If we are ever to have real peace in this world we shall have to begin with the children. -- Mohandas K. Gandhi
For a long time, however, children and young people have not had a voice in either the research process or the outcomes of research. Rather, they participated at the behest of adults, whose views have long been privileged over those of children. Children’s and young people’s role in research consisted solely of responding to adult instructions or demands eg filling out questionnaires or responding to interview questions: as passive recipients or objects at the centre of adult enquiry.
However, the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Australia in January 1991, changed adults’ perceptions of that role, stating that:
children have the right to say what they think about anything that affects them, and that what they say must be listened to and given due consideration (Article 12), and
they have the right of freedom of expression, and freedom to seek and impart information through any media of the child’s choice (Article 13).
As a result, schools seeking reform and change, researchers, policy makers and governments now actively seek out children’s and young people’s ideas and views to support them in the decision-making processes. This does not mean seeking the views of a tokenistic student committee!
In 1992 Roger Hart published his “ladder of Participation’ in Children’s Participation: From Tokenism to Citizenship by UNICEF and in it he described a model for understanding children and young people’s participation in decisions that affect them. The conceptual model is consistent with Article 2.1 of the 1991 Convention of the Rights of the Child concerning the child’s right to participate in decisions that affect them.
Engaging youth voice is not about conducting surveys, or holding interviews or focus groups. Nor is it about the sole child on a student representative panel. While these are concerned with accessing opinions and experiences, they do not give young people any power to contribute meaningfully to change. It really is about a paradigm shift on behalf of the researcher to consider how the research endeavour may place young people at the centre of the process.