Evidence Based Practice Unit


Young people at the forefront: the 2020 HeadStart Learning conference

29 July 2020

Maddi, Young Champion at the Anna Freud Centre, shares reflections from the 2020 HeadStart Learning Conference

Illustration of topics discussed at the 2020 HeadStart Conference

In February 2020 young people, practitioners, school staff, researchers and policy makers from across the country came together for the HeadStart Learning conference. The conference was an opportunity to share and discuss findings from the evaluation of HeadStart - a five-year, £58.7 million National Lottery funded programme set up by The National Lottery Community Fund which aims to explore and test new ways to improve the mental health and wellbeing of young people aged 10 to 16, and prevent serious mental health issues from developing.

Young people are at the heart of HeadStart – the six local authority partnerships delivering the HeadStart programme involve young people in the co-design, commissioning, delivery and evaluation of services. Young people also played an integral role in all aspects of planning and running the HeadStart Learning conference. Maddi, Young Champion at the Anna Freud Centre, shares reflections from the event and what she learned about HeadStart.

By Maddi, Young Champion at the Anna Freud Centre:

The HeadStart programme, as I discovered, puts young people at the forefront of everything, from planning to feedback and even the odd tag-line (Resilience Revolution, anyone?). And this, of course, includes events.

Highlighting co-production was the recent HeadStart conference. Young people and staff from the six HeadStart partnerships (in Blackpool, Kent, Hull, Newham, Cornwall and Wolverhampton) travelled to London to take part in the conference. With young people co-chairing and sat at the same tables as senior researchers and clinicians, it became apparent very quickly just how involved young people were. Before the day had even truly kicked off, a digital poll revealed that the room was filled mostly with young people.

“Your ideas, your solutions, your way of doing things.”

The day was divided into three parts. We explored a different theme in each part with talks from speakers and a trio of table discussions. The three themes were:

  • Why do we see different levels of emotional and behavioural difficulties in boys and girls?
  • How can adults get better at recognising when young people are struggling with their mental health, and improve the way they support young people who are experiencing difficulties with their mental health?
  • What helps or prevents young people from being willing and able to think about their own mental health, and to talk about mental health with other people?

The first part of the day passed incredibly quickly. I must admit that when I heard we had half an hour’s free reign of discussion, I was rather intimidated. How will I pass half an hour talking to a group I barely know? Yet the time raced by, with a huge amount of discussion on how gender impacts mental health and how difficulties present. As a queer young person, it initially seemed a shame that trans and non-binary young people were not mentioned in the first theme. However, I would soon have my mind set at ease as I found there to be a question specifically for this group on the focus sheet on our table.


After a short break, we returned. Which meant for me that it was time to get up there! I was tasked with performing poetry on the day. The nerves were there, but I was so warmly welcomed, both by the young chairs and the audience of around 140! My poem was on the theme of recovery, through the abstract concept of a journey back through new terrain - contrasting the journey back to wellness with the path that led me into illness.

Well, this passed without any problems, so now was time to discuss the second theme: how adults could respond better when a young person is struggling with their mental health. This was a topic of great interest to me as a young person with mixed experiences of being treated for mental health difficulties. The most important point from this discussion, in my opinion, was that nobody exists in a bubble. Adults have their own difficulties, of course, and these can impact their ability to help young people.

Our final discussion turned out to be the most reflective of the day. We discussed the barriers to talking openly about mental health, language used, for example. While some people suggested that we could try to use new language and find better words to discuss mental health, my view would be slightly different. Personally, I’d like to see barriers torn down around the language we already use. If you say a word in a new context enough times, it takes this new meaning. In this way, I see that there is potential to cast aside old stigmas and let the words take a fresher meaning.

“There’s really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard.”

Of course, the themes we were set weren’t the only themes we discussed. What I noticed emerging throughout the day was the importance not of giving young people a voice, but rather helping their voices to heard through support, research, and the right platforms.

At the end of the day, we had the chance to ask the panel of young people some questions. The panellists had all been involved in HeadStart, so I chose to ask them what the biggest change they had seen in themselves was since starting HeadStart. They told me a range of things. They had developed more positive attitudes, and they had learned team skills. They gained confidence, public speaking skills, leadership and had gained a better awareness about mental health. And they found that school life had improved, as had their mood. This all makes it clear how positive the HeadStart programme had been for our panel.

So, you might ask, what comes next? Well, ask the young people.

About the HeadStart Learning Team

The Evidence Based Practice Unit (EBPU) at the Anna Freud Centre and UCL) is working with The National Lottery Community Fund and the HeadStart partnerships to collect and evaluate evidence about what does and does not work locally to benefit young people now and in the future. Partners working with EBPU on this evaluation include the Child Outcomes Research Consortium (CORC) and the University of Manchester. This collaboration is called the HeadStart Learning Team. Previous partners in the HeadStart Learning Team include the London School of Economics (LSE) and Common Room.

To find out more about the discussions that took place at the 2020 HeadStart Learning Conference, read our evidence briefing - Learning from HeadStart: the mental health and wellbeing of adolescent boys and girls