Engaging youth action: best-laid plans

Understanding the next generation and helping them to have a say about how their world is shaped is a hot topic at the moment.

UKRI Project Team


Whether it’s climate change, the virus pandemic or the B-word, young people are facing huge issues now and for the foreseeable future. And in towns like Middlesbrough and the wider Teesside area with its history of economic and social turmoil, the problems encountered by the young people who live here can seem even more magnified.

Back in February 2020 – which seems a world away now – Thirteen housing formed a partnership with Teesside University to focus on a project that would help young people to identify problems and come up with suggestions on how to improve their communities.

With common goals and a clear vision to support and improve neighbourhoods in the area, Thirteen and Teesside University developed a programme to recruit and support a group of young people to carry out research and deliver recommendations to help make real improvements in their neighbourhoods. Improvements that would not only have an impact on them and their peers, but that would also have positive effects within the entire community.

Long-term, the idea was to review the impacts of these changes and take the most effective actions to scale-up and use in other Teesside neighbourhoods. More widely, these actions could act as a blueprint for how young people’s ideas could help to positively shape the future in other areas of the country.

As part of a wider plan, Thirteen and Teesside University are looking to enter into a more formal agreement to help us work together more effectively, share knowledge, learning and expertise, helping to create more effective and impactful projects in the future.

Project planning

Projects such as this clearly need the right level of financial support, and colleagues at the university identified funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to kick-start the programme. The UKRI’s aim is to enhance place-based partnerships in public engagement, and co-develop approaches to engagement with research and innovation.

As a UKRI Pathfinder project, the Thirteen/university partnership aimed to produce a project that would plan, develop and test new ways of working with communities that experience significant disadvantages.

During the planning process, we also joined up with other organisations working towards similar outcomes for our communities, including Tees Valley Arts, Barefoot community kitchen, Newport and Lingfield schools, Middlesbrough Football Club, and Linx youth activities group. All of whom would go on to provide essential experience and added value to the project.

The main partners came together early this year to devise a project plan and identify clear actions to take. We decided to focus on activities within two distinct areas of Middlesbrough which enabled us to control the scope and help us identify the outcomes of the project’s actions on the ground.

Issues affecting young people

Our main objective was to establish two groups of people aged 16 to 24 living in the Hemlington and Grove Hill areas to research a range of issues that affected them in the areas they lived.

In both Hemlington and Grove Hill, a young people’s panel would be established to carry out research and suggest ideas to develop initiatives such as leisure, learning and community projects.

We then developed a full programme of events and activities to help the young people become fully engaged. This would involve creating awareness of the project, gaining the participants’ trust, increasing the understanding of the young people, and building their skills to enable them to carry out the various research tasks.

The programme of activities was devised for a twelve-week period from early March 2020, and would include: an introductory session at Middlesbrough FC’s Riverside Stadium; team-building go-karting; scrapbooking sessions to help articulate ideas visually; creative sessions with Tees Valley Arts; and work with a regional historical project to give a wider context to the programme.

We recruited the help of a range of colleagues from within the partner organisations to draw on their full range of expertise. This included Thirteen’s employability, money advice and housing colleagues, where we gained approval to devote staff time to the project throughout its duration. The university provided expertise in planning and managing the overall direction of the project, while community and arts-based organisations also pledged staff time, resources and expertise.

As well as the youth panel, we laid out plans for another project in the Newport area of Middlesbrough that would carry out research into community participation using sustainable food and cooking – an interesting recipe spoiled only by a virus.

Generating interest, recruiting participants

A lot of work went into recruiting young people to the project and we used the full range of tactics, including social media (using the hashtag #BoroYouthAction), email marketing, local press and BBC radio, door-to-door direct marketing flyers, word of mouth using workers in the communities, and importantly, work with a range of organisations who had existing contacts with, and the trust of, young people in the neighbourhoods.

We organised recruitment days and outreach visits to groups in Hemlington and Grove Hill to meet young people and encourage their involvement. All of which helped us to understand potential participants’ needs and offer clear benefits and incentives for the young people to get involved.

After a few weeks of furious activity, we recruited a core group of six young people. This may not sound like a huge group, but given the historic difficulties in encouraging young people to get involved in programmes like this, we were happy with the number and, more importantly, the quality of participants.

Alongside the aim of testing new methods of public engagement within the research process, another objective of the project was to bring practical benefits to the participants. As such, we aimed to involve the young people in existing services such as employability, education and welfare services, and to encourage them to think about their own personal development and future prospects.

This was to involve hosting sessions around training, education or job opportunities that would be available to them as part of the twelve-week plan, and to encourage them to consider the idea of a sub-regional skills academy.

Ready to go

So everything was set. We had a clear plan of action for the programme, the staff were in place, the young people were recruited, and we held the introductory session at Middlesbrough FC’s Riverside Stadium on 12 March.

Then, just as we were getting ready for the team building trip to a local go-karting track, the Covid-19 lockdown hit us all.

Needless to say, this had a major impact on the project and resulted in the cancellation of all the subsequent events we had planned.

But did this spell the end of the project? After all the hard work and massive commitment from so many people across the area we really didn’t want to lose everything we’d done. We especially didn’t want the enthusiasm of the participants to be lost, so we needed to do some more thinking, and fast.

We can tell you now that we weren’t defeated by the virus!

Next week, we’ll bring you details about the decisions we made and how we re-created the project for the benefit of everyone involved. We’ll also have more about how the young people contributed to an online scrapbook to help build a picture of how life is progressing for people throughout Teesside.