Youth Voice & Participation: a core Creative Schools value

April 6, 2018

Youth Voice activity, led by Sound Connections, explored models of empowering youth voice within the commissioning process through student consultation and leadership opportunities.  Sound Connections Programme Manager Jennifer Raven reflects on Youth Voice & Participation activity explored through Creative Schools

From the early days of the Creative Schools planning process, Youth Voice & Participation was high on the priority list. Sound Connections, an organisation specialising in Youth Voice & Participation, worked with the Creative Schools Steering Group to create a plan of action to embed and empower the voices, ideas and opinions of children and young people throughout the programme. Initially the plan was to:

  • Facilitate consultation discussions with students at schools taking part in the Brokerage Model
  • Convene a Creative Schools Youth Forum to plan and produce a project or event
  • Provide training about Youth Voice and Participation with Creative Schools partners

One of the most important aspects of Youth Voice is being ready to respond and adapt, and ultimately the plan changed in response to what we heard and experienced. The activity delivered was:

  • Eight consultation sessions with 153 students in primary schools involved in Creative Schools Brokerage
  • Training for schools and cultural organisations at Creative Schools Symposia and learning events
  • Two intensive youth leadership projects delivered at Sarah Bonnell Secondary School and Gallions Primary School

Read a case study of the Young Producers project delivered with ten Sarah Bonnell students.

What is Youth Voice & Participation?

By Youth Voice & Participation we mean listening to young people, valuing what you hear and acting upon it; empowering young people to shape, lead and produce their own activities; enabling young people to be involved at a governance level of organisations and be part of decision making. At its heart it’s about co-producing, working collaboratively, and staff and participants working side-by-side.

At Sound Connections, we use our six Categories of Youth Participation to define the types of activity often involved:

  • Youth Consultation – formal (eg focus groups) and informal (day-to-day conversations) ways of consulting with children and young people to hear their experiences, ideas and opinions
  • Young Producers – youth-led programming; young people producing their own projects and events
  • Youth Governance – young people involved in strategic planning and decision making (eg as trustees)
  • Peer Leadership – youth-led music making, peer learning or mentoring activities (eg young section leaders in ensembles)
  • Youth Enterprise – opportunities for young people to develop entrepreneurial ideas and business skills
  • Youth Advocacy – young people active in campaigning, debating and advocating

To learn more about Youth Voice and Participation in a music and arts context, you can go to the Sound Connections Youth Voice & Participation research site

Youth Voice & Participation as a practice has many decades of research and exploration behind it. Tools and information about Youth Voice and Participation can be explored below:

What were the Creative Schools principles of Youth Voice?

At the Creative Schools Launch Event on 14 April 2016, cultural partners from across East London came together to discuss what youth voice is and what its values and principles are:

  • Youth voice is a holistic process embedded in the values of an organisation. It’s not a stand-alone project
  • Empowerment – allowing people to voice their opinion, and letting people know that if they speak up it will be valued and taken seriously. This applies to everyone across Creative Schools not just young people
  • Safe space – seeking to create a safe space in which young people feel encouraged to share their ideas and opinions
  • Parity – challenging the idea of hierarchy; creating true democracy
  • Listening – genuinely listening and being clear and honest about how you’re able to 
act upon what you hear
  • Youth voice requires integrity and authenticity
  • Be prepared to relinquish power
  • Avoid making assumptions on behalf of young people
  • Be willing to adapt and change
  • Young people can be agents of change
  • Listen to a range of voices, not just the ‘usual suspects’
  • When working with young people, avoid labeling them as such

These principles remain as relevant two years on.

Learning from testing different approaches to Youth Voice & Participation within Creative Schools

The main learning was about the challenges of embedding Youth Voice in schools, as prior to Creative Schools most of Sound Connections’ experience had been in non-school settings. Whilst Youth Voice (commonly known as Pupil or Student Voice in schools) is a recognised part of many school communities, it often takes shape through a Student Council that has limited decision-making power beyond specific projects or initiatives. More research is needed into Youth Voice in a schools context, and there is an opportunity to gather case studies of good practice, such as Gomersal Primary School’s Arts Council.

As part of Creative Schools, eight youth consultations took place in primary schools to test ways in which children and young people could shape the process of commissioning and designing their Brokerage Model projects. Students often found it a new experience to be asked openly for their opinions, and teachers reported that they enjoyed learning about different methods for enabling students to share opinions and give input. Whilst these consultations were insightful, and valued by students as an opportunity to have a say, they were relatively light touch and didn’t directly give students and teachers the means to act upon what had been said and heard. It is with this in mind that we decided to develop two more in-depth projects that involved a two stage process:

  1. Consulting with a group of up to 15 students about their interests, experiences, opinions and ideas about the arts at their school. This is essentially a needs analysis process to find out what students feel is missing within school arts provision, or identify a new project that they would like to take a lead on developing
  2. The opportunity for the same group of students to spend a number of weeks (ten at Sarah Bonnell and five at Gallions) co-producing a project or event

At the time of writing, the project at Sarah Bonnell is complete with planning underway at Gallions.

Read a case study of the Young Producers project delivered with ten Sarah Bonnell students.

Doing more with Youth Voice & Participation

Sound Connections works across the country raising awareness of Youth Voice & Participation and supporting organisations to embed it within practice and policy. Evidence suggests that Youth Voice is undoubtedly something arts organisations (and to some extent schools) are keen to get better at. There is also evidence that funders are more readily requesting that organisations are able to demonstrate how they have consulted with their participants, and involved them in programme design and implementation.

Evaluation and feedback from Creative Schools suggests that the Youth Voice programme strand has sparked interest and learning amongst a wide range of organisations in East London – in programme feedback, empowering Youth Voice ranked as the most highly valued area of the programme for cultural organisations. We hope that these organisations can and will continue independently exploring Youth Voice practice in their work, and resources shared here will be a useful reference point. Within the partnership there are already a number of organisations working to the principles of Youth Voice, and there is certainly strength in practice being explored across a large-scale strategic partnership, where skills, experience and evidence can be shared.

A few examples of youth voice practice being developed in east London:

Overall solid foundations have been laid, and it will be exciting to see how the schools and organisations involved continue to act upon the Creative Schools Youth Voice principles identified at the start of the programme.

For those keen to reflect on existing Youth Voice & Participation practice within their work and consider how to do more, try using the Sound Connections Youth Voice Equaliser self-assessment tool!