Psychologists are expected to ‘Endeavour to support the self-determination of clients, while at the same time remaining alert to potential limits placed upon self-determination by personal characteristics or by externally imposed circumstances’ (British Psychological Society, 2009, p. 14). One of the underpinning principles of the SEND Code of Practice (Department for Education, 2015) is regard for ‘the views, wishes and feelings of the child or young person, and the child’s parents’ (para 1.1), which in my current understanding would constitute ‘the child’s voice’. This principle is designed to support ‘the participation of children, their parents and young people in decision- making’ (para 1.2). Within research, this emphasis on child participation signalled a move away from research on children, to research with children (i.e. increasing the child’s knowledge of and active participation with the research) (Kellet, 2010).
Seeing children as self-determined social actors whilst carrying my responsibility to access and present their genuine views, wishes and aspirations encourages me to proceed very carefully as I consider the practicalities, power imbalances and ethical issues involved in consulting with children. I will find soon find myself talking with children, the results of which could impact on their self-image, their school life, how they are viewed by others, what supports they receive and potentially even what provision they will access. These are literally life-changing impacts, and it is essential to capture the child’s voice within the assessment process, without succumbing to the historical practice of the child’s voice ‘being distorted in the mediated accounts created by … psychologists’, amongst others (Kellet, 2010, p. 17). My previous role involved pupil consultation, and in retrospect, I realise I was often in the role of gatekeeper/interpreter of the child’s voice, repackaging it into something (in my opinion) more ‘appropriate’ and ‘presentable’. I was unaware that there was other possible ways of accessing children’s voice, and thus had imagined as an Educational Psychologist I would advocate for children in a similar way. I am now questioning this assumption.
The concept of ‘student voice’ has become increasingly important in UK educational research (O’Neill, 2014), referring to the active engagement and consultation of school pupils on educational matters that affect them (Robinson & Taylor, 2013), Clark, McQuail, and Moss (2003) highlight how listening to and involving young children can lead to positive impacts on the children, and those around them. They suggest that children benefit from raised self-esteem and improved understanding of their own experiences (as they use the consultation to reflect), and that adults involved can gain increased awareness of children’s competencies and be encouraged to facilitate further child participation. They also warn that if children are consulted on their views, but they do not see any impact or response from their views, then they will be more likely to disengage in the future. I wonder of the impact of children who experience a change (or lack of change) in provision that goes against their expressed wishes. During my placement, I have been happy to see fun, friendly letters written by EPs to children after meeting with them, to thank them for meeting and to summarise the meeting and next steps. However, I am not aware that this practice takes place during an EHCP assessment. When the EHCP assessment process is a time-limited procedure, and the EP involved is likely to have a very full caseload and a scarcity of spare time, it is easy to see how the external pressures are already forcing the child to engage on the terms set out by the adults. For most of assessment process, the EP is also obliged to follow an externally enforced timetable. “Listening to young children is time-consuming. This is not a process which can be rushed or fits well in a culture driven by targets” (Clark et al., 2003, p. 45). During my placement, the increasing pressure of statutory EHCP work was becoming a concern for EPs, and this can possibly leave even less time for listening to children.
The ethos behind championing the child’s voice goes further than the measureable, quantifiable positive impacts, however. It is ‘an ethical and moral practice which aims to give students the right of democratic participation in school processes (C. Taylor & Robinson, 2009, p. 161).’ Not only am I required to access the child’s voice, but there is a responsibility and opportunity (of which I am grateful) to advocate ‘for the empowerment of young people’ (Greig, Hobbs, & Roffey, 2014, p. 6). But if we empower the child, does it hold that we disempower the adult? ‘Rights to self-determination take certain responsibilities and powers away from adults, as children have a right to make decisions for themselves that could potentially go against adult’s claims that they are acting in the child’s ‘best interests’’ (Wyness, 2006, p. 209). Is this why the system currently in place seems to prefer process over child participation? Or are these systems necessary to manage the logistics of such large numbers of children involved with the EHCP process?
The adult-child relations that had previously been the hallmark of research on children might still be being played out in the context of assessments and observations: ‘It is adults who control the research agendas, formulate the questions, design the methods and interpret the findings’ (Kellet, 2010, p. 16). It is difficult not to see the EHCP assessment process in a similar light. Are EPs doing assessments on children, or with children? If adults have such control over the representation of the child’s voice, this raises philosophical issues relating to what exactly we mean by ‘the child’s voice’, which I will now consider.
Is capturing and presenting the child’s voice an act of construction? Fielding (2004) explores a number of theoretical difficulties that reveal themselves when a critical approach is taken to student voice work, including the notions of ‘speaking about others’ and ‘speaking on behalf of others’, both of which I have witnessed in the EHCP assessment process, and much EP work beyond. He suggests that in the act of ‘speaking about others, even in the sense of describing what you take to be the case’ (p.297) (which is surely the core of much EP work as I have witnessed), one cannot help but insert their own values into their interpretation. To apply this to the world of education, the EP is in the powerful position of constructing the child’s subject positions (i.e. representing to the world who the child is). The inherent danger is that the EP will present the child’s voice in a way that suits their own interests, perhaps without even realising they are doing it. Fielding also warns that we are limited in how much we can speak for others as ‘we lack, not only understanding, but the means to understand those whose interests and causes we would represent’ (p299-300). He is suggesting adults and children live in different worlds, and speak different languages. Translation of one to the other may be harder than it seems, but I would hope not impossible.
New Directions / Alternatives to Consider
As I have covered already, part of the role of the EP is to gather the views of the child, and so certainly for the foreseeable future, the EP is in a powerful position to represent the child. So the challenge I feel for my future is how I can best position myself to appropriately address power relations, act ethically, empower the pupils, and bring about positive change? To respond to the issues I have raised by a cessation of action is also not a moral choice. ‘Just as there are difficulties of speaking for others, so there are difficulties of not doing so. What, for example, are we to do with a persistent desire to hold on to issues of social justice?’ (Fielding, 2004, p. 300). My representation of the child’s voice, with full awareness of the potential pitfalls, is still better than the child being silenced during these processes. The answer may be in looking for new opportunities to listen to children, and to create for them a space to speak.
I am challenged by Moss’s (2006) suggestion that the developmental paradigm assumes children are incomplete (i.e. not yet adults), thus implying that their voice is therefore less relevant to listen to. I am becoming aware that my own view of the child is heavily influenced by this paradigm. A starting point for me in communicating with children may be to consider children as ‘experts in their own lives’ (Moss, 2006, p. 19), which in turn suggests that I am not the expert in their life. The Mosiac approach (Clark & Moss, 2001) is one such example that is seen by many to be an appropriate participatory method which gives young children the opportunity to express something of their lived experience (Mercieca & Mercieca, 2014; Moss, 2006). This approach emphasises that listening involves ‘interpreting, constructing meaning and responding’ (Clark & Moss, 2001, p. 7). Rather than deny those facts, it seeks to involve the children in the construction, using mixed methods such as the child drawing, taking photographs, child-led tours of school etc., with less emphasis on the standard adult-child questioning conversation and its inherent power imbalance. I am pleased to have witnessed use of child drawing on my placement, as well as use of PlayDoh to open opportunities for conversation.
Another way to challenge the developmental paradigm, is to reject the assumption that children cannot comprehend or discuss weighty, complex issues. The Little Big Box of Questions (LBBQ; Gersch, Lipscomb, Stoyles, & Caputi, 2014) uses philosophical and spiritual questions to enter into a child-led conversation which attends to their ‘deeper attitudes and ideas which underpin motivation’ (p40). In its development, children were recruited as co-researchers to shape the questions, methods of questioning and final design. The authors believe this tool ‘could underpin future action and self-understanding and facilitate empowerment’ (p35). Upon using the LBBQ, professional reported that they were surprised at the quality of the children’s answers and they felt it helped them understand the meaning the children were making of their lives. More importantly, children also find it enjoyable and engaging (Gersch et al., 2014). I only wonder whether I could fit these approaches into the seemingly rigid system of EHCP assessments.
Recently, an EP I was shadowing
found they were unable to meet with a child before their advice for the EHCP
assessment was due (due to a school exclusion). I was heartened to see that
they requested to have the assessment suspended until a time when the situation
was somewhat resolved and they could meet with the child, as the EP recognised
that presenting their advice without first talking with the child would not be
appropriate or ethical. At the time of writing, I don’t yet know if their
request was granted. It appears I am entering this profession at a time when
emphasis on children’s rights to participate and have their voice heard is on
the rise. For this I am grateful, but my short time being on placement has
shown me that there is much in the current system which does not recognise
issues of power, nor lend itself to appropriate accessing of the child’s voice.
My ideals and values about child voice are still evolving and I suspect the
challenge will be to stay true to them when I am out of the university and
working as an EP.