Children's Parliament's Seen + Heard project with Fife Council aims to help younger looked after children get a say in their care. Chelsea Stinson, Children’s Voice Programme Manager at Children’s Parliament, speaks about the impact and success of the project.
The Seen + Heard project began after we delivered the Community Initiative in Fife, using papier-mâché modelling with children who appeared to be on the pathway to offending. This project aimed at getting them to look at who they wanted to be in 20 years’ time and raise aspirations for the future. This approach was demonstrated to improve peer relationships, increase emotional wellbeing and increase engagement in learning.
Viv Boyle, the lead child protection worker in Fife, thought it might be a great approach to use with looked after children. Viv wanted to develop something for younger looked after children, aged nine to 11, so we developed a project specifically for them. Seen + Heard creates a space for children to have their voices heard, explore children’s rights, gain confidence, share their experiences with the people who make decisions about care in Fife, and influence things at a local level.
It started as a pilot in the first year, working with up to ten children who met monthly, and after a year we were able to expand and take on two groups a year of up to ten children. We also continue to work with the children who finished the first year of the project in a 'transition group' before they are old enough to join 2bHeard, a project for care experienced young people 12 years and over in Fife. Now we are in the third year of delivery, working with 45 children across the groups.
The main activity of the project is a week-long intensive papier-mâché project where the children think about who they want to be in the future. First, we spend time looking at their skills and interests, how they see themselves, how they think others see them, their goals, and who they want to be, not just for work but as a person. Then they work closely with two papier-mâché artists in a week-long process to create their models. A lot of the children have done papier-mâché in school, but it’s very basic. Here they each make a model of their future selves that is about 18 inches tall with accessories. The artists are there to teach them new skills and the models are high-quality, they look amazing and the children are very proud of them.
But it’s not just about the model, it’s about the process they go through to make it. It’s a time for the children to cement relationships: they come from all over Fife so they’re building new friendships, learning how to communicate, building confidence and developing trust between them and the other children and adults. It gives them the chance to build relationships, with each other and with staff working with them, and also bring in their carers, social workers, teachers and members of the Fife Corporate Parent Board, which includes councillors, Fife Council staff, representatives from Police Scotland, Scottish Fire & Rescue, Fife College, third sector organisations and others – anyone who has corporate parenting responsibilities.
The Seen + Heard groups also meet for monthly sessions where they participate in a range of creative and teambuilding activities and share experiences and feelings about their lives at home, at school and in the community. Each day the children are with us, we do something called 'Chicken' (a misunderstanding of a project worker from New Zealand saying 'check in' and it stuck), where everyone shares how they're feeling at the start and end of each day. When the group is first coming together, we have them build large Viking ship from a wooden kit as a team building activity. That gets them working together, problem-solving and getting to know each other in a fun way. We also do lots of outdoor activities and free play, which especially good for children who don’t have much access to outside space.
For a lot of the children in Seen + Heard, hearing something positive about themselves is a new thing. Being complimented by their peers and by adults is something we want to ensure they experience so during the project they are encouraged to give compliments to each other and are recognised in front of the group for something they have done. We also give the children small challenges to push them slightly out of their comfort zones within the supportive space of Seen Heard. These challenges might be as simple as being first to tell us how their day is going in the morning or giving a tour of the space to a visiting adult - these things can be tough for some children.
It is amazing just to see the children grow and develop through the programme, especially those who struggle to make friends: it’s fantastic to see them forming close relationships and laughing with their peers, to see those who are really shy speak out and grow in confidence.
Maintaining relationships with children over two or three years is good for them because they are used to people coming in and out of their lives. Some of them are 14 now and they want to come back as youth ambassadors and support the new group of children coming through. It’s inspiring for me to see that and I am proud of them for what they have achieved. I’m always blown away by the insight, empathy and excitement these children have!
It works because Children’s Parliament uses a rights-based approach, informing children about their rights and demonstrating what they mean in relation to their lives, creating a space where they feel they are equal to everyone in the room, they are safe and listened to and they can explore ideas and feel supported. We invite members of the Corporate Parent Board and other stakeholders to come and meet the children and take part in what they are doing. They can have natural conversations in a space that’s comfortable for the children and that they have ownership of.
While we have evidenced the positive impact of the programme on individual children, one of the challenges we have been teasing out is how to use the project to better inform developments in policy and practice and how to engage with the Corporate Parent Board so that the children are influencing decisions that impact on their lives. Practitioners and policy makers speak very positively about the impact of visiting Seen Heard and hearing from the children, but that’s an individual thing and it won’t create system change. We need to be better at reaching professionals on the ground so that the children's experiences, view and ideas inform what they are doing.
To do that we would like to develop the transition programme and look at how those older children could be involved at a more strategic level, to use this learning and confidence-building to help them speak directly to people who are working in the area. As far as we know Fife is the only local authority taking this kind of long-term rights-based approach with younger looked after children, getting their voices involved in what’s going on in care. We would be keen to see other local authorities engaging with children in care in this way.
Children’s Parliament is passionate about allowing children to speak for themselves, so we want to create opportunities for children to come together with professionals and speak directly about what would make a difference for them: that is our focus for the next year, to see how we can make that transition programme have more impact.