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Why we need voices from all sectors in the "Festival of Ipswich Voices"

Children and young people bring different versions of themselves to different settings. Different spaces offer them varying levels of safety, agency and the opportunity to explore their identity and aspirations. When we ask a young person what they think, they may give a very different answer whether we are a parent, teacher, youth worker, doctor, vicar or simply a friend.

So we should be asking them what they want for their town in a wide variety of spaces and settings, and making space for them to tell us what their friends think too.

I'm minded of a year 11 boy I worked with years ago early in my teaching career, who I'll call Jonathan. I took his small Year 11 nurture group for Life Skills, and when I joined the school it was made clear by my line manager that the school's key ambition for Jonathan was to not exclude him - to keep him safe - but expectations for his learning were low; he had very weak literacy and struggled to self regulate in school. A good day was one where he wandered about the class and good-naturedly disengaged with his lessons. A bad day was one where he would bring disruption to the whole school, clearly working out a wealth of frustration.

In a Life Skills session focused on Careers I asked Jonathan about his ambitions, and was surprised when he spoke about his passion for Sea Cadets and desire to join the Navy. He suggested I see the Remembrance Sunday service coming up that he was involved with. I went with my 3 children that Sunday and watched a very different young man lead his cadet group out at the start of the service, mind younger ones to present themselves well, and stand utterly still through a 30-minute service. At the end, he congratulated the younger ones and engaged positively with Sea Cadet leaders and members of the public. My own son signed up to Sea Cadets that day (albeit only for a year!) and would often talk about the way Jonathan supported younger cadets and led sessions.

I wonder how Jonathan would have responded differently to the kind of questions we're asking in the Festival of Ipswich voices, in school and in his Sea Cadets role. I can imagine he himself might have led a discussion with a younger group of children. I've often wondered how we could have done better for Jonathan at that school by having closer links with community groups.

Please do take the time to complete the Festival of Ipswich Voices exercise with the young people you work with or for in your organisation - if we don't make the space to listen, their silence is on us.

Jacqueline Bircham, Senior Trust Lead, Communities and Families, ASSET Education