Greg Sanderson, Involver

Describe your role
In November 2009, I co-founded an organisation called involver. With my colleague Asher, we help schools to learn democracy by doing democracy through school councils and student voice.

An important part of our work is to challenge tokenism in student voice: too often in schools young people are told they have influence (but only a few can use it), that they are listened to (as long as they give the right answer), and that they can talk about what they want (but can’t actually do anything).

My role is to challenge this situation and help to improve active citizenship in schools, using the curriculum as a springboard. I do this in three main ways:

  • Giving free advice and support to schools and LAs through www.involver.org.uk (helping them with things like better meetings, sustainable structures and training sessions)
  • Training young people (and the adults that work with them)
  • Project work (I’m currently working on a social enterprise project with Changemakers, and the Speaker’s School Council Awards with Parliament)

What makes a good participation worker?
I think that good participation workers are:

  • Inspiring (in a practical way, so that you can remember how to take that inspiration forward)
  • Challenging (they make you think about why you believe something, and consider other ways to approach things)
  • Clear (people need to know what to do!)
  • Fun! (Fun and learning aren’t two different things)

What are the barriers to involving children and young people?
Unfortunately, one of the main barriers is adults who have a narrow understanding of what effective participation is about. This is passed on to young people who begin to have low aspiration for what they can achieve. Effective participation is more than consultation, raising money for charities, one-way communication, or just talking, it’s about young people taking action, with the support of adults.

In schools, where involver’s work is focused, this is important for us to overcome. Good student voice and school councils inherently are a step into the unknown for some teachers, and therefore a lot of schools aren’t interested in doing them well. But that’s when you get real results – when young people are given genuine trust and responsibility, with the appropriate support.

What are the benefits?
The research is out there for all to see: effective participation is good for individuals, institutions and society.

I guess we all want to develop this work to a point where everyone in society, whether they are in school, college, university or work, takes responsibility for their actions, and understands their role in making things better (or worse). Crucially, they should also expect those institutions to have structures and policies to encourage this.

What tips do you have for effective participation of children and young people?
Being flexible is important (I bet this has come up a million times!) – but I think it’s really key to working with young people. In a lot of ways, there’s only so much preparation you can do when planning a training session. Better to get a programme, and be prepared to tear it to bits when you arrive!

What is effective participation?
Effective participation is young people being involved in the design, delivery and evaluation of things which affect their lives. In a school context, we think participation should be universal (not just for the clever kids), makes a real difference, and self-sustaining. 

Participation Works is a partnership of…
British Youth CouncilChildren's Rights Alliance for EnglandKIDSNational Council for Voluntary Youth ServicesNational Youth AgencyNCB