What is co-production, and why is it so important to HeadStart?

From the beginning of HeadStart in Wolverhampton over two years ago, one of the fundamental principles of the programme has been co-production with young people:

Co-production is not just a word, it’s not just a concept, it is a meeting of minds coming together to find a shared solution. In practice, it involves people who use services being consulted, included and working together from the start to the end of any project that affects them.
— Think Local Act Personal (2011)

The "people who use our services" in HeadStart are the young people themselves, the 10-16 year olds in our city we are supporting in raising their resilience, self-esteem, and mental well-being. Our aspiration, shared by The Big Lottery Fund, is to have a meaningful, long-term impact on the mental well-being of young people in our city, an impact that will be life-changing into their adult lives. We dream big.

Many of the issues that affect young people are events or pressures that happen 'to' them - family breakdown, poverty, abusive behaviours in the family or from peers - or pressures to 'be' a particular way, to look a certain way, to project a particular image of themselves on social media, to meet parental or cultural expectations, and to succeed academically.

Our young people aren’t just along for the ride. They are in the driving seat!
— Kevin Pace, HeadStart Wolverhampton Manager

HeadStart wants to help young people to be authentically themselves. SUMO methodology emphasizes the idea that agency, our moment-to-moment choices and decisions, are fundamental to our well-being and resilience. SUMO themes such as 'Learn Latin' (seizing the day) and Ditch Doris Day (abandoning the idea that life will always be as it currently is) emphasize the idea that, for all of us, young and old alike, having the power to make positive choices is fundamental to our happiness.

HeadStart, as a programme operating within this context, cannot be a programme that is 'done to' young people. An ethos of co-production has run through so much of the programme:

  • Young people, following training, participated in Dragon's Den sessions to make funding decisions about services to be commissioned by the voluntary sector.
  • Our HeadStarters and B-Safe team were heavily involved in writing the phase 3 bid for additional funding, and in presenting our bid ideas to representatives from The Big Lottery.
  • The use of Open Space Events such as our event at the Civic Hall in Wolverhampton for young people to consider the most important issues to them, and to collaborate with peers and professionals to plan and implement them.

Karl Royle discusses The Open Space Event at Wolverhampton Civic Hall

There were two interviews with young people one based around activities that would show the interviewee’s creativity and how they link their knowledge to educate young people with issues related to Mental Health. The second interview was based on a 5 minute presentation with the young people asking direct questions about the interviewees’ experience with working with young people and knowledge of HeadStart. Shortlisted candidates were then put forward to an interview adult panellist to finally decide if they are cable of working in the HeadStart team. During the period of the week interviewees have had a positive experience with the young people feeling as though we have really achieved good engagement with these young people within the city. Overall the young people that have joined HeadStart for these interviews feel empowered. Their voices are being heard and thoughts will always be apart of the HeadStart process to allow them to help build up the ever-growing project that is HeadStart
— Emerson Morris, HeadStart Wolverhampton Media Apprentice

A few weeks ago we began interviewing for some key roles for professionals in the HeadStart team, including for School Support Coordinators, Young People Engagement Coordinators, and Community Development Coordinators. True to our ethos of co-production, a group of young people from Heath Park, giving up their own time in their half-term holidays, were fully  involved in the interviewing process, participating in assessment centres and interview panels for candidates. They were incredible; we didn't expect any less.

This is only the beginning. Newly supported by Big Lottery funding, the next phase of HeadStart has begun. The planning and creation of sustainable HeadStart programmes to support the young people in our city will be lead by the young people themselves, supported by a range of professionals.