Jimmy Paul, Co-chair of the Workforce workgroup for the Independent Care Review, gives a personal and heartfelt account of how embracing creativity is helping drive much needed change.
In 2017 I met the late Kofi Annan, the then Chair of The Elders, at the highlight event for the British Council’s Future Leaders Connect programme. I had the honour of making him a cup of tea in the green room before we stepped out onto the Emmanuel Centre stage in London. The message that he shared at that event, and all over the world, was a simple but important one:
'You are never too young to lead and never too old to learn'.
Whilst drinking his tea, he told me how the only way to include young people is to be creative. I agreed, and added that systems must be designed with young people in mind, or this will really hinder their participation.
Being in care
After being neglected and abused in my early childhood, I was taken into care on my 11th birthday. I describe my time in care as ‘retraumatising’ as I often felt powerlessness in a system that can feel inhumane. At 22, much earlier than my friends and without any of the same supports, I had to fend completely for myself in the world.
Young people in care face challenges that others don’t. Right now in Scotland there are nearly 15,000 children in care, and each have their own story. It is these stories that will shed light on how to greatly improve care. I cannot understate the risks of trying to interpret experiences solely through statistics and of failing to triangulate by listening to individual voices.
My view is that creativity is an afterthought in a rigid and inflexible care system. This is frustrating for those in care and also for the care workforce, as creativity is so vital in building and deepening relationships especially when it comes to infants, children and young people.
The Independent Care Review: some context
Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced an independent root and branch review of the care system in 2016 after three things had happened:
- People with lived experience of care campaigned for a review.
- Laura Beveridge delivered her incredibly insightful Ted Talk about the experiences of children in care.
- STV broadcast a documentary called Who Cares which brought to life the impact of being in care by following the stories of four people.
Fiona Duncan was appointed Chair of the Review and said:
'While the Review will be complex and the issues challenging, it will be the expertise of children and young people with lived experience of the system who will ensure a focus on what matters. It will be crucial that the review not only hears their voices, but that real change happens as a result.'
She knew that meaningfully involving people with lived experience requires a radically different approach to the norm. She then committed that this would be 'A Review like no other'.
Having been involved in the Review for a little over a year, the thing that I believe really sets it apart is the way in which creativity is encouraged and embraced.
A Review like no other
Not long after she was appointed Chair, Fiona Duncan appeared at the same event I was at. Whilst I was busy plucking up the nerves to go and talk to her, she appeared out of nowhere and told me how she would really like to catch up with me. I immediately sensed that the normal way of doing reviews had been flipped. I was being sought out as someone who had something to offer, rather than having to fight to be heard.
We sat down a couple of weeks later and I shared my experience of care, highlighting what went well, but also sharing where I feel drastic changes are needed. I did this with a PowerPoint presentation because that’s how I best remember things. She listened, and I trusted her with my story.
What I experienced was being valued and heard, and my form of creativity (a PowerPoint) was welcomed.
Creativity: central to meaningful participation
The need to be creative when working with young people is supported by research. Laura Lundy, Co-Director of the Centre for Children's Rights and a Professor in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen's University, Belfast, developed her participation model in 2007. Focusing on the areas of Space, Voice, Audience and Influence, the model has provided a valuable theoretical framework for the review.
In terms of space; the Review goes to wherever infants, children and young people are based. There have been visits to each of Scotland’s 32 local authorities to spend time in homes, schools, community centres, coffee shops and other spaces that young people feel comfortable in.
Meeting in the right spaces provides the foundation for creativity. This isn’t just my view, it’s also supported by research:
'Significantly, informal spaces emerged as being important for young people as sites where young people can express themselves freely, can relax and discuss serious issues as well as having fun. These are in marked contrast to more formalised spaces such as school where participation opportunities are experienced as being limited and restricted.' (Batsleer et al., 2019:112)
The Review meets infants, children and young people outside of the system and spaces they say they have suffered in. When organisations get this wrong, they 'struggle to access, engage and retain participants from socially disadvantaged groups resulting in labels such as "hard-to-reach”' (Bonevski et al., 2014:1-2). I have come to the belief that no-one is ‘hard to reach’, but systems can be limiting around how and where people should engage and place the blame on those with lived experience for not fitting in.
The voice of those with lived experience can too often be an afterthought, perceived as an unnecessary add-on to core business. Fox explains how 'it is not surprising in these contexts that techniques [regarding participation] remain formal and irrelevant to large sections of young society and that findings align with existing adult assumptions about young people that centre on deviance, incompetence and the need for adult control.' (Fox, 2013:988).
The Review challenges this by accepting contributions in whatever ways people want to share their voice. Early in the Review, Fiona Duncan set up ‘Creatives in Residence’, a group who use their creative talents to support the participation of others. They have supported the Review by hosting workshops and one-to-one conversations, in play, art, music, poetry and many other ways that allow people of all ages and stages to have their voice heard.
As Co-chair for the Workforce workgroup, I often attend other workgroup meetings. When I was at a ‘Love’ workgroup meeting, which looks at what Love means to children in care, we used ‘brick play’ through the whole meeting, and it was brilliant! Using prompts for key questions, we physically built our thoughts which were around the delicate topic of the complexities of love in the care system. This was one of the most productive, fun and insightful meetings I have ever been to. Importantly, it also felt safe, as people could opt out of sharing at any point.
Voices are being heard across the Review through a range of creative mediums. At the time of writing, nearly 5,000 people have engaged with the Review over the two and a half years since it began, of which more than half have lived experience of care. By embracing creativity, the quality of engagement has been high, which is why such a high number of people have been and continue to be involved.
In terms of audience, a value that the Review holds dear is that the Chair and Co-chairs are directly accountable to people with lived experience, and that whatever works for people with lived experience will work for the Review. By spending time with people all across Scotland, the right audience are hearing the right voices through creative means.
Minter is a prominent writer in the world of participation, and explained how 'we need to revisit our theories of learning by entering into an active dialogue with people who hold very different opinions from those of us who are professionals. Above all it is this process that will enable us to continue to learn' (2001: 257). Having those who are leading a Review be accessible across the length and breadth of a nation is testament to how the Review is valuing audiences. Also, I don’t regard myself as musical or creative, but I have dabbled in playing drums and participated in drawing workshops. Being out of my comfort zone has helped me connect with others, who then felt more able to talk to me about the changes they want to see through the Review. Engaging with audiences really does need creativity:
'The incorporation of creativity and the flexibility has allowed myself and others to be involved in the Review at a level I fear would never have been reached without an artistic process.' David Grimm (Member of ‘Creatives in Residence’ at the Independent Care Review)
Lastly, in terms of influence, I have heard from many young people that they felt powerless when they were in care. This is despite all of the evidence and research that says we need a significant shift away from this…
'Young people articulate a clear desire for doing things for themselves and being active, rather than being ‘done to’, and for having the space and autonomy to experiment, learn experientially and be creative.' (Walther et al., 2018:110)
Expecting young people to fit into adult systems is unrealistic, unhelpful and unfair. Creativity is the key to shifting the balance towards children (Shiers, 2001; Lopez et al., 2003). It has been so crucial in ensuring that infants, children and young people in care are having real influence through the Review:
'Having a creative approach has allowed me to work with and discuss topics that are currently being talked about within the Review. Creativity allows everyone to be on the same page and leads to many artistic outcomes, as not all views are the same, and that is okay. I have felt heard.' Amy Davidson (Member of ‘Creatives in Residence’, Independent Care Review)