Defining and measuring children's needs

Introducing the workstream on defining and measuring children’s needs

Polly Vizard

The research team at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE), LSE, are delighted to be contributing to this exciting new research programme. Opportunities for researchers to work directly with practitioners and children, young people and their families to deliver improvements to services and policy are all too rare. This project is a genuine collaboration between research organisations and local authority partners and aims to drive social change and deliver long-term impact by transforming the use of children’s information, data and voice in policy and practice. The project represents a unique opportunity to work at the frontiers of research, partnership and innovation and we are thrilled to be involved!

For the CASE team, the fact that the project is underpinned by a model of evidence-based social change is particularly important. Our central hypothesis is that services for children and families can be improved through deeper processes of engagement and listening and by making better use of children’s information. Lots of information is generated and collected about children by local authorities – their schooling, engagement with social workers, assessments by health visitors and so on. In addition, there is information that is or could be generated by children and their families: feedback on services, suggestions for improvements, their aspirations, support needs, priorities, concerns, and so on. Some of this is information numeric and some of it is narrative and the project puts emphasis on the inter-connections between data and voice. This includes recognition of the importance of ‘voice in data’ (for example, data that captures the feedback, experiences and priorities of children, young people and families) and ‘voice about data’ (for example, the views, perspectives and experiences of children, young people and families in relation to data collection and data use). The starting point of the project is the proposition that children’s data and voice information can both be more effectively utilised, in the interests of improving services and changing children’s experiences for the better.

To test this hypothesis, the research organisations and local authority partners will be working collaboratively to identify, co-design and deliver specific policy innovations that will improve the use of children’s information, data and voice within policy and practice within each local site. Each policy innovation will be formally evaluated. By building up a body of evidence on the role of children’s information, data and voice in service transformation, we hope to provide a foundation for similar policy innovations in the future and long-term improvements to children’s experiences, outcomes and lives. 

The project also provides the CASE team with a unique opportunity to explore whether the conceptual and measurement frameworks that we have developed can contribute to innovation in local policy and practice. CASE research has been exploring how the capability approach developed by Nobel Prize winner Professor Amartya Sen can be operationalised as a framework for conceptualising and measuring multidimensional social outcomes. Our research puts central emphasis on the links between the capability approach and human rights, and over the years we have been commissioned to develop several multidimensional outcomes frameworks that have been used by the Equality and Human Rights Commission to discharge its statutory duties in relation to national equality and human rights monitoring. This includes the Equality Measurement Framework, the Children’s Measurement Framework and the Human Rights Measurement Framework. 

Put simply, the capability approach proposes that wellbeing is assessed in terms of people’s capabilities - the freedoms and real opportunities that people have across different critical areas of life. The multidimensional outcomes frameworks we have developed for adults and children cover a range of different ‘domains’ including living standards (including safe and secure accommodation), health, education and learning, work and valued activities (including caring), physical safety and security (for example, being free from violence and abuse), individual, family and social life (including identity and relationships) and participation, influence and voice (including children’s involvement in critical decision-making about their lives). As part of this of this work, we have developed new indicators of autonomy (whether people experience choice and control in their lives) and fair treatment (for example, whether people experience discrimination and whether they are treated with dignity and respect). Other projects have focussed on challenging data exclusion and building up new evidence for groups of children that are typically missing from, or invisible within, standard analysis, such as young carers and children and young people from the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities. 

As part of the Children’s Information project, we will be drawing on CASE knowledge and expertise in this field as part of a broader workstream on frameworks for identifying and measuring children’s needs. This workstream will also draw on previous work on children’s frameworks undertaken by our project partners and advisors. This includes work by project co-investigator Lisa Holmes on the Children’s Social Care Framework; work by project Principal-Investigator Leon Feinstein on the Child Vulnerability Framework developed by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England; and work by senior advisor Julie Selwyn on subjective wellbeing and the Bright Spots programme. 

Like the other workstreams of the Children’s Information project, the ‘needs’ workstream will be a collaboration between academic and non-academic partners, based on a model of continuous mutual learning and two-way interactions. Our local authority partners have extensive and in-depth experiences of the development and uses of local and national frameworks for identifying and measuring children’s needs. To learn more about the national and local children’s framework that are currently being used, as well as their purposes and functions, their advantages and limitations, and the scope and priorities for improvements, we will be undertaking a series of semi-structured interviews with leaders and practitioners in each of the local sites. Additionally, we will be able to engage with and learn from a broader number of local authorities and stakeholders, through the Learning Network (a group of 20 other LAs meeting twice a year for the duration of the project enrich the learning from the local sites) being taken forward by our project partner, Research in Practice.  

The CASE team are looking forward to bringing together and building on this wealth of experience within the academic and non-academic project team as part of our contribution to the Children’s Information project. In addition, we will be undertaking a desk review of the many different local, regional, national and international frameworks for identifying and measuring children’s needs that have evolved in recent years. As the discussion so far suggests, these frameworks can radically differ in terms of their purposes, focus, coverage, their theoretical underpinnings and their engagement with children, young people and families. One early output from the workstream is likely to be a navigational tool that will enable policy makers and practitioners to rapidly access, explore, understand and assess these different frameworks for themselves, to help them to determine which is best suited to their context and purpose. 

While the project has a particular focus on policy, practice and innovation, we also aspire to contribute to theory on how children’s needs should be defined and measured. The CASE team will be contributing to our collective reflection on this issue by addressing how the capability approach and human rights provide distinct theoretical underpinnings for the new approaches to children’s information, data and voice we are developing in the project. Conversely, the methodologies and findings that are likely to emerge from the Children’s Information project are themselves likely to have rich potential for taking capability theory and human rights practice forward. The CASE team are excited by this potential for cross-fertilisation and will be ensuring the project findings are disseminated internationally through our Human Development and Capability Association networks.