Involving children and young people in developing social care
Comparison of findings
This section examines the similarities and differences in the findings of the research review, practice survey and consultations with social care staff and with children and young people. It also reflects on the subsequent implications for participation practice.
- The research review found a plethora of information on the participation of children and young people. This included existing participation guidance and large-scale practice surveys looking at the extent and nature of participation practice across organisations working with children and young people. This influenced how we approached the practice survey. Rather than repeat recent practice surveys, we decided to build on this work and 'follow up' some of the services/organisations 'one year on' to see to what extent participation practice had been developed.
- Policy, practice and research seem to be at different stages. There is a danger that participation will become the latest 'buzzword' in social care policy and practice, such that it becomes simply a 'tick box' exercise or a requirement before organisations can properly embed participation within their culture, structure, practice and review. There is evidence of this from the research review, practice survey and consultations ( see below ).
- When reviewing the literature in this area, we discovered a significant amount of 'grey' literature. This was written primarily by practitioners or by researchers who worked for, or had been commissioned by, social care organisations working with children and young people. As a result, within the participation field, there are many overlaps between the messages from research and those from practice. This can mean, at times, a lack of clarity in ascertaining what is research, what is consultation and what is practice.
- A clear gap identified through the research review, practice survey and consultations was the review of the participation work of children and young people. The practice survey and consultations suggested that organisations are reviewing the 'process' of participation (i.e. what they are doing) and the 'outcomes' for children and young people directly involved in participation practice (e.g. improved confidence). However, there was less evidence of organisations reviewing the 'outcomes' of participation (i.e. what changed or improved). Furthermore, among the literature, there is a lack of guidance, tools and knowledge about how services and organisations can review the outcomes of participation.
- Through the practice survey, we discovered that some services were struggling with how to set clear aims and objectives for participation work. As a result, they were finding it a challenge to define and measure the outcomes of participation. Confusion surrounded the nature of outcomes for participation work: is it changes or improvements in social care practice? Or the direct impact on the children and young people involved? Or how the participation element has impacted on the change or improvement? That is, would the same outcomes have been reached without children and young people's participation? There appears to be a limited amount of guidance to support services and organisations in setting outcomes for participation.
- Both the research review and the consultation process identified the need for a whole-systems approach to participation. However, the majority of guidance relates to participation practice. During the consultations, practitioners admitted that, while they had developed their participation practice, their organisations still had some way to go in terms of developing a culture and structure that could sustain participation. Particular issues were: no shared definition or understanding of participation, participation linked to one-off activities, and a lack of long-term funding for participation work. This is reflected in the case studies, the majority of which could evidence change on a small scale but not at an organisational level.
- Although there are a growing number of resources on involving specific groups of children and young people, the practice survey and consultations showed that specific groups such as younger children and disabled children and young people are still under-represented in participation practice. In the case studies, staff described their participation practice as inclusive. However, when asked to describe the profile of the children and young people involved, most examples were of white, able-bodied young adults.
- Research points to the need for participation to be properly resourced in terms of time, money and staff. The 'reality' from the practice survey and consultations is that the participation of children and young people is often carried out on a shoestring. This suggests that, while the research points to the need for a culture and structure of participation to effect change or improvements to social care services, this is not always happening in practice.
- Much of the literature focuses on the 'how' and 'what' of participation and less on the 'why'. The research, practice and consultation materials seem to suggest that participation is 'inherently a good thing'. However, with little evidence from practice of clear purpose or outcomes - how do we know? There are few messages from research or practice on the potential negative impact of participation or of possible detrimental outcomes for children and young people who participate.
- An issue highlighted across the research review, practice survey and consultations is the power imbalance between adults and children and young people or between social care staff and users of social care services. Some of the practice guidance looks at ways to overcome this. A related issue, which is only touched on in the research but which was highlighted in the practice survey and consultations, is the power imbalance between social care practitioners and senior managers/decision-makers within social care organisations. This is evident in the extensive participation practice (projects, initiatives, one-off events, etc) that takes place in organisations where there is not an established culture or structure for participation.
- The key challenge for practitioners is how to create a successful 'bottom up' approach to embed participation within the organisations in which they work.