Making information work for young people themselves

Too often young people are passive ‘data subjects’ - defined by information that ignores their voice

Loic Menzies Associate Education Specialist with Cambridge Assessment Network

This blog was first published by the Cambridge Assessment Network

In my last blog I looked at the role of different actors in providing the ‘glue’ the system so desperately needs by improving the way information is shared between different professionals and services. However, moreinformation is not always better and too often young people are passive ‘data subjects’ – defined by information that ignores their voice. This can fail to tell the full story of who they are and what they’re capable of. It also risks compromising their privacy and that of their family. Data can also drive unethical ‘profiling’ and reduced expectations.

Young people in care are a case in point. They are some of the most over-documented young people in the system, with every minor incident recorded and kept on their file well past its best-before-date. Abi, a Senior Researcher at The Centre for Education and Youth saw this first hand during her time working in Children’s Homes:

“Their whole lives were shared with anyone and they weren’t given the dignity of some of the privacy that other children might get. I think it’s the same for disabled children, where their intimate medical histories are sometimes shared with any professional. If we’re thinking about sharing information about young people, we need to be really clear about who we are sharing it with and why. Asking ‘is this going to help the situation?’ ‘Is this removing some of the barriers or at least finding interesting ways to get around barriers?’ Or is it just telling people’s stories, because we feel like we should”

The same problem affects schools, with one Head teacher from Hackney saying she is frequently told things she has no need – or right, to know, for example about children’s siblings. She believes professionals should ask themselves “How does this information protect the child?” and “How does it move their learning forward?”

The challenge is that it’s not always obvious what information will end up being important. But perhaps young people themselves could play more of a role here. That might sound tricky but it’s exactly what Louisa and her team at the West London Zone do. They present findings from their 360 assessment back to the young people, in what she describes as ‘the language of opportunity.’

Team members focus their conversations on which skills will help young people to achieve their goals and co-create Individual Support Plans, focused on ‘opportunities to try’. She argues that this gives young people – the data subjects in legal terms, a chance to reframe things from their own perspective and to develop a sense of agency.

Opportunities for young people to reframe information about them can also be found when working at a larger scale: the major national survey Patrick Alexander’s team conducted was mainly based on validated wellbeing questions, but it also gave young people an opportunity to give an open, free-form response. Listening to their voices in this way revealed that although the quantitative data told quite a positive story, young people were also able to articulate the nature of concerns that needed acting upon in far greater depth through their qualitative responses.

For Abi, empowering young people and their families to play a role in information sharing involves supporting them to understand “why they’re sharing it” and building up trust by showing that something that helps them will happen as a result. One organisation she worked with was helping young people to record their story verbally in their own words; while another had helped young people to produce ‘user guides to themselves.’ These set out what individuals struggled with and what they enjoyed. Of course, an approach like this needs to be deployed carefully so it doesn’t become an opt-out from expectations, or a reason not to coax young people out of their comfort zone.

Similarly there is growing interest in giving young people more agency in recording their achievements and talents when they leave school. Previous attempts like the National Record of Achievement have sunk without a trace due to the bureaucracy involved, and lack of currency among employers and education providers – but there is now a live debate regarding new alternatives.

Perhaps we sometimes underestimate young people’s ability to contribute to professionals’ understanding of their abilities and needs, or to shape the provision they access. As we saw in the first blog in this series, the structures and processes that underpin information sharing in the education and youth sector need considerable reform, but we shouldn’t let an overly technical focus undermine young people’s own agency.

This blog was in response to our discussion series ‘Mapping The Way to a More Equitable Future for Education‘ which brings together key voices from the education sector to discuss the barriers to equity in education, and the information policy makers and practitioners might need to overcome them. 

Discuss this post