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Hearing Children’s Voices in Policymaking: Lessons for the new Scottish Government policy roundtable

Dr Jenny Wood (A Place in Childhood) and Dr Maureen McBride of Children’s Neighbourhoods Scotland (University of Glasgow)

Last month (4th May 2021), Policy Scotland convened a roundtable with the aim of bringing together policymakers and researchers who work with and for children and young people, both in and beyond child-focused services. The hope was to facilitate a fruitful dialogue around hearing children’s views in policymaking as we headed into a new Scottish Government administration.

The recent passing of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) Bill by Scottish Parliament emphasises a need to think more broadly about what children need from services than many of us are used to. This requires new mechanisms to ensure their voices are heard in the decisions that affect them.

Our policy roundtable therefore highlighted recent work from two research programmes by Children’s Neighbourhoods Scotland and A Place in Childhood, followed by comments from Nicola Hughes, Embedding Children’s Rights Across Public Services Lead at Scottish Government. Here, we reflect on the presentations and discussions that ensued, and offer some initial reflections on the barriers and opportunities that emerged.

Children’s Neighbourhoods Scotland

Through a combined programme of research and community development activity, the Children’s Neighbourhoods Scotland programme aims to support collaboration and change in areas of high social deprivation in the west of Scotland. Our role is to develop a child-centred approach to improving wellbeing goals for children and young people in our neighbourhoods. We use the capabilities approach in our research; a framework for wellbeing goals which explores barriers and enablers to achieving what children have ‘reason to value’.

At the roundtable event, we presented findings from our research on the theme of ‘standard of living’, one of the 12 capabilities domains. Children and young people are highly aware of the importance of financial security and told us that they need this to achieve the other things they value.

They were able to cite examples of the kinds of things needed to achieve a good standard of living, including being able to access local facilities, affordable transport, and to receive tailored support and guidance in school on employment and training opportunities. But both at the individual (family) and community levels, the financial barriers to children being able to achieve the things they value remain stark for many.

A Place in Childhood

A Place in Childhood is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation focusing on positive social and environmental impacts for an uncertain future. By partnering with organisations which share the vision of making Scotland a great place to grow up, we use our experience in academic research to work with and for young citizens, supporting them in understanding real world systems and practices and amplifying their voices.

In this roundtable event, we presented on our #ScotYouthandCOVID project, for which we were completing the second round at the time. This is a longitudinal and virtual Participatory Action Research project with 25 Young Consultants from across Scotland. Led by the views and ideas of young participants, the project has explored the experiences of children and young people precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

With ages 10-17 represented, and a mix of urban and rural areas with differing socioeconomic backgrounds, it provides vital in-depth insights into the changes, challenges, and experiences of children and young people 2020-21. It has also surfaced short, medium and long term changes they would like to see for themselves, peers, and all people of Scotland moving forward. Blogs on each workshop are available on A Place in Childhood’s website, and this recent blog presents the Asks they have to the Scottish Government.  

Policy Roundtable: Our Discussion

Nicola Hughes began the discussion by laying out a provocation to colleagues to think about the range of issues where children have a stake in decisions; the need to consider sensitively what children gain from the experiences, to ensure each and every child is valued for what they have to give – recognising that sometimes we are asking them to recount traumatic events and stories; and the need to carefully consider and act on changes they need to be happy, healthy and safe.

In three breakout rooms, we also discussed and surfaced additional issues:

  • Agency and Voice: Asking children’s views is part of a journey of becoming critical thinkers and developing capacities to become agents of change. However, voice for the sake of voice is tokenistic and commitment to action is important if asking children’s views. Too often the solution gets designed before the dialogue begins. Entering constructive dialogue requires developing methods that allow adults to learn alongside children and young people and build rapport and understanding. This cannot be done through creating an environment, such as a boardroom, that works for adults and expecting children to engage with it.
  • Timeframes and Change: Genuine change takes time and children participating may not see the impact of their participation. We discussed that it is good to be open and honest with children and not underestimate their capacity to understand this. Equally, we should not use the fact that change can take time as an excuse not to act. Longitudinal work and building of relationships can help, as well as help ensure that what children are saying represents a longer-term view and not a casual comment from one day taken too seriously by adults.
  • Adults Mediating Children’s Voices: Hearing directly from children is the most direct way for policymakers to understand their views. However, as in the point above, if the environment is adult-centred then it is often unfair to bring children into such a dialogue. This, along with time constraints, is why adults often end up mediating children’s voices.

Child-friendly Environments for Dialogue?

The latter point of this discussion surfaced vital and complex considerations. For instance, adults mediating children’s voices can sometimes be the only way to ensure change is taken forward, as children are neither trained in the professional atmosphere and language of policymaking, nor do they have the time to partake in policy-based discussions within and beyond government. Moreover, if we are to protect children, who may have recounted difficult stories and experiences (and given the safety of anonymity) we cannot ethically bring them into this environment.

Conversely, nuance, tone and vital insight is lost when adults speak on behalf of children, and their own prejudices and judgements may affect how they present children’s views back to policymakers.  The solution is to find ways to recognise both that children and their views are diverse, and that adults who have professional roles supporting them need to be heard and empowered as well.

There is a very careful line to balance here, and we note that much of the problem ultimately comes down to the type and tone of environment in which children may be expected to give their voice. If policymakers were invited into an explicitly child-led and mediated environment, then some concerns could be reduced around power dynamics and authenticity of children’s voices and child-adult dialogue. A fantastic example of this comes from a project run by an ombudsman for children and youths in Strängnäs municipality in Sweden.

Every year, officials meet local children under the chestnut tree where children are used to meeting for dialogue and projects. By sitting together, outside, and on the same level, adults are invited into the child’s space. If we can change the environments of dialogue, we may be able to counter some of our current challenges and concerns around authentic dialogue and commitment to action.

We would like to hope that this is the future of genuinely purposeful listening to children’s voices.

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