 16-year-olds, designed as they would like them, providing a place to go and things to do and opening doors to new opportunities.

In a recent study among young people attending these clubs in England, we combined a range of techniques, including brainstorming, development of mind-maps, art and self-completion questionnaires, to explore and understand the key issues in their lives. This age range are a highly heterogeneous group who are in very different places emotionally, socially, psychologically and physically. Their needs, mindsets, capabilities, comprehension and literacy are widely varied. In order to reach into, explore and understand the complexity of these differing realities, it was vital to find an approach that was flexible, fun and involving.

The flow was respondent-led, with participants given the choice about the topics they wanted to explore and discuss. Qualitative and quantitative element were combined to satisfy the need for insight and measurement, as well as canvassing the differences between individual and group responses. One girl, an excluded 13-year-old, confided, "I love it here. It is the best place. If it wasn't here, I would still be on drugs, that's the truth. I would probably be on heroin now".

Group therapy
But there were marked differences in the issues raised within the group and those identified on an individual basis. In the group context, friends, relationships, money, alcohol and other drugs, police and crime, bullying and exams were identified as key.

However, when analysing the individual responses other factors also emerged as major concerns for a significant minority of the young people involved in the research, among them homelessness, depression, abuse and teenage pregnancy.

Safe from harm
It is of course essential to create an environment of safety, honesty and respect where everyone has a chance to have their say. But the role of the researcher is intrinsic to sound data collection and thus success. The approach and tone needs to be respectful, empathic, non-judgmental, authentic, and guiding rather than dictatorial. You need to be a person first and a researcher second.

Such an approach gives young people, parents and those involved in service delivery the opportunity to express themselves freely, whatever data collection method is being used.

Consultation with young people is one strand of the policy process which includes consultation with parents, providers, local authorities, schools and opinion leaders. The objective of our research and consultation with young people is to provide reliable and robust data to inform the policy initiatives. With this we can lobby the Government to improve the opportunities for children, parents and families in their communities.

Moira Forrester is head of research at the Research Foundation 4Children

October | 2004