Has anyone asked the children? Bringing young people’s voices into dialogue with policy
Children, or rather topics about children, continue to overshadow the post-pandemic media, policy and political landscape. Recent news articles include “Britain's schools attendance crisis: MPs call for tougher measures to stop children missing lessons as report finds mental health problems and cost-of-living pressures are behind rise in truancies since the pandemic” in the Daily Mail, “The Pandemic set back social and emotional growth of children” in the Guardian, and “How lockdown broke a generation” in The Telegraph.
Despite the elevation of these subjects in these spaces, we have heard very little from children themselves. Children’s absence in policy, politics and the media is not new, but rather part of a long term trend, powerfully highlighted during the global pandemic where children were prevented from submitting questions to the Prime Minister’s daily briefing and from submitting evidence to the COVID-19 inquiry. Instead, children tend to be represented in these spaces as passive recipients of policy and services, their role as active citizens within their families and communities overlooked. Anthropologists Julie Spray and Jean Hunleth suggest this is part of a large scale “invisibilising” of children, whereby they are “ignored or minimised” and “leaders forget that children exist”.
How can we ensure that children’s voices are heard in these uncertain times?
There is the need to commission and conduct research which centres children and to address challenges in the knowledge ecosystem to ensure children's voices are brought into dialogue with decision-makers and influencers. Our aim in researching with children through the pandemic was to do just this, by recognising children’s expertise and rights to be heard and to ensure, through the development of attentive, ethical research practice, that their messages were shared with policy and practice audiences (see our research cited by the Education Select Committee, the COVID-19 education inquiry and Save the Children).
Our methodological approach included researching with children over time using flexible approaches that are attentive to children’s multimodal communication as well as our broader responsibilities to safeguard children and protect them from harm. Rather than a purely verbal activity, multimodal approaches recognise how touch, gaze, gesture and movement are important ways that children convey meaning and how this is mediated through the arts, technologies and other objects that researchers and children bring to the research space. Fully engaging children therefore requires researchers to create opportunities for children to express themselves, to adapt to children’s interests and preferred ways of communicating.
Our open access papers set out the potential of this approach (see articles in Sociological Research Online and Families, Relationships and Societies). They offer a methodological framework to value children’s expertise, the importance of researchers to be attentive listeners and their responsibilities to attune to children, and the sensitivity necessary when participating in children’s worlds.
Going beyond knowledge generation
Our focus on the multimodal extends beyond knowledge generation (as important as that is) to consider the potential of creative visual media for powerfully and sensorially conveying the voices and perspectives of children. When produced with children through a collaborative process of analysis and curation, as we explore, the visual arts can support children to communicate their ideas in ways that convey their multiple voices – for example through images and sounds which express the affective experience of serial lockdowns, home-schooling, and restrictions on children’s everyday lives at this time, as well as their role as active citizens within their families and communities.
In making visible the range of children’s experiences through narrative, images and text, the children’s animation Our Voices offers ways of seeing the diversity of children’s experiences, enabling us to hear directly from them. Our focus on the creative visual arts – and their potential to facilitate the telling and hearing of stories – responds to ongoing debates about how to ensure that the voices of children are faithfully portrayed. Of equal importance is how connection might be made between children’s experiences and "potentially resistant" policy audiences. By bringing young people’s voices into dialogue with policy, our research enables children to challenge their marginalisation and invisibility in policy, politics and the media.
About the authors
Helen Lomax is Professor of Childhood Studies at the University of Huddersfield. She has a long-standing interest in the development of participatory, arts-based methods with children. She has led and co-led multi-disciplinary UKRI and EU funded projects on landscapes and well-being, children’s digital literacy and childhood well-being in contexts of disadvantage and is currently PI (with Percy-Smith) of a participatory action research project CHILL: Children’s Lives in Changing Places funded by the Nuffield Foundation.
Kate Smith is Senior Research Fellow in Just Futures: Centre for Child, Youth, Family and Community Research in the School of Human and Health Sciences at the University of Huddersfield. Her expertise has developed through participatory and creative research projects and professional third sector practice, fostering strong collaborative partnerships within communities and directly informing social policy and practice.