Involving children and young people in developing social care

Setting the context

Increased recognition of children and young people's participation

A number of factors have contributed to the increased recognition of children and young people's participation in the UK.

Policy recognition of the rights of children and young people

Thomas (2000) suggests that the 1989 Children Act for England and Wales 'opened the way for principles to begin to be established that gave children an increasing influence on the outcome of decision-making'. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), ratified by the UK Government in 1991, was the first piece of international legislation to acknowledge that 'children are subjects of rights rather than merely recipients of protection' (Lansdown, 2001). Article 12 of the Convention states that children and young people have the right to express their views freely in all areas that they are involved in, and that these views should be listened to.

Subsequent legislation in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has reiterated this commitment to children and young people's participation. The Care Standards Act 2000 identifies the importance of their participation, and the regulations and associated standards require that information about services be made available to children and young people in a variety of accessible formats. In addition, legislation regulating social care procedures - such as assessments, child protection conferences and reviews, family group conferences and looked-after children's reviews - all identify the involvement of children and young people as a key priority.

In England, the Children and Young People's Unit (established in 2000 and now integrated into the Department for Education and Skills) produced Learning to listen: Core principles for the involvement of children and young people, and each government department was encouraged to develop its own participation action plan. In 2003, the green paper Every child matters was launched (with an accompanying young people's version). This emphasised the government's commitment to involving children and young people in planning, delivering and reviewing policies and services that affect them.

In Northern Ireland, a 10-year strategy for children and young people (and informed by them) was drafted in 2004. The Children ( Scotland ) Act 1995 emphasises the importance of ensuring that young people have an opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. In Wales, the Welsh Assembly has adopted seven core aims to ensure that the UNCRC underpins all policy and practice relating to children and young people (Fajerman et al, 2004).

This commitment across the UK has been further evidenced by the establishment of posts for a commissioner for children in all four jurisdictions.

Children and young people's participation - a central priority for government initiatives

Since the increased government recognition of participation, rafts of initiatives have included children and young people's participation as a key priority. The Quality Protects initiative for looked-after children and young people, introduced in 1998, provided one such example. Key to this initiative was the belief that local authorities could only develop their services effectively by listening to children and young people.

In England, the Children's Fund, Sure Start and Connexions initiatives all echo this sentiment, requiring services to demonstrate how they have included the views of children and young people in their development and delivery.

Participation as integral to children and young people's protection

The recent series of high-profile child protection cases has led to acknowledgement that 'prevailing attitudes towards children, based on the view that adults both know best and will act in their best interests, have failed many children' (Lansdown, 2001). Acceptance of the UNCRC, however, has encouraged services to recognise children and young people as members of society who have the right to be listened to as well as protected. This shift in emphasis 'requires working with children and young people rather than for them, understanding that acquiring responsibility for someone does not mean taking responsibility away from them' (Kirby et al, 2003).

The Scottish Executive's Protecting children and young people: Framework for standards (2004) emphasises the importance of actively involving children and young people to ensure their protection. It includes a charter that asks professionals to 'speak with', 'listen to' and 'involve' children and young people.

Children and young people's recognition of their right to participate

It is not only adults who are beginning to recognise the importance of children and young people's participation. Groups such as the former National Association for Young People in Care (NAYPIC), have repeatedly challenged adult presumptions to exercise choice on behalf of children and young people ( McNeish, 1999).

Although much research refers to children and young people's disillusionment with political engagement, a wealth of evidence suggests that they have both the desire and the ability to influence decisions that affect them in their everyday lives. A survey of 663 young people (Park et al, 2004) found that the majority of young people thought that they should have, at the very least, 'quite a bit of a say' in making decisions about issues that affect them.