The ‘Unacceptable’ Project in Essex County Council

The ‘Unacceptable’ project took place in Essex in the East of England. It was a response from Essex County Council to national concerns raised by Ofsted and NSPCC about sexual violence in schools.


Background

The ‘Unacceptable’ project took place in Essex in the East of England. It was a response from Essex County Council to national concerns raised by Ofsted and NSPCC about sexual violence in schools. The Safety Advisory Group of the council wanted to foster conversations and change around sexual harassment and violence in schools. Councillor Louise McKinlay, Deputy Leader and Chair of the Safety Advisory Group spearheaded the initiative, which was comprised of a theatre performance on the issue of abuse and sexual misconduct, and a stakeholder event to discuss possible solutions and outcomes.

The councillor indicated from the start that young people should be involved in designing and delivering the ‘Unacceptable’ project. To do this the project engaged both the Young commissioners and the Young Essex Assembly (YEA), which are established young people-based structures within the council. Young commissioners are young people who are involved in deciding what services and projects the council decides to commission, and the YEA is the elected youth council for Essex which campaigns on young people’s issues. Both initiatives are run by the Essex Youth Services and are designed to create opportunities for young people to influence the governance, design and decision-making process which impact on young people.

Engagement of young people

In the case of young commissioners, any interested young people aged 12-19 years old (or up to 25 with additional needs) are eligible to join, at any point. The opportunity is promoted through youth clubs and community groups. There is no fixed time length for how long young people stay involved. In the last two years, there have been approximately 50 young people involved.

This contrasts with the YEA, where every two years young people stand for election to the YEA and are voted on by their peers throughout Essex. YEA members are 11-19 years-old (up to 25 for young people with additional needs) and there are 75 YEA members elected.

A core group of 30 young people volunteered from across both of these groups to be involved in planning and design of the ‘Unacceptable’ project. The motivations and benefits to young people taking part were the importance of the having their voice is heard, of making an impact on the community, personal skill development, training, and the chance to connect with other young people.

Activities

The young commissioners and YEA were engaged in designing and delivering the ‘Unacceptable’ project through two areas of activity. Commissioning a drama performance and designing and facilitating a stakeholder event to promote the issues to be addressed and launch the roadshow.

The young commissioners were part of the commissioning process. Commissioning a theatre company to produce a play that tackled abuse and sexual misconduct, to be shown in schools across the county. Their role was to review the concept of the play, its theory of change. This meant critically assessing if they thought it was the right project for young people, and if the concept would achieve what it set out to do. This process took place though the young commissioners existing bi-weekly meetings.

The stakeholder meeting was designed and implemented by the YEA, from beginning to end, including selecting speakers (including young people, who shared stories of their experience with unacceptable misogyny and inappropriate sexual language and behaviours), the topics to be covered, as well as evaluating the event. The planning took place over various YEA meetings (called ‘sittings’). The event brought together policymakers, educators, law enforcement officers, school staff, and young people. Its aim was to give context to the purpose of the roadshow, galvanise the community to work together for positive change and to build momentum for the community to find solutions to address deep rooted cultural issues.

Both processes were supported by the youth workers who facilitated the young commissioners and YEA on an ongoing basis. Through their youth work training these staff and have skills that include openness, listening, and relationship-building to support the young people during the project. These forums have long standing relationships with policy makers who are committed to encouraging young people to be at the centre of decision making and changemaking.

Key messages

The ‘Unacceptable’ project demonstrates the way in which councillors can approach established structures and projects when in the very early stages of developing new initiatives. This allowed the ‘Unacceptable’ project to involve young people in very in-depth, complex planning processes from the very beginning, and in all parts of the design and delivery. The additional legitimacy when projects that are ‘owned,’ co-designed, by young people, adds weight to the issues that young people feel strongly about and helps to push these issues higher on the political agenda. Ultimately, gaining greater legitimacy in the eyes of stakeholders and the community was an important part of the success of the project. It is also important to young people that stakeholders recognise the role young people can make in instigating the change - the doing with as opposed to having things done to them

One challenge with such in-depth work is that project cycles can be very extensive. With the young commissioners as with the YEA, (who’s term of office is two years), both programmes have a roll on roll off ethos with YEA’s Youth Voice champions and regular young commissioners training so young people can join or move on depending on their own personal circumstances and wider commitments/changing priorities.

This is overcome by the professional youth work support provided to young people and ensuring that there are direct personal benefits to their involvement regardless of the timeframe they are involved. Both the young commissioners and YEA success can be measured by their ability to retain young people over extended periods of time, and the groups owning the projects from the very beginning of a project until the end with regular reviews and evaluations to ensure new members are aware of the journey travelled. The youth workers are currently exploring ways to get progress and end of project information to young people who have moved on to ensure they know the impact of the work they were involved in and have opportunities to return to the groups as visitors and advisors.

Further information

  • Local council: Essex County Council
  • Type of council: non-metropolitan county council
  • Political control: Conservative (as of March 2022)
  • Target group: 11-19 years-old (up to 25 years for young people with additional needs)
  • Area of policy making: Sexual misconduct in schools
  • Further details: Young Essex Assembly webpage

Contact:

Claire Love, District Youth and Community Commissioner, Essex Youth Service claire.love@essex.gov.uk;

Kirsty Loughton, Professional Youth Worker for Young Essex Assembly (YEA), Essex Youth Service kirsty.loughton2@essex.gov.uk