Official Report: Minutes of Evidence
Committee for Education, meeting on Wednesday, 30 June 2021
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:Mr Chris Lyttle (Chairperson)
Miss Nicola Brogan
Mr Robbie Butler
Mrs Diane Dodds
Mr Harry Harvey
Mr Daniel McCrossan
Mr Justin McNulty
Mr Robin Newton
Witnesses:Mr Paul Brush, Department of Education
Mr Paul Wright, Department of Education
Youth Engagement: Department of Education
The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): From the Department of Education, I welcome Paul Brush, director of youth and early years, and Paul Wright, head of the children and young people's strategy team. You will have no more than 10 minutes to make an opening statement, which will be followed by members' questions. Thank you.
Mr Paul Brush (Department of Education): Good morning, Chair. Thank you for the opportunity to brief the Committee on the work that we are doing to enhance youth engagement, particularly the young people's participation in decision-making project. We hope to give you a flavour of the work that we have done on that already and the next steps.
My responsibilities in the Department are on the early years and youth side of things, but I also have the children and young people's strategy. Out of that flows the commitment to ensure that there is open, transparent and responsive engagement with children and young people, which explains why I lead on that particular piece of work. Paul Wright, in the team, beside me, is the person who leads on a lot of the work that is involved in that project.
A lot of that emanates from the children and young people's strategy, which includes a commitment to facilitate the involvement of children and young people in decisions that affect them. As you know, that strategy has been signed up to by all Departments and the Executive. Coming out of that, there is a commitment for us to look at how we can make that a reality and ensure, across government, that there is a coherent, consistent approach to engaging with young people and children in areas of policy or legislation that will affect them. Sitting behind the strategy, there is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) article 12 commitment, which states that all signatories to the UNCRC should do that. That is the basis on which that work is moving forward.
We are doing that via a project that commenced about a year ago. The project is looking at the participation methods that are currently adopted across the various Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) Departments and where there are gaps and perhaps inconsistencies, and it is trying to bring coherence to that whole area. That is really the focus of the work. The stated aim of the project is:
"to provide an inclusive participation mechanism open to all children and young people which provides them with the opportunity to contribute their views and influence policy development and decision making on issues which impact on their lives."
I chair the project board. I will give you a flavour of who is on it and contributes to it. Every Department is represented on the board. We also have Professor Laura Lundy, who the Committee heard from a couple of months ago, providing expert advice. We also have representation on the board from the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY), which obviously has a keen interest in that area.
What have we been doing to date? Up until now, we have largely been in the evidence-gathering phase, looking at participation structures across other UK jurisdictions and in the Republic of Ireland (ROI). It is important that we look to see how others are doing it. I know that, earlier in the year, the Committee heard from ROI colleagues on how they ensure that there is children and young people's participation in decision-making. We have also looked at the structures and arrangements that they have in place.
We have also been looking at how individual Departments in Northern Ireland currently do it. It would be fair to say that there is a variable level of engagement. Some are very advanced and have dedicated youth panels that inform their work regularly. Others are less advanced and, perhaps, in some cases, still need to be convinced of the relevance of involving children and young people in decisions. That may be because it is not immediately obvious what impact their decisions will have on children and young people. As the UNCRC reminds us, however, it is difficult to conceive of any policy decision that does not have some impact on children and young people at some stage.
To date, one of the key products of the project has been the production of a set of participation principles. I can certainly go into more detail later on what that includes. It would almost be a contract that Departments would sign up to, committing them to a certain standard and level of engagement. It is based on the work that we have done, looking at what other jurisdictions are doing and engagement with children and young people themselves around, "What would you expect?", and, "How would you like it to be done?". We can talk about what those principles look like.
We have heard directly from children and young people. The Education Authority (EA) set up a youth panel that has effectively been the advisory group to the project board. We invited them along to at least one project board meeting. They looked at the principles that we had developed and turned them into more user-friendly, child- and young people-friendly language, and we can share some of what their work has produced to date, if the Committee would like to hear about that.
Where are we now? We are at the stage of thinking about the options for making it all more consistent. What sort of facilitated support might Departments need to help them to engage more effectively? If the project has told us anything, it is that engagement cannot be the tokenistic act of going out with a questionnaire. All sorts of work is required to ensure that that engagement is meaningful and that it is couched in terms that children and young people can relate to. The very material that you use has to be developed with a particular child and young person focus in mind. We are working through what that might look like with Departments.
The next main step, over the summer, will be to throw the net a bit wider in who we talk to. I mentioned who was on the project board, and it is essentially representatives from Departments and a couple of external expert voices. However, we are conscious that the community and voluntary sector has a key role to play. There is clearly a need to ensure that the voice of all children and young people is captured in the process, and there will be children and young people who can be reached only through certain community and voluntary sector organisations. We plan to have, over the summer, a series of engagements with the broader sector on the role that those organisations could play in any enhanced network of engagement. We plan to get their views on where we have got to and what the next steps should be.
We think that the next steps will be to try to firm up what an identified option might look like, deciding on what the roles and responsibilities for the various players in that should be, getting Departments to sign up to the principles that I mentioned earlier and ensuring that they are fit for purpose. We need to assess demand. If we are going to set up some sort of facilitated support for Departments that want to engage with children and young people, we need a sense of what the likely demand will be for that and, therefore, what capacity is needed to be able to deal with it. There may well be cost implications, if we set up something that helps to manage that process. There are funding questions, as well, around how the beneficiaries or recipients of that will contribute or otherwise.
As to the timeline, we hope to bring recommendations on all that to the Minister in the autumn, probably in October or November. However, I am conscious that it cuts across all Departments, so it will be for all Ministers to consider and, hopefully, sign up to.
That is where we have got to. As I said, the project aims to bring a consistency. That is not to say that there is not engagement going on. There is, and we can certainly give some examples of that. A lot of that engagement, in many senses, has been accelerated over the last year with COVID. There has been a necessity to ensure that that engagement takes place. I do not think that we would say that it has been perfect by any means, but it has demonstrated to policymakers the value, need and benefits of engaging directly with children and young people, and that, of course, will be part of the objective going forward.
The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thank you very much indeed for that opening statement, Paul. I have one quick question before I bring in other members. What are the Department of Education's youth participation principles? How does the Department see the young people's participation in decision-making project and the children and young people's strategy aligning with the Lundy model of giving children and young people space, voice, audience and influence?
Mr Brush: We have effectively adopted the Lundy model in shaping the project. I have to say that all of that is still in the project development space, so none of it has been signed up to yet. It has not got to the stage of being signed up to by Departments, but it would, if agreed, adopt the Lundy model and include the following principles. First, Departments would be asked to ensure that, in their annual business planning, they include an identification of participation requirements with children and young people. It is about building that into the annual business planning process. Secondly, consideration would need to be given to the preparation and lead-in time. That is about the space. It cannot just be landed on children and young people. You need to plan for it: you need to consider their school terms, when they will be available and all those sorts of considerations.
It would require early engagement in the policy process, so Departments will be signing up to engage at the point at which influence can still be made, not after the fact. That goes, too, for areas of legislation design. There would be a co-design commitment built in. You would start from the position that seeking the views of children and young people is standard practice, unless there is a compelling reason to the contrary. There would be effective planning of participation needs, based on robust estimates of timelines. There would be effort spent on the drafting of material, including easy-read versions and children and young people-friendly versions.
There would be a commitment to provide feedback, which, again, is a key principle in the Lundy model. From talking to children and young people, we know that it is no good just to ask them for their views if you do not go back and tell them what you have done with those. We would ensure that early participation extends to the development of legislation. We would ensure that Departments and their staff have the capacity, skills and experience to do the engagement. A key part of it is about equipping Departments and ensuring that they have the confidence and skills to engage. It is not something that people can do as an add-on if they do not have the skills and knowledge to do it effectively.
Those are the principles. That is the sort of thing that we will be asking Departments to sign up to. Children and young people have turned those into children's versions, which we can also share, in draft, with the Committee. It will be quite a culture change in some areas, but, as I said, in others, it is already happening.
The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): OK. Those are obviously positive principles. I do not want to be too negative today, but why is that not already in place and why was it not used to inform COVID response decision-making?
Mr Brush: A lot of it is in place, but it is not consistent across the whole of government. From a DE perspective, a lot of those principles were deployed. Over the COVID period, there was engagement with children and young people on, for example, the examinations process. We are now engaged in bringing in a more coherent, standard approach, which ensures that it is done to the relevant quality, that there is engagement at the early stages, that it is built-in and that it is not reactionary. At various times, a lot of what has happened has been in response to something, and there will always be events, like COVID, when there is a need to engage in response to something unanticipated. However, if you have a regular, ongoing relationship and engagement channels in place, the systems are there to enable you to respond urgently, if you need to do so. The project looks right across government, so we have identified some very good practice with a lot of regular and ongoing engagement with children and young people on issues that impact them in areas like Justice. Again, Health has a lot of regular and ongoing engagement. That is, perhaps, because they see a very immediate connection to the implications for children and young people. In other parts of government, more work needs to be done.
The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): If those youth participation principles and that young people's participation in decision-making model had been in place, would the Department of Education's response to the COVID pandemic on behalf of children and young people have been significantly better?
Mr Brush: It is very difficult to say, Chair, to be honest. We developed engagement arrangements in response to the challenges that were being faced. I know that those engagement arrangements are ongoing and being built upon. We are where we are. The project had not been developed to the extent that, perhaps, we would have liked it to have been developed before all of this hit us. I imagine that that is probably true for other Departments as well. To some extent, it has accelerated the involvement of Departments in their engagement with children and young people, and it may even, hopefully, have demonstrated the benefits of the project that it might have been more difficult to do a year or 18 months ago. It is impossible to say whether it would have helped in addition to what we put in place in response to the issues. It is hard to say that it would not have been good to have it in place.
The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): I think that it undoubtedly would have helped and that the Minister's prioritisation of youth participation increased visibly as the pandemic progressed. It was seen, notably, in the engagement with organisations such as the Secondary Students' Union of Northern Ireland on the most recent set of alternative awarding arrangements. Is it a departmental and ministerial priority now?
Mr Brush: We have just had an opportunity to brief the new Minister on the project. She is very supportive of the objectives and aims. Obviously, we need to bring forward the concluding recommendations. There are various models that could be put in place. There is, certainly, ministerial endorsement for the direction of travel.
Ms Brogan: Thanks, Chair, and thanks again for the briefing this morning. My first question picks up on something that you said, Paul, in your presentation about how the Education Authority had set up a youth panel. Did you say that, so far, there has been only one meeting with children and young people?
Mr Brush: No, it set up a youth panel to specifically support the project. It has a whole range of other mechanisms for engagement with children and young people, and it has a huge reach. To some extent, in that particular project, we wanted to demonstrate good practice by involving children and young people in the work that we were doing, so it set up a specific panel to support the work of the project. The panel has joined our project board on one occasion, but it has met separately on a number of occasions. It has done quite a lot of work, often just after our project board meetings. The sequencing will have been that the project board met, then the youth panel met, sometimes that evening and sometimes the next day, looking at what we had discussed and feeding back to us its views on the way that we were proposing to move forward. I suppose that the most significant product that the youth panel produced was a children and young people's version of those principles. You will not be able to see this, but it produced it in a diagram format, using leaves on a tree to simplify it. When it presented it to us, our reaction was that it was a pity that we had not phrased it like that because it was so much more understandable. If I gave the impression that the youth panel has been involved with us only once, that is not the case at all. It has been involved at the board once, but it has had a whole series of meetings shadowing the board.
Ms Brogan: That is good, Paul. What you said had raised a concern for me that it was maybe a bit of a tick-box exercise to say that you had engaged with youth, but I am glad to hear that.
I will move on to what I wanted to ask you initially. Your role is to scope out the potential for making children and young people's voices heard in the decision-making process. There are issues such as mental health, and an issue that I have been raising consistently at the Committee is the need for relationships and sexuality education (RSE) to be modernised and standardised. We know how critical those issues are for young people at the moment. Can you tell me how you will ensure that children and young people's voices are heard when you are developing policy around those two areas that I have specified: mental health and RSE?
Mr Brush: It all comes back to the principles and the extent to which Departments and Ministers sign up to them. They are already signed up to the commitment in the children and young people's strategy that says that we will ensure that the voice of children and young people is heard and listened to in decision-making. There is already a commitment to do that. Those principles articulate that further and describe what that should look like. As I said, it is effectively saying that it should be the default and that there would almost be a case to answer where children and young people had not been consulted in any particular policy decision or area. The proposal does not want to have a system where children and young people are only being asked for their views on the agenda that is set by government. There needs to be an opportunity for children and young people to feed in their views on what the agenda should be and where there are areas in which they feel that change is required. We are looking at how there could be that two-way process, so that, if there are particular issues that children and young people want Departments to address, they have an opportunity to feed in that view.
The two areas that you specifically mentioned are not my policy areas, but they are areas that will come within the scope of the principles, as and when they are signed up to. As I said, it is good practice already to involve children and young people's views in any policy area, so I expect that, if work is being done on those, the views of children and young people will be sought.
Ms Brogan: I appreciate that you have made the commitment, through those principles, that it is the default position, as it definitely should be. How will you ensure that children and young people's voices will be heard? It is all well and good to have it as a principle and a default position, but we need to ensure that they actually are heard when we create policy. This morning's session has been all about listening to children and young people because they are the ones who are experiencing it and know exactly what they need.
Mr Brush: If it is built into the business-planning process, there will almost be a requirement on those policy areas to report on how they had engaged with children and young people. That provides a visibility.
The Committee, in considering any area of policy that the Department brings forward, would be in a position to ask how the views of children and young people have been sought and, to some extent, to hold the policy areas to account against the principles.
We are trying to build in a visibility that will expose where it is not happening, but you are right that it requires commitment from the top down. It requires a genuine, honest determination to do this, which is why one of the key products of the project will be cross-departmental buy-in at ministerial level to engagement with children and young people as a priority. Flowing from that, in business plans and individual policy development work and in scrutiny by the Committee and others, there will be an expectation that areas will give an account of how they have done it.
Ms Brogan: You make a fair point. It is for all of us in our individual roles to make sure that children and young people are listened to. On the basis of this morning's briefing, I think that it is really important that we take on their viewpoints, and, as the Chair mentioned, the former Minister, Peter Weir, adopted that approach throughout the pandemic.
Thank you for all the information. I appreciate it.
Mr Newton: I do not have a lot of questions. Paul, your reporting of the work done thus far suggests that it is well up there with, if not better than, best practice across the UK. Is that right?
Mr Brush: That is why it is so useful to have Laura Lundy on our group: she is the expert on all practices. She is certainly supportive — I do not think that I am misrepresenting her — of the direction of travel. She advised us to look at the Irish approach as the probable exemplar. She also suggested that we look at the Scottish approach. We did so. Our assessment is that we are at about the same level as the Scots, but, if we progress in the way that I am outlining, we will certainly move ahead and consolidate a much more coherent approach.
In Professor Lundy's view, the strength of the approach that we are suggesting is that it is led from the centre of government. Her view is that, if we put any arrangements in place, there are real strengths in coordinating them from the centre, because that ensures, or certainly makes it more likely, that the views are listened to. It is not about contracting out something that you can then look at or ignore. It is about trying to build it into the core of our business and decision-making. Professor Lundy's view is that, if we go that way, we will become one of the best in class.
Mr Newton: I have one word for Paul. It is implicit in everything that you have said, but, given where you are coming from, it is a very important word: communication. I emphasise the need for continual upgrading of communication at all levels, but I am sure that that is implicit in everything that you have been talking about.
Mr Brush: This is a complicated space in which to put in place any arrangement. There are so many organisations that need to be part of it. The Education Authority already has good reach in respect of access to children and young people, but it is not sufficient. The community and voluntary sector needs to be involved. I was listening to the evidence session before this, and I was interested in how the witnesses had used the likes of Barnardo's and Save the Children. There are all sorts of organisations that have reach to the views of children and young people, which this work will need to incorporate. Communication will be key to making that work.
Mr Butler: Guys, thank you for the presentation; it was very worthwhile. As a note to you, the Northern Ireland Youth Assembly will be starting its meetings here soon. The way in which the team here went about recruiting the members and voices of the Youth Assembly was really good. They did something quite radical and got the voices of those who would not normally be heard.
This is my first question: did you find that COVID limited your access to a broad range of young people's voices? We are very aware that a lot of young people — it is probably the majority — do not have their voices heard. Some young people are quite vocal and can do that. Still and all, it is sometimes hard to reach a lot of young people in groups such as looked-after children, and COVID potentially offered a greater problem for you guys. How did you go about tackling that?
Mr Brush: Yes, that is interesting. Of course, the implications of COVID drove us all onto technologies by which children and young people ordinarily engage. To some extent, children and young people were far more comfortable with the various engagements that had to take place online during COVID-19 than many of the rest of us. They were more used to that.
There are clear advantages and benefits to face-to-face communication. Some of the most recent work that we and the Education Authority have done with, for example, the Department for Communities on the sport and physical activity strategy involved face-to-face, socially distanced engagements. Yes, you are restricted and your numbers have to be smaller etc, but that just requires you to think more carefully about whom you involve and make sure that you have representation from all the appropriate categories, given that you cannot throw the net quite as wide.
There have been pros and cons with COVID. We will take the best from online engagement as we move out of it but be able to supplement it with more face-to-face engagement.
Sorry, what was your other question, Robbie?
Mr Butler: It was about young people who perhaps do not have much of a voice, such as looked-after children.
I add the following question. One of the critiques — it is nobody's fault — is that COVID pushed us into the realm of using online technology, and young people had to have access to devices, broadband connections and so on. I am thinking of those families who do not have those facilities or who have limited facilities. They are, perhaps, those who live in more socially deprived areas. Were you able to address that in any way?
Mr Brush: Those are very good points, and, indeed, they are factors that will have to be built into any model that will come out of this. You made the point about ensuring that hard-to-reach groups are not excluded from the process. The project board is very vocal on that, and the Children's Commissioner has raised that at the project board on a number of occasions. That is why we will absolutely need to work through specific voluntary and community groups that represent those smaller groups of children and young people. You mentioned that some young people are more vocal than others. There is a risk that we could hear from the same voices when we think that we are getting a representative view, but we are, in fact, not getting a representative view. The project is very mindful of that and will be looking at how any proposal does not just tap into the views of the most vocal but that the silent majority, for want of a better phrase, is also represented.
Mr Butler: That is really good. I know that this is not necessarily the same thing, but, when the Youth Assembly was getting representatives from the people who applied, it used random selection as opposed to an interview process, which was great because it meant that it was a fairer approach to ensure that young people who sometimes do not have the confidence to say what they are thinking or feeling are given a voice.
I have only other question because we are all unanimous in giving the voice of young people as much support as we can. What does success look like? If we get this to the point at which there is an agreed strategy, the principles have been agreed and we have cross-departmental participation, how will we measure success? To be fair, Paul, you covered this, but there is no point in just having a talking shop. It is not meant to be a talking shop. How will we measure success? Who will have the responsibility? Who will the senior responsible owner? You, maybe? [Laughter.]
Mr Brush: It depends on the model that is adopted, but one option is that it would be coordinated by this Department and, with that, would come an expectation of monitoring how effective it is and measuring its impact. The ultimate measure of success will be better policymaking, better delivery of services and a more responsive process in Departments that focuses on children and young people.
How do you measure that? You measure that in individual areas by asking policymakers how their engagement with children and young people changed something that they were proposing to do. How did it influence the policy? What new options or avenues did it open up to you? How did it change how you even promoted it?
We have heard small examples from the likes of the sport and recreation strategy. When they engaged with children and young people, one of the messages that came back was that not all children and young people would respond to a message that focused on fitness because they are not all turned on by that messaging, but most people respond to a message focused on fun and, therefore, that dimension should be emphasised in any proposal. That reshaped how they plan to deploy, market and promote a lot of what they are proposing to do. It is a small example, but we would hope to capture how engagement changed things. I think that that will be the key measure.
Mr Butler: Brilliant. I am going to say one last thing, and it is not a question because that was a really good answer, Paul. Thought has been put into this. There is merit in what I am about to say, if it might be useful: we have missed something in our Programme for Government where I would like to have seen a model much more like the New Zealand model where it has well-being as a tangible outcome that is measured. Young people are particularly engaged in two subjects at the moment: mental health and well-being, and climate. Everything feeds into well-being, whether it is prosperity, access to services, good housing and so on. Perhaps you could have well-being as a targeted outcome, which would give you a really good indication of whether children and young people are being listened to and whether there is evidence that their voices are being listened to and actioned. That is at the very top strategic level, but I think that that would be useful.
Mrs Dodds: I want to follow on from Robbie's question because it is important. One of the interesting things that I discovered when I visited a further education college in Lisburn was that it is very normal and natural for young people to engage online, because that is the society and the time in which they live. When they had their student council elections, there was greater participation because it was online. We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater; sometimes, a combined approach is really good.
I would like to be reassured that you are also talking to the uniformed organisations such as the Girls' Brigade, the Boys' Brigade and the Scouts, which are entirely voluntary but do a huge range of work in our community. They have been hugely beneficial for me and my family. I want to make sure that you are talking to those sorts of organisations.
I agree with Robbie that well-being is an incredibly important measurement, as is how people feel about things that are being done for them by policymakers. Well-being could be embedded in the strategy for everyone's benefit. It is important to talk to the uniformed Church organisations, which do not always have a voice and are not always heard.
Mr Brush: I can certainly give that assurance. As I said, we will widen the net on engagement over the next couple of months, and that will involve a whole series of sessions with the community and voluntary sector. It will include the uniformed organisations, EA-registered groups, non-registered groups and various charities such as Save the Children and Barnardo's, which were mentioned earlier. We all have a part to play, and they all represent different constituents. We want to make sure that our access is as comprehensive as possible.
I will go back to the point that it is important that we do not end up always talking to the same 30 or 40 children and young people who are very politically mobilised, astute and turned on. We will get an equally distorted view if we do that. The objective here is to make sure that we have a really wide cohort to engage with. It will be necessary to go to specific groups in order to talk about specific policies at various times. If you were consulting on an issue relating to a particular disability or whatever, you would want to use the access that a charity or youth organisation with a focus on that issue would give you. The plan is to make sure that that is the case.
I will take the point on well-being that both of you have made. I totally agree that our ultimate aim for those who are contributing here is that they feel that they have been listened to and that their lot has been improved.
Mr Harvey: I will be very brief, Chair. Thank you very much to the two Pauls. You talked about gaps and inconsistencies, and I wondered what those were. To roll it all into one, you talked about widening the net over the summer. That is very good, because it is important to hear all voices. As was mentioned, the opinions of those who are hard to reach are as important as those who are easy to reach.
Mr Brush: We did an audit of Departments and their agencies in order to find out how they currently engage. I do not want to name names and say that certain Departments are better than others. I have already said that Justice is particularly well advanced, as is Health. It is the Departments that maybe do not immediately see the link or the relevance that their policies have for children and young people that do not have coordinated and immediate structures in place to do that. This project is about trying to help those Departments to get the access that they find it difficult to get.
Some Departments have that access to children and young people. The Department of Education, the Department for Health and the Department of Justice are examples of Departments that have access, but others do not have an immediate and obvious route to secure those views, and they find that that is a barrier and an obstacle. This is about ensuring that there is a clear route to accessing the views of children and young people. It is not about those Departments outsourcing that engagement. All the evidence shows that they need to be involved in the process and that the actual process is almost as important as the product, because you learn so much by just sitting down with a group of children and young people or by talking to them on Zoom. Not everybody is quite at the same place yet, but the objective of the project is to bring everybody to the same place.
The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thank you very much indeed for the time that you gave us today, Paul. The Education Committee has prioritised youth engagement. We wish you well with this project and look forward to keeping up to date with progress.
Mr Brush: Thank you, Chair.