The slightly formal context of a conference venue was going to be unfamiliar for the participants, the timetable was very tight, and they would not know most of the others there. So we designed a mix of plenary and group sessions, exercises, discussions, and one short presentation; followed by a trip round the houses of parliament. We also had to take account of the fact that some of the young people had fairly complex backgrounds and there was always a chance that attention spans would be short and their behaviour could be what is euphemistically called ‘challenging’.
One of the exercises was designed to allow some of the experience to be fictionalised: this gave the participants ‘permission’ to release some fairly strong concerns – and some personal aspirations - that otherwise might not have been shared. This post summarises that process.
We had seven groups of about 5 or 6 per table, of mixed ages. Using a pre-printed worksheet, each group was asked to invent a character and describe their family background and the area where they lived. Prompt cards were provided but only the age of the child was prescribed, in order to ensure a variety.
We used the carousel principle so that each table inherited the character created by others. The second stage required them to think about the skills, interests, fears and friendships of the character. We provided plenty of prompt cards for this stage, covering a broad mix of options to get people talking: some groups used these while others chose to draw or write, for example -
Fears: ‘not being able to leave the estate’
‘A bit afraid of new people. Doesn’t know what is happening.’
‘He does not go to school so he don’t have a good ajication.’
In the next stage, inheriting a character with some detail known about them, the participants were asked to think up a crisis (or crises) that affected the individual, and to describe the implications. As we had anticipated, this gave them no difficulties whatsoever, although there were one or two oddities –
‘No life. Goes into foster home & runs away. Police find him and Bob wants to stay with the policeman.’
‘They move to a small stone hut.’
There was plenty of mention of adults in the household losing their jobs, plus imprisonment and quite unceremonially reported death.
In the last group phase, they were asked to think through the future for the invented character they inherited, given what was known about their circumstances and the crisis which afflicted them. Here, what was striking was the sense of resilience in some of the outcomes (but not all):
‘Finally he got his own business. And he doesn’t do any illgele job.’
‘(After 1 yr) Taken into care. Social involved. Abused in care. Bunking school. Mum + Dad not aloud to see them. Parents in rehab. Angry at parents. (After 2 yrs) Kills parents -Juvinal prison – No one to help him. (After 5 yrs) Turns life around and starts studying in Safe Children’s Home. Goes back to school and doesn’t get bullied.’
‘She become so ill and suffers too much. Luckily someone adopts her but she is so ill that she dies.’
‘(After 1 yr) out of prison after serving 6 months. No family support L (After 2 yrs) goes back to prison for selling drugs, couldn’t find work. (After 5 yrs) Dies from drug abuse. [Alternative happy ending] 1 yr – lots of support from family. 2 yrs – rehab and courses. 5 yrs – police and youth work, educating others to prevent them doing the same thing.’
The final phase of the exercise was a table-by-table account and short discussion of each of the characters. Unsurprisingly, energy levels had flagged a little by this stage but the richness of the narratives gave us plenty to work on in the final sessions and in our report, which will be published soon by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner.
If you're interested in finding out more about the process described here, please get in touch.