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How do we change the status quo? Start by involving young people

The concept of child participation is enshrined in the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, but too often engagement with young people is tokenistic and simplistic. Researchers at King’s are taking a very different approach using new research methods including the power of storytelling to help amplify young people’s voices.

Researchers in the School of Education, Communication & Society are carrying out a range of projects that seek to engage with young people in a more equal relationship as they believe this will help to create genuine, long-term research impact.

In this video (below) Dr Clare Coultas, Dr Rana Khazbak and Dr Aisha Hutchinson talk about the value of engaging with young people in research and why we need to do things differently. Based in the Centre for Public Policy Research, their projects range from sexuality education in East Africa, to the effect of urban regeneration on young people in London and child marriage in the Middle East and East Africa.

The power of storytelling

For both Dr Clare Coultas and Dr Aisha Hutchinson, it was crucial to think beyond traditional research methods and engage young people through the medium of stories.

Dr Coultas’ research has found that many Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) projects promote the idea that having a ‘good relationship’ is an individual’s choice; that young people can ‘choose’ to have a better life by committing to monogamous relationships based on trust and open communication. Through the co-development of a comic with young people, Dr Coultas has supported young people to articulate their view that this education is too simplistic for their complex realities – in fact, that it feels like a Western thing being imposed on to them.

It is not easy for many people to talk about sex and relationships openly, particularly when others are present; people may feel awkward sharing personal experiences or shy to express opinions that differ from the group. This means that in group-based discussions in research, more creative approaches are useful:

With the use of fictional characters, it becomes easier for the young people to project their thoughts, feelings, and actions onto them rather than expose themselves. This is especially important when they talk about things like feeling excluded, or shame about not being able to simply choose a better life.– Dr Clare Coultas, Lecturer in Social Justice

Stories can also be a powerful tool to imagine alternatives and communicate about their struggles. For Dr Hutchinson, creating a poster with young Syrian mothers who are survivors of child marriage in their refugee communities in Jordan and Lebanon gave them a chance to express what they actually need from organisations and actors in their communities (eg religious and business leaders but also teachers, doctors, youth workers, and government and non-government stakeholders).

We now know that the top-down approach does not work in the long term, because it excludes those it’s trying to help. Instead of portraying married girls as vulnerable, voiceless victims, to end child marriage we need to see them as critical partners and agents of change.– Dr Aisha Hutchinson, Lecturer in Social Justice

Genuine partnerships

Dr Rana Khazbak, Research Associate, saw that urban regeneration projects in London often take a tokenistic approach to the views of children and young people.

She found that even though regeneration may improve neighbourhood quality, not all young people are able to benefit from such improvements. Regeneration often reinforces the social injustices affecting young people from lower income and ethnically minoritised backgrounds; they experience stigmatisation and heightened policing and are deliberately excluded from public spaces. Moreover, the cost of housing and amenities increase and young people face barriers to accessing jobs created by the regeneration.

The detrimental side effects could be avoided: decision-makers – such as property developers, planning authorities and housing landlords – need to invest time and resources to involve young people in decision-making in more effective and meaningful ways.

Young people should be considered partners in their communities, with a stake and unique perspective in addressing local problems.– Dr Rana Khazbak, Research Fellow

Dr Khazbak has collaborated with four youth organisations (The Advocacy Academy, Hackney Quest, My Place and London’s Violence Reduction Unit) on a project titled ‘London: A home for young people?’. It involved a series of workshops where young people shared their experiences and discussed with decision-makers practical solutions for making regeneration policy more inclusive. The project has produced a manifesto and pledges from housing landlords, local authorities and voluntary sector organisations to increase the inclusion of youth voices in their work and improve young people’s access to support and opportunities.

Co-producing research recommendations with young people

When looking at the evaluation of youth work, Dr Tania de St Croix, Senior Lecturer in the Sociology of Youth and Childhood, found it crucial to involve young people in her research. They fed into a list of recommendations for decision-makers, produced a video on their experiences, and helped produce toolkits aimed at practitioners and policy-makers.

Dr de St Croix noticed that the evaluation of youth work often took a top-down approach that prioritised outcome-based measurement procedures and missed the informal aspect of youth work, even though this is a key part of the ethos of working with young people.

I am proud that we have always undertaken our research in conversation and collaboration with those who know youth work best – young people and youth workers. Only then is it possible to understand the life-changing potential of open grassroots youth work in the lives of young people, and the need for substantial, appropriate and sensitive support for this work.– Dr Tania de St Croix, Senior Lecturer in the Sociology of Youth and Childhood

Insights into the lives and views of young people

The five-year ESRC-funded study ‘Young Lives, Young Futures’, a collaboration between researchers at King’s and The Edge Foundation, is taking a similar approach, drawing on processes of co-production with key stakeholders to help policymakers develop greater insight into the lives and perspectives of young people.

Led by Dr Sharon Gewirtz, Professor of Education, and working with PhD student Alice Weavers, among others, the project is shedding light on the experiences of young people, gathering insights through a range of methods including a national survey of over 10,000 young people and in-depth individual interviews with 122 young people.

A recent report based on the first wave of project data has highlighted a number of worrying findings, including that for nearly 1 in 2 young people aged 15-16, secondary school is not an enjoyable or meaningful experience but rather something they need to ‘get through’ because of its bearing on their futures. Conversely, young people who had left mainstream school for alternative education provision or vocational education and training described having more meaningful and supportive relationships with teachers and a feeling of greater autonomy and choice over what and how they learned.

Young people and policymaking

The active involvement of young people in research can have a transformative impact on the quality and relevance of the findings. By recognising young people as valuable contributors to knowledge generation, ECS researchers are shaping a future based on collaborative and equal decision-making.

This is the topic of Alice Weavers’ PhD study: building on her previous work on government youth voice projects in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Alice is exploring how young people could be more involved in national policymaking. She has found that there is a disconnect between most young people and government policy as many young people are not sure where to go to share their views, and don’t feel listened to despite wanting to get involved with finding solutions to issues that affect them.

Alice is now advocating for the creation of a platform,, which would inform young people about government policy, including how their views could make a difference to policy decisions. It would also engage them in participation opportunities.

These projects show how the concept of child and youth participation is now being understood broadly to encompass new research methods and ways of engaging with young people. Through listening to them, amplifying their voices and creating meaningful partnerships, it is hoped we can build a more equal and inclusive society.

In this story

Clare  Coultas

Clare Coultas

Lecturer in Social Justice

Aisha Hutchinson

Aisha Hutchinson

Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences

Rana Khazbak

Rana Khazbak

Postdoctoral Fellow

Sharon Gewirtz

Sharon Gewirtz

Professor of Education

Alice Weavers

Alice Weavers

PhD candidate

Tania de St Croix

Tania de St Croix

Senior Lecturer in the Sociology of Youth and Childhood

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