Rachel Roberts, Phoenix Education Trust

Describe your role


I work with the Phoenix Education Trust, a charity which promotes and supports democratic education. In essence this means education which is fully participatory. There are many different facets to my role as we work on a range of projects. We facilitate participatory workshops in schools around confidence, communication, campaigning and peer training skills. Another key element of my work is to support StudentVoice: this is an organisation for secondary school students which is run by students for students to represent students. 

What makes a good participation worker?


A good participation worker is someone who genuinely believes that they don’t necessarily know better or more than the young people they work with; someone who is willing to put themselves and their views in the background and let the group work things out for themselves; someone who regards every situation as a collaborative learning experience and respects young people as equals while maintaining the boundaries of responsibility. 

What are the barriers to involving children and young people?


It can be hard to strike a balance between the participatory approaches we use and how children and young people are used to being treated on the whole. While they have much to say and many valuable ideas it is often a huge leap to enable the students to believe that they really are being asked what they really think and that they really will be listened to. Young people also often aren’t used to the level of self-initiation and responsibility which comes with genuine participation. It can be hard for them to grasp the fact that after we have worked with them it really is down to them to move things on to the next stage. This can be additionally challenging as they tend to be back in a school environment which doesn’t necessarily support this way of working. 

What are the benefits?


The benefits of using participatory approaches when working with young people are endless. Children and young people are actually enabled to fulfil their potential, they exceed the expectations which adults, peers, society and they themselves have of them. They gain life skills as they learn by doing and what they are doing is something real. They gain confidence and communication skills, self-motivation and responsibility. They learn to interact with people and the world in a more positive and constructive manner regardless of the situation. Responsibility breeds responsibility, respect breeds respect, trust breeds trust. Respectful, trustworthy and responsible citizens are the ones we want a society full of.  

What tips do you have for effective participation of children and young people?


Have patience and allow for a lot of time for process. Don’t be frustrated by what can often appear to be lots of going round in circles - realise the learning value in each round. Make it clear from the beginning how you will be working and what that means, then stick to it. Start with the assumption that everyone in the room, regardless of age or other factors has something equally valuable to contribute and create an environment which enables everyone to participate. Include as much freedom and choice as you can and balance it with the essential ground rules of respecting and listening to one another. Try setting the rules collaboratively with the group and getting the group to reassess the rules when they aren’t working. And, be genuine; the benefits will only come if you really mean it, and this can also involve being honest about any limitations. 

What is effective participation?


Effective participation is about more than principles, beliefs and having the structures to facilitate these. It is about regularly checking in to ensure that all views are being taken on board and that fair and accessible opportunities have made it possible for everyone involved to contribute. It is about creating an open, tolerant, respectful, collaborative, responsible and positive environment in which everyone is able to join in and no one is forced to. 

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