Youth Governance – Four Lessons Learnt from Working in Widening Participation

by Ellie Grant

Ellie Grant is the University of Southampton’s new Arts and Culture Coordinator. Ellie joined the university in July 2022 and initially worked within the Widening Participation and Social Mobility Directorate. Prior to this, she supported students as the President of Arts University Bournemouth Students’ Union.

It’s no secret that young people can provide amazing insights into a variety of issues and offer solutions that nobody else has considered. However, understanding how to engage young people in decision-making can be challenging for organisations exploring youth governance for the first time. Luckily, there are a variety of sectors we can look to for inspiration, and, for this blog, I’ll be reflecting on the lessons I learnt from my time working in Widening Participation.

Prior to joining the Arts and Culture team this January, I worked in the Widening Participation and Social Mobility Directorate at the University of Southampton. I supported a number of students as part of the university’s flagship social mobility programme, Ignite Your Success, and it was during this time that I developed an understanding of the importance of youth governance. While there are many elements of youth governance and leadership that I could discuss in this blog, I’ve selected four key lessons that I believe can be applied to cultural education.

  1. Embed co-design at every stage

Whether you’re developing a project or a policy, one of the best ways to capture the youth voice is to embed co-design into every stage of your workstream. In my previous role, I was lucky enough to have access to a Student Advisory Board, a group of students from a variety of backgrounds who were consulted on different projects. These students helped to identify potential pitfalls in our proposals and worked with us to find creative solutions.

“For co-design to really work, the young people involved in a project should feel that they are making a tangible contribution to its objectives and outcomes.”

Not every organisation will have the resources to set up a youth consultation board, but luckily, co-design can take many different forms. Depending on the scale of the project, it may be more suitable to hire an intern or work with an elected representative. In any case, for co-design to really work, the young people involved in a project should feel that they are making a tangible contribution to its objectives and outcomes.

  1. Support and encourage youth-led activity

Giving young people the tools they need to create and lead their own activities can often result in more successful outcomes. In Ignite, we facilitated this by forming a student social committee. As staff, we provided administrative support in the form of processing bookings and payments, but the students themselves were responsible for planning, promoting, and delivering the events. Not only did these events have better levels of attendance and enjoyment, but the students on the committee developed teamworking and leadership skills.

While the level of independence will vary depending on the ages and circumstances of the people we’re working with, good youth governance asks us to consider what support young people need in order to run their own projects or create new policies. This might include access to meeting spaces, specialist equipment, training, or funding. Even things that we might take for granted, such as transport to meetings, should be considered.

  1. Empower leadership in all its forms

[We will ensure] All children and young people have a voice, are listened to and can influence the services they receive.

Southampton City Council, Children and Young Peoples Strategy 2022-2027

Joining panels or running activities won’t appeal to all young people but that doesn’t mean they can’t be leaders. It’s important that we find ways to empower leadership for those who are—for a variety of reasons including lack of confidence or lack of trust—less able to participate in traditional forms of youth governance. There are still insights to be gained by encouraging these individuals to participate in things like small group work or classroom discussions and then building towards more challenging activities such as peer mentoring or reverse mentoring.

  1. Reach out to those who are ‘hard to reach’

Similarly to my previous point, my final key message is about the importance of trying to work with young people who are less engaged. Typically, the same students who sit on the board for their youth club are also school council members and scout leaders and activists and so on, and this often means that the voices we hear in these spaces aren’t always diverse. We then miss the thoughts and opinions of those who opt out of these opportunities to co-design and share.

In both my Widening Participation and Student Voice work, I found that it was often those who weren’t as engaged who offered the most valuable insights into a project. In many cases, these are the young people who face additional barriers in life and whose needs are often neglected by traditional youth spaces. Learning from these individuals is often the key to ensuring a project or policy works for all the young people you want to support. Naturally, there isn’t a one size fits all approach to reaching these young people, but trying to understand their circumstances and meet them on their level is a good place to start.

Culture: a ticket to improved mental health and engagement in school?

The Pearson 2023 School Report revealed that teachers expect mental health, attendance and support for students with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) to be the biggest barriers to student learning over the next six months.

Teachers say children in school post-covid are less resilient and struggle to work in teams. Mental health and wellbeing have worsened and, even back in the classroom, children are reluctant to speak up and engage.

We know arts and culture can be powerful. Could they also help address these challenges? Findings from our Better Lives Through Culture project suggest they could be just the ticket! According to teachers, the project has improved access, confidence, retrieval of knowledge, teamwork and engagement.

Mental health and learning

“One in six children has poor mental health which impacts learning.”

NHS England

Research shows unprecedented increases in children’s mental health needs from 2017 to 2020. NHS England reported a 48% increase in children with a ‘probable mental disorder’, rising to one in six children.

In The Link Between Pupil Health and Wellbeing and Attainment Public Health England explores how wellbeing affects learning and vice versa:

“Academic success has a strong positive impact on children’s subjective sense of how good they feel their lives are (life satisfaction) and is linked to higher levels of wellbeing in adulthood. In turn, Children’s overall level of wellbeing impacts on their behaviour and engagement in school and their ability to acquire academic competence in the first place.”

Public Health England

Children’s happiness and life satisfaction

Everyone working with children recognises the importance of wellbeing. We want our children to be happy, but the UK is failing badly at this.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Child Wellbeing Dashboard shows that 15-year-olds in the UK have the second lowest levels of life satisfaction in the OECD.

The Children’s Society’s 2022 Good Childhood Report shows a decline in children’s happiness over the last 10 years. Among findings, it reveals that 12% of children are unhappy with schools. Even worse, children experiencing disadvantage are far more likely to be unhappy with school than their wealthier peers.

Arts and Culture offer a solution

Arts and Culture offer many solutions to this wave of poor wellbeing. Taking part in arts activities has been shown to lower stress and improve our subjective sense of wellbeing. As such, we knew there was potential to improve children’s wellbeing, and thus their learning outcomes, through arts in schools.

For the Better Lives Through Culture project we worked with teachers to pilot one creative approach to improve children’s experiences of school and learning. The project used arts to develop cross curricular resources and schemes of work, designed in partnership with children.

Children’s confidence and engagement in school increased, along with their sense of agency in their own learning. Teachers saw improvements in retrieval at primary level. SEND students were more able to access the curriculum, share their existing knowledge and take part in whole class learning.

Better Lives Through Culture Project

Better Lives Through Culture ran over the 2022-23 school year. Four artists worked with pupils and teachers to use arts to deliver a co-constructed scheme of work across four schools in Southampton.

At Primary we worked on the PE, Dance, Geography and Science curriculum. At Secondary we looked at History, English and Art.

319 pupils and nine teachers took part in the project to design or augment existing curriculum work using arts to teach other subjects.

Increases in confidence, engagement and teamwork for pupils

The strongest project outcome teachers observed was an increase in their pupil’s confidence and engagement.

“Really boosted their confidence to the point where they were happy to share in front of the class where previously there had been tears when asked for that.”

Banister School Teacher

At Primary level, pupils who started the project reluctant to speak up in front of their classmates ended up confidently sharing performances to the whole school. This had a knock on effect in other subjects with more children answering questions in class and contributing generally.

In Secondary school, teachers noticed children’s confidence at speaking in front of each other increased.

Teachers noted that children were not so worried about the risk of not being successful and getting the right answer after taking part in the dance lessons. It was made clear in these lessons that there is not one right answer and refining and progress are as important as the final result.

“There has been a turnaround in the children’s confidence in wanting to have a go, be involved and to share.”

Banister School SLT Teacher

Teachers also noted the creative curriculum work improved teamwork with children getting better at working in small groups. This was something that had particularly suffered due to Covid absence from in person teaching.

Pupil voice increased

At the Secondary Schools, pupils reported that it was important to them to have a voice in designing the curriculum.

We know feeling a sense of agency has an important role in wellbeing. The young people valued the opportunity to make a mark on the school by contributing to the curriculum. The pupils who were in year 7 and 8 previously said they had felt unnoticed within the school. Taking part gave them an increased sense of belonging in the school and made them feel more established and recognised by other pupils and teachers.

At Primary level, the children were excited that their suggestions were listened to. They could see that changes were made to sessions because of their feedback to the dance teacher. The children were also asked to plan and take control of their last dance lesson, which they did showing a good understanding of the task.

Retrieval, and access for SEND students, improved at Primary

At Banister Primary School, a dance artist worked with teachers across all phases to develop resources for Geography and Science. Teachers were pleasantly surprised to discover their dance project improved retrieval of knowledge and enabled lower achieving pupils including those with SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) to access activities and learning. Movement rather than writing gave SEND children a route to achieve and be successful.

“I have noticed that it has helped those lower attaining children engage more readily with the more complex vocabulary and has helped them retain this information and retrieve it – particularly when talking about water sources.”

Sarah Golden, Banister School Teacher

One activity used movement to explain the different flows of rivers, for example meandering versus swift. Children were better able to produce the vocabulary at later sessions after moving in a meandering way in the previous lesson.

“The dance movements are hooks for the vocabulary. Children are being able to remember the vocabulary much better. Linking movements to vocabulary is really helping them to secure that language.”

Banister School Teacher

In a Key Stage One science activity about butterflies, teachers said they would previously have started with a written mind map. Working with Natalie, the dance artist, children shared their existing knowledge of butterflies through movement. Children with SEND, who normally would not have been able to contribute words to a mind map, were able to share their knowledge of how butterflies’ wings flutter through movement.

Hope for the future

The Better Lives Through Culture project has demonstrated the powerful role arts and culture can play in addressing current challenges.

Through the Southampton Cultural Education Partnership, we aim to increase opportunities to build young people’s confidence and engagement. Join us to help ensure all children and young people in Southampton have access to cultural education and the incredible benefits it brings.

Working in partnership to achieve priorities for children and young people

Place-based partnership with cultural and child-focused organisations is key to achieving Southampton City Council’s priorities for children, Councillor Darren Paffey told SCEP (Southampton Cultural Education Partnership) members at a recent meeting.

Cllr Darren Paffey and Child Friendly Southampton logo

With partnership working at our heart, the SCEP was delighted to welcome Southampton’s Cabinet Member for Children and Learning and ward councillor for Bargate as a guest speaker at our last Members meeting:

There’s a lot of belief out there that councils are the sole organisation that can solve all problems in cities. It won’t be a surprise to know that’s not true. Everything that we do depends on the partnerships that we have built up with cultural organisations, with businesses, with our schools, with our early years settings and with the universities,’ said Cllr Darren Paffey.

Continue reading Working in partnership to achieve priorities for children and young people

Big Dreams and Big Impacts at the SCEP Workshop

More than 30 representatives of Southampton’s arts, education, health and police sectors took part in the SCEP (Southampton Cultural Education Partnership) workshop at the John Hansard Gallery on 30 January 2023 to look at how arts and culture could improve the lives of children and young people in the city.

Photographs: Louise Coysh

At the forefront of everyone’s minds was young people; what they want from arts and culture and how to ensure they get it.

SCEP workshop participant

Participants undertook various activities investigating the needs and aspirations of local children and young people before taking part in a group Big Dream Big Impact workshop. The groups were given a hypothetic scenario where an anonymous donor had given £2 million to improve the lives of children and young people using arts and culture, and then discussed ideas to use the money which could be feasibly implemented in the city if funding was available. These included:

  • A fleet of community arts and education buses which could visit individual communities with community-led activities and then create a centralised festival site showcasing what had been produced in each area.
  • Increasing the opening hours of existing spaces like libraries to run arts activities and connecting the city with bus passes for every young person.
  • A social enterprise initiative focused on youth led events and activities with free transport for young people.
  • ‘You Belong Here’ – an arts award hub with go-and-see transport and neighbourhood road shows.
  • An adolescent crisis lounge with a hub-and-spoke support system.

Key elements were then discussed to see which could be taken forward in the work of the SCEP over the next year including transport and building on past projects, utilising and revitalising community assets, arts linked with additional provision such as health, a focus on places and neighbourhoods and neutral spaces for young people. Some young people attended the event and threading through all the discussion was the need to give young people the power to direct and drive future activity.

I was reminded all over again of the power of a creative act to inspire people to work together and come up with amazing new ideas.

SCEP workshop participant

If you want to learn more about SCEP, become a member, hear about future events, or to join our mailing list, please email us

Continue reading Big Dreams and Big Impacts at the SCEP Workshop

What can we achieve together for children and young people in Southampton? 

Southampton Cultural Education Partnership (SCEP) Workshop Monday 30 January, 4-6pm at John Hansard Gallery, Southampton 

Photograph: Nosa Malcolm

Colleagues from across Southampton working with children and young people are warmly invited to take part in an active workshop mapping out the SCEP’s future work answering the question: what can we achieve for all children and young people in Southampton if we work together? 

After time for networking, in small groups we will run an imaginary scenario activity asking how we would spend £2 million pounds on children and young people in Southampton, before discussing how we can work together using the ideas we generate to make real change.  

This is a chance to come together as a sector, network, have your voice heard and be part of shaping the future of children and young people in the City and the work of the SCEP over 2023.   

To RSVP email us  with your name, job title and organisation. 

SCEP supported by

Better Lives Through Culture supported by