Putting the voices of young people at the heart of sport & play

Alison Goodall, Senior Innovations Manager at the Youth Sport Trust, discusses the importance of youth voice, and how it can help shape young people’s childhood experiences and wellbeing.

Being a young person right now is undoubtedly truly challenging, and no matter how young or old we are as adults, our experiences of childhood and adolescence will have been very different to those of today’s students, especially those with different cultural backgrounds or abilities to our own. And yet, we are tasked with making decisions about how to make school life more engaging, more inclusive and more effective for them. How can we identify the solutions to these challenges without truly understanding the experiences and perspectives of the students we are trying to help?

For this reason alone, providing opportunities for young people to share their thoughts, ideas and experiences in a safe environment (youth voice) is important, but we also have an obligation through the UN convention on the rights of the Child which in Article 12 states that children have the right to be listened to and taken seriously.

The extent to which young people feel listened to at school is also a significant factor in their wellbeing. The Children’s Society, 2022 young people survey found that of all the factors which affect children’s happiness at school, the extent to which they felt listened to was most strongly related to their happiness with school in general. In addition, positive engagement in youth voice develops important life skills giving young people confidence in their ability to make themselves heard, and self-esteem when they see their ideas coming to life. It’s a stepping-stone to creating active citizens and volunteers of the future, and a practical approach to ensure changes in the way things are done at school are relevant and impactful.

Every generation has their own experience of what it is to be young – we must listen to our young people now, as only they have the lived experience of being young during this challenging time

Dr Niamh Mourton, 2021
Dr Niamh Mourton, 2021

While there are clearly excellent reasons for embedding youth voice in school, and examples of schools that use youth voice effectively, there are many schools which struggle to build it into their practice. This is not surprising as youth voice is the first step towards sharing the power we have as decision makers and budget holders and that can be a bit scary.  What if the students suggest something we can’t do? What if we build up their hopes and then dash them with the realities of budgets and limitations of staff time? What if our efforts are viewed as tokenistic?

At YST, we’re committed to youth voice as the first stage in the co-production of projects and programmes which means working with young people to understand the challenges they face, co-design solutions and empower them to co-deliver and co-evaluate the impact. In our 2022 strategy, Inspiring changemakers, building belonging, we have made a pledge that not only will we actively listen to young people, but we will make co-design the minimum standard for everything we do so their voices are at the heart of our approach to empowering them as leaders. While this will involve sharing power with young people, this can be done effectively by helping them believe they are the experts in their own lived experiences, that their opinions are truly valued but that any solutions have to exist within real life parameters.

We’ve been co-designing with young people for some time and are really excited about the creative ideas and relevant solutions which have emerged. Our Girls Active Coaches Camp was delivered virtually for the first time in 2021. To help us understand how to do this in a way that would work for the girls, we shared the challenge with former participants and worked with them to determine the duration of sessions, the speakers, pod cast leaders and fun activities to keep the girls engaged. They also led some of the activities in their role as Team Leaders and supported the girls throughout. This significantly influenced how the camp ran and how well it was received.

The YST Focus on Me, inclusive focus groups project is another example of youth voice in action. In this project schools hosted focus groups for young people with SEND to help increase understanding of their barriers to PE and sport. Through these sessions, participants identified a lack of disabled role models and activity leaders as being a challenge, and a desire to access videos of young disabled people leading non-traditional disability sports, so they could join in. As a direct result we developed the ‘Move Like Me’, project which led to the filming of 10 videos led by young people with a range of physical and learning disabilities role modelling the activities they enjoyed. These were distributed to schools during the Covid-19 lockdowns to share with students so they could stay active during the lock downs.

Focus on Me utilised the YST Youth Voice Toolkit to design and deliver a series of inclusive focus groups by working through stages to ensure young people with SEND were able to express their views and ideas in a safe space and have a positive experience. This is now available free of charge to member schools, providing a practical tool which provides guidance on setting up and running effective focus groups with a particular focus on inclusion to ensure all students have the opportunity to be listened to and heard. Find out more about YST Membership here.

The successive lock downs experienced by young people during the pandemic had a hugely negative impact on their sense of agency – their ability to influence the decisions which affect their lives and the lives of their friends. We can all support young people to build back from Covid by giving them a voice and safe space to use it. As we at YST grow in our own and others experience of youth co-production, we will continue to share our learning and support schools in putting the voices of young people at the heart of their approach.

Published on 14 November 2022