4.2.2 Influencing services
A consultation with young people commissioned by the Community Health Council from Hounslow Metropolitan Borough in London aimed to find out more about their health needs and improve local health service provision (Percy-Smith, 2007).
Eleven young people aged 14 to 19 were trained to conduct the research among their peers in schools, colleges, health offices and on the streets. A large scale event allowed young people to present their findings and discuss them with professionals, identifying where improvements could be made to health provision.
Two key issues were stress and mental health. Professionals believed that providing young people with a ‘place to chill out’ would be an effective response to stress. However, the young people felt these should be provided anyway and that responses to stress should address its underlying causes in educational and parental pressure. They argued for ‘more supportive and less pressurised environments in schools, more respectful relationships and help to develop their ability to thrive in the world and feel good about themselves’ (Percy-Smith, 2007, p. 888).
What was the outcome of this work? The young people and the professionals were positive about the experience:
I enjoyed the interactions between the young people and professionals … it was an interesting experience, as we got to see both sides. … The older generation were able to adjust to our views and how we felt about certain issues. … Most were very communicative and engaged, but some were less engaged and concerned with their own self-interests.
I found this process so exhilarating … young people showed their understanding of health issues, suggested a variety of ways to improve matters, and ended up fearlessly holding the representatives of public bodies to account. Now it’s up to us to deliver.
Significantly, the commission to work with the young people ended at the point of presentation and discussion of the findings. A year later there had been no follow-up action.
Education services have arguably been more successful in engaging children in decision making through school councils. In her research on school discipline, Audrey Osler found that children were keen to be more actively involved in their schools and had a strong sense of responsibility to the school community (Osler, 2000).
School councils were seen by children as indicating ‘a listening school’ and as a way for pupils’ priorities to be presented to the decision-making bodies of the school. They could help to reduce the use of disciplinary exclusion, by offering peer support to children at risk of breaking school rules and other vulnerable children. In empowering children to speak and encouraging adults to listen, school councils can also help develop children’s resilience and improve child protection (Baginsky and Hannam, 1999).
The extent to which school councils fully involve children in decision making is variable. A survey of school councils in 1999 found that in 54 per cent of cases, particular topics could not be discussed. These included matters relating to staff and individual children, uniform, the length of the school day, the content of the curriculum, and disciplinary issues (Baginsky and Hannam, 1999). Only 20 per cent of councils had been involved in discussing staff appointments. Have things changed since then?
Rajeeb Dey (2009) argues that too often giving children a say on their school and how it can be improved stops short of meaningful involvement in decision making. He states that secondary school students should be treated as partners – as ‘active, engaged co-constructors of their education’:
If we are serious about developing young people’s employability and skills, and increasing involvement in decision-making and wider democracy, we need to start in schools. This should involve having students involved at all levels of decision making, from the classroom to being associate governors.
Barry Percy-Smith and Karen Malone make a similar argument in relation to engaging children in neighbourhood development:
Children are already participating in their neighbourhoods but often in worlds apart from adults. … It is insufficient to simply provide opportunities for children to have their say or participate in adult structures and processes. They should be provided with an opportunity to challenge and change these structures and processes by negotiating their own forms of participation, and consequently, be instrumental in improving their neighbourhoods.