"Yes. They are Listening but Do They Hear Us?" Reflections on the Journey of the Barnardo's Participation Project

Research in Practice
Monday, April 10, 2017

Barnardo's Participation Project sought to develop ways of involving disabled children and young people in health, social care and children's services planning.

  • By Rosemary Murray
  • Child Care in Practice, Vol 21, (2015)

Barnardo's Participation Project was established in 2002. It sought to develop ways of involving disabled children and young people in health, social care and children's services planning with the ultimate goal of achieving shared decision making between children and adults, the "top rung" of Hart's (1992) ladder of participation (see graphic).

This summary pulls out from the paper those factors that have contributed to and challenged successful participation in planning.


Participation in the project 

The project seeks creative ways to facilitate the involvement of young people with complex difficulties. Young people aged 5 to 25 with a range of impairments can self-refer or be referred to the project but they must want to participate. The often lengthy process of enabling engagement results in the development of appropriate tools for meaningful participation.

The project has found that while individual engagement is person-centred, group advocacy by children and young people with disabilities demands:

  • A structured process of regular meetings

  • Emphasis on having fun including social outings

  • Trusting relationships between facilitators and young people

  • Shared capacity-building activities to develop skills in advocacy.

Participation in policy planning  

The project tested different models of participation practice, showing that to ensure plans are based on identified need and to avoid tokenistic participation, young people must be involved at the first stage of planning on issues that impact on their lives.

The project was asked to contribute to developing strategic policy across Northern Ireland. Effective facilitation enabled the young people to establish a regional group, bringing together young people recruited through different agencies. Devising this process ensured that the young people felt they were listened to - and more importantly - heard. Views were fed into the project's established advocacy groups by the project manager and an advocacy worker. This helped develop relationships of trust between staff and young people.

The regional group consisted of young people with diverse support needs and so it was important to:

  • Use participation tools in a way that enabled all participants to communicate

  • Allow young people to express their views freely

  • Encourage young people to select areas for change, prioritising the greatest needs and rapidly achievable improvements

  • Help young people identify who to include to enable change.

The group developed a visual "path" setting out priority areas and forming an action plan. This model of seeking and embedding the views of children and young people with disabilities in strategic planning was effective and has been highlighted as a model of good practice in Europe by Leeson (2013).

Benefits of participatory practice  

Where there is commitment by professionals to meaningful engagement and building relationships over time, benefits to young people include:

  • Development of participation skills and experience

  • Making friends and benefiting from peer support

  • Ownership of their own involvement.

Benefits to the planning process  

  • Action plans based on identified, prioritised need

  • Promoting accountability of professionals to listen and act on what young people say

  • Motivating professionals to share power and facilitate change to improve services

  • Developing professionals' participation skills.

Challenges to participatory practice 

In addition to the constant challenges of facilitating the involvement of young people with a range of support needs, it was important to collaboratively develop an exit strategy for young people leaving the project aged 25 who may experience a sudden loss of relationships and support. They have developed skills which they could build on through projects for young adults with disabilities, ensuring ongoing participation and support.

Implications for practice

Meaningful participation benefits all stakeholders. However, challenges to the participation of children and young people with disabilities persist and ultimately, outcomes for children and young people with disabilities will reflect whether or not the young people are being listened to and heard. To overcome these, there needs to be:

  • A shared vision of the principles of participation, agreed with the young people

  • Investment in relationships

  • Sharing of participatory experience and knowledge

  • Acceptance by policy makers of their responsibility to seek the views of service users and become accountable to try and make change happen

  • An ability to evolve in response to the changing participatory landscape.

The research section for this special report is based on a selection of academic studies which have been explored and summarised by Research in Practice part of the Dartington Hall Trust.

Further reading

Related resources:

  • SCIE resources on co-production in social care: What is it and how to do it
  • Children's participation in decision-making: a children's views report by the Office of the Children's Commissioner
  • Participation work by the Office of the Children's Commissioner with young children and their families aimed at reducing the impact of low income
  • Children and young people giving feedback on services for children in need: ideas from a participation programme by the Office for the Children's Commissioner
  • Achieving emotional wellbeing for looked after children: a whole system approach by the NSPCC
  • Learning from the Relationships Matter project, challenging and promoting continued relationships between practitioners and care leavers
  • The Department for Education has recently published the user journey mapping research report and website.
  • An evaluation of the impact of children's participation on The Children's Society and its stakeholders
  • Emerging learning from the Council for Disabled Children Learning and innovation programme including promising practice around co-production

Related resources by Research in Practice:

  • Voice of the child: Evidence review
  • Attachment: Frontline briefing
  • Adolescent mental health: Frontline briefing
  • That Difficult Age: Developing a more effective response to risks in adolescence: Evidence scope
  • Communicating effectively with children under 5: Frontline briefing
  • Communicating effectively with Children Under 5: Webinar recording
  • Communicating effectively with children: In-house workshop
  • June 2016 Communicating with children and young people with developmental delay, communication difficulties and disabilities: Frontline briefing
  • June 2016 Young person-centred approaches in Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE): Building self-efficacy and promoting participation: Frontline briefing
  • July 2016 Young person-centred approaches in Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE): Building self-efficacy and promoting participation: Webinar
  • System redesign with young people's voices centre stage: Blog by Louise Bazalgette from NSPCC and Jake Garber from DfE's Innovation Unit
  • Evaluation tools and guides including:
  • Embedding the Voice of Children and Young People in Service Evaluation: Evaluation Tool
  • Ethics for research with children, young people and vulnerable adults

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