In 2008 the Office of the Guardian started to involve young people more directly as collaborators in its inquiries, by engaging young people to conduct interviews, assist with focus groups and comment on the analysis. Amanda Shaw, project manager for the inquiry into social worker relationships with children saw immediate benefits.
The advice of the young research collaborators about the suitability of interview venues and the best way to frame questions was invaluable at the planning stage.
Engaging children and young people as collaborators in research is still novel. They have long been objects of study, sometimes subjects of study but more rarely actors in study.
Caution in working alongside children and young people in research is understandable. Researchers must avoid exploiting children, adapt their methodology, make sound judgements about ability and maturity, and it takes more time.
The benefits to researchers though are considerable. Through partnering with young people, adult researchers understand better a child or young person’s perspective and the findings are more likely to be authentic.
Emily Rozee, young researcher in two inquiries, saw that, ‘using young researchers really helps to make participants feel relaxed and comfortable to express their opinions and thoughts.’
The benefits to children and young people are probably less evident, but can and should be front and centre of a project. The more obvious benefits are being heard, skills development, and honorariums or payment for their expertise.
Being a young researcher has given me an insight into policy, project management, interviewing techniques and the process of conducting a research assignment. I am grateful for the experience and hope to use the skills I have learned in my future employment.
The less obvious benefits to young people are effecting change, having their views validated and imparting knowledge. Of course there are also potential negative outcomes when views are not used or do not lead to change.
Ethics guidance and guidelines are critical to including children in research in whatever capacity they are to be involved. Ethics processes can inhibit or promote the voices and participation of children and it is incumbent on members of ethics committees to accept that children are capable of contributing to research and how best to include them.
Careful consideration is required for each stage of the process where children and young people are involved, including how to end the project and the relationship. Informed consent to participate as an interviewee or a collaborator is essential and the adult researcher has to pay attention to each child’s level of ability and capacity to consent, as well as informing and consulting with the adult decision-makers.
A key purpose of the Office is to strengthen the voice of children and young people and to demonstrate how it can be done. Our systemic inquiries feature the views and experiences of children and young people and in all inquiries the Youth Advisors have an ongoing advisory role. The active involvement of young researchers is an important addition.
We are still learning how to do this well. We must strike a balance between child and young person leadership and robust inquiry outcomes, but it clearly can be done to benefit all and for all to learn.