Tom Burke, Children's Rights Alliance for England

Describe your role
I work part-time as Senior Policy and Change Officer at the Children’s Rights Alliance for England as part of the Participation Works programme. My role is to try and ensure that the legal and policy framework in England fulfils every child’s right to have their views heard and for this to be given due weight in any matter affecting them. Most of my time is spent trying to influence laws going through Parliament - promoting participation to Parliamentarians and civil servants. I keep children’s professionals updated on legal duties and policy developments relating to participation by contributing to the PWNE E-bulletin and writing reports (such as our Listen and Change guide). I also work alongside children and young people on participation campaigns, like lowering the voting age.

What makes a good participation worker?
A big heart with a commitment to children’s human rights – respecting people and treating them fairly. Big ears to listen. Eyes to look out for who’s involved and who’s not. A smile which makes everyone feel welcome. A voice loud enough to speak up for children and challenge those who reject participation; but calm enough to talk with children about difficult issues. A sense of humour to have some fun and laugh at yourself. For me, participation is political - you need to have a burning passion to create a more just and fair world where no-one feels excluded.

What are the barriers to involving children and young people?
Sadly, in my experience it is adult’s attitudes to and about children. Too often participation remains something ‘nice’ which ‘good’ adults ‘grant’ to ‘good’ children. When you move on from this and shift your understanding to truly respect children and young people as equals then the barriers break down. You see what children can do – not focus on what you think they cannot do. You see the institutional barriers which prevent children’s equal participation and work with them to tear them down. This attitudinal and cultural shift is the key to unlocking institutional barriers.

What are the benefits?
There is reams of evidence that good participation improves decisions affecting children; strengthens positive relations between different cultures, religions and ages; enables children to learn new skills and knowledge whilst building their self-esteem and confidence. It makes organisations more effective at improving outcomes and it benefits adults too – you learn from children and about yourself. Most importantly good participation is fun!

What tips do you have for effective participation of children and young people?
A few months ago I was working with a mixed age range of children. I had planned what I thought would be a fun and creative session. It took a lot of planning, getting different materials together, different props and handouts at the ready - the works! On the day it went well but the best bit was when we sat in a circle and just chatted. It really highlighted to me that we can sometimes get distracted by the mechanics of participation and forget that effective participation doesn’t necessarily need whistles, bells and flashing lights. It is about positive dialogue – taking the time to value and understand someone else’s point of view.

What is effective participation?
How long have you got? Put simply - effective participation is when you finish a session and you see a whole room of smiling people. When you finish a project and you see the change in children and young people. When you leave an organisation and you think about what’s changed for the better and the legacy that will remain. When you look around your community and you see the positive impact of what’s changed because of participation. Effective participation is one which creates positive change for society.

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