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Over To You: Why Active Engagement With Young People Should Be A Priority

01/09/2016 14:45 | Updated 01 September 2016

My 17 year-old son has recently been applying for work at a number of well-known supermarket chains. He has little relevant experience but what we have realised is that these large, multinational companies are all looking for the same thing. Their (long!) psychometric and multiple test questions all focus on identifying skills and attitude to customer service.

Essentially, the right answer to all the questions is listen to your customers; drop whatever else you are doing; and serve them with a smile. It's impressive to have such a singular approach.

It also means that, despite his lack of retail experience, my son can relate. He understands the experience of being a customer and how he likes to be treated. Therefore, he can understand and appreciate the expectations of any potential employer.

The process has made me think about how few opportunities my son, and indeed the vast majority of children and young people, has in helping shape their experience as a customer of services that dominate their lives - health, education, justice, for example.

The value placed on children and young people's views and, critically, their specific involvement in making changes and seeing the impact of their views on change, is a source of continual frustration for organisations such as mine. There is no shortage of opportunities or willingness to consult with children and young people, using surveys or focus groups. These are welcome but the evidence of changes, which have been introduced as a result of their contribution, is scarce.

In Scotland, we have a tired and overused slogan; "put the child at the centre". But all too often the intention is never realised.

With that said, I think we are seeing signs of change.

There is no shortage of professionals and service providers who understand and value the importance of active engagement and "co-production" with children and young people. Our challenge is making this a systemic change and a non-negotiable feature of service improvement, development and evaluation.

The incredible unleashing of children and young people's passion and engagement in changing society, evident during the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum campaign, made a whole range of opinion formers sit up. Partly through pride, but also in recognition that there is a wasted resource of talent if children and young people are not included in conversations around the key challenges our country is facing.

Finding more specific ways of giving effect to improved engagement and following through, is our next big challenge.

Significant attention is focused on the battle around the Brexit negotiations. Elements of the UK Government have made clear that they want to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights and the associated rights of children but any withdrawal is a red line for the Scottish Government. Respect for children's rights is strong in Scotland and embedded in all relevant Scottish legislation, policy and practice.

However, respect for children's rights is simply a starting-point and not the end goal. Our ambition and challenge is how we engage meaningfully with children and young people as active citizens. The problem is with the system - not the children and young people, as we saw from the 2014 Referendum.

There are two areas where I think we could make immediate and effective progress.

1. Education

In summer, the Scottish Education Secretary John Swinney published the government's Education Delivery plan, outlining their plans to deliver excellence and equity in Scottish education. The extension of the Scottish Attainment Challenge is also underway.

The government have been clear about what these plans will do for children in terms of excellence and equality. But what we need to do is focus on how children and young people will work and contribute, with others, to delivering these goals.

2. Health

The alarming levels of current and projected obesity among children and young people is widely recognised and numerous initiatives to combat have been identified. Robust evidence of what action and communications are effective with children and young people is available - but we have no systematic follow-through.

Through our work with schools, children and young people tell us consistently that to improve take up of school meals they should be involved in both menu selection and preparation. But this isn't translating into practice.

We know public health messages don't work if they try and guilt-trip or project the impact of unhealthy choices to a distant future; yet we still have thousands of pounds being spent on ineffective public health campaigns.

We also need to review not just content, but delivery. Children and young people want effective online communications. They aspire to be digital but we still have schools that do not have access to wi-fi; they value peer-to-peer information and communications via online groups but we still provide a mass of health information based on a model of the specialist practitioner knows best.

It's not an easy ask for professionals to give up some control; assumptions and working practices to make room for children and young people to have a say. Add the scary world of social media, child protection and health and safety concerns, and it's no wonder that effective engagement can be considered to be a minefield.

However, I have yet to meet someone who has made the effort and regrets the experience, or feels it to be a waste of time. The vast majority say they feel invigorated and energised by the work.

Our challenge now is to make sure that all decisions nationally, locally and in communities involve children and young people as equal partners. I think it is a challenge Scotland can more than rise to.

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