Putting children’s views at the heart of decision making: learning from the Bright Spots programme

22 July 2021

Topic: Voices of young people
Author: Helen Caldwell

As CELCIS, in partnership with Coram Voice, launches the Bright Spots programme pilot in Scotland, this blog post reflects on the experience of one local authority's participation in the programme in England.

Helen Caldwell is Strategy and Policy Development Officer at North Somerset Council. Since 2013, Helen has been leading Bright Spots in her local authority, the first to ever take part in the programme, which provides an opportunity for children, young people and care leavers to share their experiences of care and how they feel about their lives.

Our Bright Spots story starts almost a decade ago, in 2012, when we were approached by Julie Selwyn, Professor of Education and Adoption at the Rees Centre, University of Oxford, about being part of a new pilot programme aimed at measuring and improving the wellbeing of our children and young people in care and care leavers.

It's always been important for us to hear the views of our young people in care. At the time, we'd been hosting participation groups, conducted short surveys with young people about their experiences, and liaised with our 'Children in Care Council', a group of young people cared for, by our local authority, who volunteer to help shape our Corporate Parenting strategy.

However, looking back, our methods of participation weren't as inclusive or well thought-out as they could have been. The feedback we received from our young people was helpful but only came from those who happened to see our call for volunteers and who had the time take our questionnaires, which were often one-offs. Frequently, these were small groups of young people of a similar age and the questions didn't focus on their wellbeing and feelings. Although we really wanted to reach out to all our children and young people in care, we didn't have the resources within our local authority at the time to do so.

Asking the right questions to make real change

Working alongside Professor Selwyn and care experienced young people and care leavers from a variety of different local authorities, we formed a national working group to help develop an initial survey for the Bright Spots programme pilot, 'Your Life, Your Care'. The survey we created together had three different age-appropriate versions for children and young people up to the age of 18. Every question was thought through and tested in discussions with care experienced children and young people from ages 4-18. If they told us that we'd missed something important, or recommended that a question needed amended, the working group changed it. As a result of their input, the questions in the survey, which is now used nationally, are completely child-centred and really focus on how children and young people feel about their lives – from their relationship with their social workers, to their friends at school, and their hobbies and interests.

In 2013, our team at North Somerset became the first local authority in the UK to officially pilot the programme and were delighted to get a strong response rate. Fast forward to 2021 and we've now run the survey for seven years – alongside a later developed survey for care leavers, 'Your Life Beyond Care' – and have built up a really strong picture of children's experiences, thoughts and feelings about their care. We're now in a position where we can compare our survey responses year on year to see if our care has improved or not, and if something needs changing, we work with children and young people to do that.

As the Bright Spots programme has been rolled out across England and Wales, we've also had to the chance to form relationships with other local authorities that have carried out the surveys and are now able to compare and share best practice. Also, since we now carry out the two Bright Spots surveys – for children and young people, and for care leavers – we can look at the responses our care leavers give and compare these to earlier experiences shared so that we can understand their transition. Those comparisons are so insightful and really help to shape and influence the services we provide.

'They know everything about us but we know nothing about them': Embedding Bright Spots in our programme of work

When we first did the survey nearly eight years ago, we really had no idea what to expect in regards to what the children and young people would tell us, and that's often still the case. For example, every year that we've conducted the surveys our young people have told us that they enjoy school, feel supported with their learning, and have good, regular access to outdoor activities and nature. That is always brilliant to hear.

By contrast, some of the survey findings over the years have surprised us and we've worked with our young people to look at these in depth to make improvements. At the beginning of our Bright Spots journey, children and young people told us through their survey responses that they often weren't sure who their social worker was and didn't have a clear understanding of why they were in care. One young person noted, 'they (social workers) know everything about us but we know nothing about them'.

As a result, we now use words and pictures to help children and young people better understand who the adults and carers in their lives are. Developed with our Children in Care Council, we designed introduction cards to give to our children and young people when they get a new social worker, which include photos and 'get to you know you' information like their social worker's favourite foods, animals and places. On their second visit with their social worker, our children and young people are also given a 'Guide for me' keepsake box which includes a colourful booklet for writing and drawing in, felt tips, post-its, a memory stick where they can keep photos and memories, space for them to keep special items, and child-friendly information about their rights.

Often just one comment from the survey can have a massive impact. Again, in the very first year we did the Bright Spots survey, one child told us how much they disliked that there was a symbol that appeared next to their name on the register which was projected on a whiteboard every day in front of the class. The symbol indicated to teachers that this child was in care. The survey provided a safe place for the young person to share their views, and it was a very powerful message to share with school colleagues regarding stigma. We have not seen this comment again and it was such a powerful message for school staff to hear.

The Bright Spots programme is one of the best things we've done. By doing the survey every year, having a strong focus on children's wellbeing and making improvements, it's had a powerful impact on the care we provide. It's truly reinforced to us the need to have services for children's care designed using the views of our children, young people and care leavers.

You can read more about the Bright Spots Scottish Pilot here

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders. 

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