The Voice of Young People: An Engine for Improvement? Scoping the Evidence

Karen Halsey, Jenny Murfield, Pippa Lord, Jennie L Harland

01 November 2006

Report available to download from CfBT website

Summary available to download from CfBT website

The CfBT Education Trust commissioned NFER to undertake a review of the literature on the impact of the voice of young people on policy and practice, and on young people themselves.

About the study

Recent years have witnessed a growing commitment to including young people’s voice in research, evaluation and consultation (for example, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Every Child Matters, the National Youth Agency’s Hear By Right standards, the appointment of national children’s commissioners, and numerous tools and partnerships for involving young people).

The project sought to address the following key questions.

  • What research on the impact of young people’s voice/involvement has been carried out since 2000?
  • What are the most compelling findings on the impact of young people’s voice, based on the best evidence available?
  • What is the evidence for young people’s voice having an impact on policy-making and practice? (For example, what are organisations and services doing as a result of such insights?)
  • Has any work explored the impact of the voice of vulnerable young people or other key groups?
  • What gaps are there in the research or evidence base?

Evidence for the review was obtained through searches of library databases and websites, and an email/postal request to relevant organisations for details of recently published or current work (including ‘grey’ literature). The literature was scoped for the most relevant findings`(the research design allowed for up to 25 of the most relevant sources to be fully summarised for inclusion in the review). The criteria for inclusion in the review could be summarised as follows:

  • evidence from literature published from 2000 onwards
  • evidence from research literature and evaluation
  • evidence about the impact of young people’s voice
  • evidence about young people aged 11-16 (including 11-19 where appropriate)
  • a focus on UK-based sources, as well some key international evidence
  • the inclusion of evidence from a range of sectors (for example, health, community, education, youth work).

A total of 52 sources were considered for inclusion in the review. Of these, 26 of the most relevant were summarised for inclusion in the review.

Key findings

Impact of young people’s voice on policy and practice
Of the 26 pieces of literature reviewed, 22 identified impacts on policy and practice. Five main impact areas were identified. These are presented in the order of frequency with which they can be found in the reviewed literature:

  • changes in organisational practices, services and facilities
  • strategy and policy development
  • impact on budgetary decision-making
  • impact on recruitment practices
  • the production of materials and information resources.

Compared with the literature on the processes of involving young people’s voice in research, evaluation and consultation, the impact of young people’s voice on policy and practice is an area that has received little evaluative attention to date.

The literature suggests that organisations are in the process of becoming much more proactive in their involvement of young people. Some have embedded structures and organisational practices to involve young people. In addition, the evidence indicates that young people are influencing the development of a number of local and national policies and strategies and are also actively being included in budgetary decision-making.

Less information has been recorded about the wider impact of young people’s involvement in the recruitment process and the production of materials and resources. However, where it has been documented, there is evidence to suggest that young people could have a successful role to play in the recruitment practices of an organisation. There are also potential opportunities for children and young people’s voices to be heard by those producing materials and resources. More evaluative work may be needed in these two particular impact areas. Organisations, professionals and practitioners should consider and evaluate the impact of involving young people and record it accordingly.

Impact of young people’s voice on the young people themselves
Of the 26 pieces of literature reviewed, 24 of these identified impacts on young people, though to varying degrees. The impacts have been broadly categorised into nine areas of positive impact and one theme of negative impact, although the different categories are often interrelated:

  • confidence and self esteem
  • social, personal and emotional competence
  • sense of responsibility, efficacy and autonomy
  • new knowledge and skills
  • communication and collaborative skills
  • civic and political competence
  • attendance
  • achievement
  • behaviour
  • negative impacts - disillusionment and conflict with other priorities.

The literature suggests the engagement of the voice of young people can have diverse impacts on the young people involved. The range of impacts found in the reviewed literature includes those at a personal, school and wider community and societal level.

Importantly, there may be an intertwined relationship between the impact on policy and practice and impact on young people as a result of young people’s voice. There is some evidence to suggest that where there has been limited impact on policy and practice there are likely to be fewer, or even negative, impacts on the young people themselves.

Organisations might consider developing a more systematic approach to evaluating the impacts on young people when furthering their practice around involving young people’s voice. Given that only a third of the literature reviewed drew on young people’s own perceptions of the impacts of greater involvement, greater inclusion of the young people’s own voice in the evaluation of impacts might also be sought.

Current activities involving the voice of young people
A postal request was sent to relevant organisations asking if they could provide details of current work in this area. The activities highlighted do not necessarily represent a complete audit of all that is being undertaken in this particular field. Rather, they are illustrative of the kinds of work that are currently underway in 2006 and therefore signal the present day climate in relation to children’s participation.

In terms of current research, the degree to which young people are involved in research is seen to vary. Whilst some projects merely seek to canvass the views of the young through discussion groups and questionnaires, other projects place young people at the heart of the research, in such a way as to influence its direction and approach. For example, young people may be enlisted as data collectors, leading consultations with other young people or as members of advisory groups. In this way the pupil voice features in both the planning phases and the subsequent data collection.

In public life, children and young people appear to have many different avenues for registering their ideas and views on a range of topics. Panels, forums, consultations and networks exist which actively seek to capture the voices of young people.

Alongside these opportunities is a wealth of material aimed at supporting professionals who work with young people in a participatory context. Support is given in the form of training manuals, handbooks, guidance booklets and online resources. The majority of this material concentrates on the process of participation - ensuring that professionals are equipped with the appropriate skills and knowledge for consultation activities. In comparison, a much smaller subset of material focuses on capturing the impact of dialogue with young people. In particular, the ‘What’s changed’ tool (National Youth Agency, 2005) provides a template for organisations to collate evidence on impact from different sources. This resource represents an important advancement as it recognises the need to document impacts and for that impact to be widely disseminated for the benefit of others working in the field.

Conclusions/recommendations

As a concluding comment, we note three areas that have provided a thread throughout the review:

  1. there is a growing culture of participation, with insights and ideas from the younger generation recognised as valuable in potentially shaping services and policies which affect their lives and others in the community
  2. in moving beyond participation as a process, organisations and individuals involved with young people’s voice might direct their attention to the outcomes stemming from this activity
  3. there is a relative ‘gap’ in any routine evaluation and documentation of impact - whilst the literature review did indeed uncover documentation of impact, the evaluation of that impact was rarely done in a systematic way, nor did it always go far enough.

In light of the observations made above, the following recommendations are offered. Where young people are involved, organisations should ensure that the outcomes of their involvement are properly evaluated and recorded.

  • This evaluation should be comprehensive, inviting contributions from the young people themselves (about the impact on them personally and the advantages of their involvement).
  • The impacts arising from young people’s input should be tracked in the longer term in order to gauge a fuller picture of their contribution.
  • Young people’s voice is seen as an engine for improvement. But what those improvements are and how they come about as a result of the young people’s voice requires more overt evaluation and documentation.

Key Findings

  • There is a growing culture of participation, with insights and ideas from the younger generation recognised as valuable in potentially shaping services and policies which affect their lives and others in the community.
  • The engagement of young people in these matters can have diverse impacts on the young people involved. The range of impacts found in the reviewed literature includes those at a personal, school and wider community and societal level.
  • There is a relative ‘gap’ in any routine evaluation and documentation of impact - whilst the literature review did indeed uncover documentation of impact, the evaluation of that impact was rarely done in a systematic way, nor did it always go far enough.
Read the report Read the article