Dr Ruth MacConville, head of the SEN Service in Ealing, describes how one local authority has taken seriously what is often the rhetoric of policy, and developed an ongoing approach to consulting disabled children and young people through conferencing.

On Friday, 1 July 2005, Ealing Council Education Department hosted its second Powerful Voices conference. The aim of the conference was to provide a platform for encouraging best practice and the active participation of children in the services that affect them. The event represented one of the practical steps taken by the local authority in order to develop a culture of involving and listening to children.

Alderson (2000)* emphasises that for effective consultation with children to take place there needs to be more than a project or one-off consultation. There needs to be a commitment made by service providers to engage children so that they can gain the experience and skills that they need in order to participate.

Background The conference grew specifically out of earlier work with pupils with disabilities who had collaborated on the production of a video which was launched at a Parent Partnership conference in 2003. In the video the pupils spoke about their experiences of inclusion. ‘At lunchtime I always have to have the same thing. I eat the same food every day in this school because I can’t see what else is there. And I can’t, you know, ask anyone what is there because everyone is in a rush at lunchtime, and the queue’s really long as it is, and annoying. So, people get irritated by the time they’re choosing their lunch, and [by] me holding them back by asking what’s there will just annoy them even more. It’s not because they’re being horrible to me. It’s just irritating to everybody if I ask questions about what’s there.’

Year 10 pupil

The pupils who featured in the video formed a panel at its launch and answered questions from the audience. The concept of a conference for children emerged as part of the response to the issues that were raised by the video.

Finding a voice The aim of the Powerful Voices conference was to engage with pupils and enable them to find a voice. Its focus was on encouraging them to understand different ways of getting their message across, thus enabling them to become active citizens, and engaged in creating and improving the services that affect them. This is important for all pupils but particularly for pupils with disabilities.

The voice of the pupil with special educational needs has tended to be silenced by professional discourses, thereby sometimes reducing pupils to being passive recipients of specialist services. Pupils need to engage from an early age with specialist services and learn to be able to manage their disability assertively. Although the underlying message of the event, pupil participation in services that affect them is a serious one. The activities that formed the conference programme, such as unlocking Shakespeare through hip-hop and rap and ‘vocal gymnastics’, were lively and controversial and engaged the audience in spirited debate.

Over 180 children attended the day conference as delegates from their schools. Eighty-seven mainstream and special schools chose at least two pupils aged between 9 and 12 years to attend the event. Most pupils were members of school councils. The format of the conference ensured that delegates were given the opportunity to share their experiences and views on key issues such as how to evaluate evidence and feeling safe in their neighbourhoods. In recognition of the key role which is played by mainstream pupils as self-appointed ‘inclusion’ gatekeepers, who can, by their attitude and behaviour, include or exclude their peers, an important emphasis of the event was on increasing participants’ knowledge of diversity and especially disability.

Conference infrastructure The conference format worked firstly because the pupils appreciated the importance of being a delegate and representing their school. (Most pupils who attended the conference were unaccompanied, although several pupils from special schools were supported by teaching assistants.) The town hall worked well as a venue – parents and staff know it and were happy to send their children there.

Secondly, at the start of the event, following registration, pupils were organised into teams of approximately 15 pupils, carefully selected from different schools and year groups. Each team had two team leaders who kept a watchful eye on the pupils throughout the day and accompanied the team to the various workshops and to lunch. Thus, within the large and potentially intimidating gathering, each pupil had a point of reference, and team leaders to turn to if they needed assistance. Pupils were keen to study the delegate list which formed part of their ‘welcome’ conference pack and meet representatives from other schools. As in the previous conference, the level of pupil confidence and security generated by the conference’s infrastructure of teams and team leaders meant that pupils were, as the conference progressed, increasingly willing to share their views and to listen and comment on the views expressed. The fact that most of the speakers were children or young people in itself generated enthusiasm and gave the delegates the confidence to join in.

Young speakers
Speakers at the conference this year included 11-year-old Eleanor Frank and Miranda Nixon from the Open University’s Children’s Research Centre. Eleanor gave a powerful presentation based on her research entitled: ‘Children’s Perceptions of Living in Fishermead and Springfield’ (housing estates in Milton Keynes). Miranda’s research: ‘Investigating Issues Around Children Riding Scooters’ also generated lively debate. The presentations by Eleanor and Miranda continued the tradition of inviting primary aged pupils from the Open University to present their research. Previous topics had included an investigation of mixed gender football ‘Girls Want to Play Too’ and ‘An Investigation of Children’s Attitudes to their Parents’ Jobs’.

Sharing experiences of inclusion The key note speeches were given by James Haftel, a student from Hertfordshire, who described his experiences of being a wheelchair user in a mainstream school, and Phillip Masters, who spoke about having Asperger’s syndrome. James and Phillip had a powerful impact on pupils, and emphasised to the audience that all sections of the community have a right to be heard and that there is an obligation to respect difference.

Staff training on consulting with children is central to improving children’s opportunities to be involved; a by-product of the event was a renewed recognition on the part of the practitioners in the audience that children are not politically correct, do not have an agenda and like straight-forward answers to their questions which included the following:

  • ‘Shouldn’t there be a different sort of school for you – a disability school so you get along with people who have the same problems as you?’
  • ‘Do people push you to places you don’t want to go to in your wheelchair?’
  • ‘Are people just too nice to you because you have a disability?’
  • ‘How do you get into your bed at night?’

Open debate Throughout the question-and-answer sessions, following the key note speeches, there was none of the fear or embarrassment that is often associated with talking to others about their disability, and there was an open debate about how disability is dealt with in their schools. The delegates responded to the speakers with a ‘roving microphone’. There were always more children wanting to contribute than time could allow.

Frank debate, and the understanding of disability that it generates, is one of the keys to getting children with disabilities fully included in mainstream schools. Delegates expressed their surprise to learn that James and Phillip do not have learning difficulties and that their problem is often one of access.

Throughout the conference pupils were encouraged to communicate in a variety of ways. British Sign Language was available throughout the event. In addition to the interactive presentations by young speakers and ‘roving microphone “follow-up” question-and-answer sessions’ there were also graffiti boards for the pupils to use with Post-it notes after each presentation and workshop. A Big Brother-style video diary room invited each delegate to express his/her views on life as a young person in the borough of Ealing. Jazz musician Keith Waithe used his ‘vocal gymnastics’ techniques to interact with the audience and encouraged pupils to have fun with their voices.

Frank debate, and the understanding of disability that it generates, is one of the keys to getting children with disabilities fully included in mainstream schools

A series of workshops, which focused on different ways of being an effective communicator, complimented the presentations. Pupils from West London Academy shared their experiences of using conflict management techniques learned as part of their recent leadership programme. Giles Barrow, of www.crackingbehaviour.com, the Cracking Behaviour website, welcomed participants to the art of storyboarding and provided pupils with an opportunity to make a story, create a book and tell tales about changing places. Sophie Morrison of the Busta Bully project led an SOS (Strengthening our Skills) workshop, which addressed bullying, and provided delegates with an opportunity to discover and experiment with confidence- building and verbal assertiveness techniques. Rapspeare, a workshop by the Big Foot Theatre Company, showed delegates how to unlock Shakespeare’s verse through hip-hop and rap, and taught pupils how to perform the text.

Final evaluation At the end of the day pupils were guided through an evaluative session and encouraged to respond to questions such as ‘Which aspects of the day have made you think more deeply?’, ‘What new ways have you learned to get your message across?’ Comments from pupils included the following:

  • ‘When I did one of the workshops we did a roleplay about how to calm people. I learned that doing this helps you get a message across.’
  • ‘I had a good moment in the Big Foot Theatre Company workshop where a disabled girl was dancing and enjoying herself just the same as everybody else.’
  • ‘About my deafness, today now I know I am deaf and different, but not stupid.’
  • ‘Listening to James made me think very deep. He explained all the things I had thought about previously and made me realise that not all disabled people’s lives are bad. They cope and make it an enjoyable life to live. Also, when he said that when people want to help and push him along it just makes him feel awkward.’
  • ‘Three things to do on Monday. Write a report. Talk to school council. Wake up and tell the world.’

Follow-up Delegates were written to after the event to thank them for their contribution. They were also sent a summary of the day to help them with the previously agreed task of feeding back to their schools. Proceedings for both conferences have been published. Decisions about future Powerful Voices events are currently being taken in the context of the Every Child Matters agenda, which demands that children are consulted about all aspects of the services that affect them.

The idea of the conferences was to enable children to discover ways of talking about issues that affect them and their schools. Many discovered that they have a voice and an opinion that counts.

* Alderson, P (2000) ‘Children as Researchers: the Effects of Participation Rights on Research Methodology’ in Christensen, P and James, A (eds) Research with Children: Perspectives and Practices, London: Routledge Falmer.

The next Powerful Voices conference will be held on Friday, 30 June 2006 at Ealing Town Hall. Enquiries to [email protected]

Copies of the Powerful Voices conference proceedings 2004 and 2005, at £10 per copy (cheques only), are available from Michelle Frewer, administrator, SENS, 2nd Floor, Perceval House, 14-16, Uxbridge Rd, Ealing, London, W5 2HL. Tel: 020 8825 8757.

Dr Ruth M MacConville head of SEN Service for Schools, London Borough of Ealing.