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'Nothing about us without us': why listening to children and young people makes for good public health

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Giving children and young people the best start in life, Nursing

What do young people think are the big public health messages? The best way to find out is to ask them!

Listening to children and young people is core to PHE and Department of Health values and both organisations have put this into practice in the last year. This blog gives a brief insight into what we have done and learnt.

Learning good habits and building emotional resilience in the school years is vital for life chances and school nurses are a key part of the public health workforce giving support to make this happen. To help make this happen locally we have produced a range of documents which local areas will find helpful – including the School Nurse Development Programme , produced with key partners and, most importantly, children and young people themselves. Indeed, our wide range of documents for school health is shaped by the voices of pupils as well as professionals. These documents cover, amongst others, emotional health and wellbeing and sexual health, and fact sheets for services and local government.

In the work between DH and the British Youth Council (BYC) we have learnt directly from children and young people about how best we can meet their needs. The BYC report in 2011 is still an important guide for us, including needing to ‘be in sync . . .  be understanding . . . be approachable’, including in our use of social media. Our joint work over the last 12 months has shown that children and young people live amazing and sometimes challenging lives, and this was especially true in our work with young carers.

Throughout 2013/14 more than 40 young carers shared with us the things that matter in their lives, their strengths and where they do and don’t want us to help. A group of young carers have also been central to the training of school nurses at national events and we now have 150 school nurse young carer champions across England.  The programme has proved to be successful and demand for the places has been high, with rollout requests in Wales.

We learn much when we listen to the experience of young people as service users. DH supported BYC to pilot the training of young people as ‘health champions’ to peer review school nursing services locally.  Young people work with providers to identify service improvements and ideas for taking these forward. It provides a platform for their views to shape service re-design and this has been so well received locally.

More recently PHE, supported by the National Children’s Bureau, met a group of young people ranging from 12 to 18 years of age who took time out from homework and precious leisure time to think about what matters to them about health and wellbeing. A week later four of them met PHE’s leaders on young people’s health.

Abdul, Holly, Rishika and Ishwar meet PHE's leaders on young people’s health. Photo copyright Public Health England. Used under Crown Copyright
Abdul, Holly, Rishika and Ishwar meet PHE's leaders on young people’s health.
Photo copyright Public Health England. Used under Crown Copyright.

The discussion was wide-ranging and challenging at times because young people want and need so much more than what is currently being offered. Topics included:

  • Information: the need for clear, accessible, age appropriate and reliable health information, making more use of digital media, but not to neglect other forms of communicating.
  • Personal, Social, Health and Economic education: interestingly, at a time when the Parliamentary Education Select Committee is consulting about PSHE, there was frustration that the subject is not taught to the same standard as other subjects such as maths and English. Young people told us that teachers need specialist training and qualifications to deal with sensitive issues and for PSHE to be recognised and valued.
  • Physical activity: there was equal frustration that more should be done to encourage older pupils to stick with physical activity – not just the traditional sports but also activities such as dance. Girls’ abilities at excelling in all sorts of sports should be recognised, valued and supported more, not just by schools but society in general, as this would help stop so many dropping out of physical activity as they get older.
  • Fast food: this was another concern. Many outlets near schools offer very affordable food and can be addictive. Having healthier choices would be welcomed, but these have be able to compete on price with the ‘fried chicken take-aways’.

As public health advocates we also have to be more sensitive to the pressures young people are under around drugs and alcohol, from their peers as well as the media. It can be hard to say no to trying drugs and alcohol, especially when they are sometimes seen as not a problem and ‘everyone does it’. More reliable information about the risks and the realities would help young people make more informed decisions.

Looking ahead to this year, 2014/15, across PHE and DH we will continue to work directly with children and young people. This is being shaped in discussions with the National Children’s Bureau, British Youth Council and other leading organisations - and of course with young people themselves.

All of us involved in this work are overwhelmed by the energy and thoughtfulness that the young people have brought, not to mention the generosity and commitment by which they have engaged with us.  We, in turn, are committed to embedding an approach of ‘nothing about us without us’ in all that we do.

My thanks to Wendy Nicholson (Professional lead School Nursing DH) and Eustace de Sousa (Deputy Director – Children, Young People and Families, PHE ) for their leadership in this work and for kindly sharing their knowledge for this blog and to all the children and young people who advise us.

Featured image via NHS Image Library. Used under Crown Copyright.

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  1. Comment by Bren posted on

    Hello Viv,

    This is really positive and, again reaffirms who has the depth of knowledge that is needed to deliver best services and experiences for and with young people.

    I particularly liked the active involvement in young people in school nursing,, but also more importantly it needs to be all across the health journey for the young person and carer.

    It would be important to understand how the u=young people feel around specialist care and areas such as transition.

    A really interesting and forward moving area of work and of huge importance.

    Best wishes and thank you to all, in particular the young people.


    • Replies to Bren>

      Comment by Viv Bennett posted on

      Dear Bren

      Thank you for your positive feedback. The points you raise are important, and whilst specialist care tends to be an NHS responsibility, I am pleased to say that we are working with NHS England's new Youth Forum to better understand issues around specialist care and transition. More details of the Forum are available at .

      Best wishes


  2. Comment by Grace Kelly posted on

    Hi Viv,

    Really enjoyed your blog post, particularly the importance of dispelling this 'everyone is doing it' belief - this is so vital and something we scream and shout about all the time in our work.

    We have been working with young people across the UK for the last 5 years now, correcting their misperceptions of peer behaviour in order to ultimately delay or prevent risky behaviour. Feel free to read our response to your piece, 'Young People Must Lead the Change' at

    Looking forward to seeing the effects of more consultation with young people in the future.

    Best wishes.