Engage: The child’s right to participate. No, REALLY!

Local government is bound by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Check the responsibilities of your DCS and Lead Member for Children in their statutory guidance and it’s there.

UNCRC Article 12 says all children and young people must have their voices heard and taken seriously, in all decisions affecting their lives, not only in child-specific services. Their neighbourhood, health, policing and transport, and more. They are not waiting to be citizens. They are eager to contribute in their communities. Some localities are already actively listening. In others, adults take more convincing, certainly more training, to see what must be done. Children are far more than the oft-stated easy platitude, “our future.” They are here now.

In participation, as in so much else, we do worst for the children with the hardest lives: with disabilities or special needs, living with abuse neglect or harm, with health including mental health difficulties, in youth justice, immigration and safeguarding settings, in poverty, or living isolated lives in some costal or rural communities. Some experience far more than one of these sets of circumstances.

If you lead local services and shape your place, you work with children and young people. A substantial minority will be vulnerable. It matters that everybody concerned, led from the top in every partner body, recognises one in four of the population is under-18. More importantly, everybody must actively adapt so that their childhoods shape what these young people will be for life, for the better.

Children’s ability to enjoy their entitlement to a voice requires free expression, captured by UNCRC Article 13, always within the law, in a society that teaches them rights alongside both respect and tolerance. We struggle sometimes with the notion of free expression, especially for our teenagers. And they struggle to understand why. Your leadership in cohesion between generations matters. Though its remit can sometimes seem to be shrinking, the locus of both commissioning and provision still lies with, and much is coordinated by, local government.

Much of what children and young people tell me – will tell you – is about their sense of self, personal and emotional worth, the worth they are accorded by society, their personal resilience and continuous learning. A primary responsibility on us all is to listen to what they say about their lives, and society. If you are not comfortable doing so at the moment, seek ways to become so. There are no better teachers for that than our children and young people. Our challenge is to respond to their entitlement to be valued as rights holders.

When policy, practice or provision affect them, their views should routinely be asked for and acted on, even when adults must then inform them they cannot have what they want, and are humble enough to explain why. Children and young people should tell us how they make a difference to our work, including in exercising a right to complain. Exchanges can open adult and young eyes alike, securing productive and positive change. Sometimes they are uncomfortable: the young are astute critics. But the effort is necessary.

Children and young people’s life chances, wellbeing, citizenship, schooling, health, the contributions they are expected to make to your community, should be central to Authorities’ concerns. There are people in your places who can help you: youth parliaments and assemblies, children in care councils, Guides Scouts, Cadets and other bodies, school councils … to name but a few.

A mirror of the local authorities’ responsibilities is held by health, police and fire and rescue services. It is also in all state funded schools. Ending their duty to cooperate was proposed in the 2011 Education Act, the Lords said no, and cooperation remains required.

Children do not live in a bubble called childhood. They do not only access and use services tailored to their ages. They live in multi-generational families, communities, and society. As Commissioner, I expect us all to listen to them all, but particularly those who are least resilient. Their families are at the heart of all our concerns. They have been so for local government and its partners for many years. Children cannot take control, or level the playing field. That work is, surely, ours to do. Learning how best to encourage them to participate, ensuring they will have influence, is a good use of time, energy and resources. If you have not already listened to them, do so now.

About the Author

This blog was written by Dr Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner for England and is the first in a series of article by SOLACE (Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers) members, exploring some of the themes emerging from the Society’s publication ‘Reclaiming children’s services’.

SOLACE is the representative body for senior strategic managers working in the public sector and seeks to influence the debate about the future of public services to ensure that policy and legislation reflect the experience and expertise of their members.

To follow the SOLACE blog, visit: http://www.solace.org.uk/knowledge/articles/