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Co-production in social care: The Masks We Wear

‘The Masks We Wear’
A multi media artwork
By Five Rivers Youth Council

Five Rivers Child Care Ltd has co-produced a multimedia artwork with children in foster care as part of its participation programme. The theme: ‘Silence can be deadly if it never gets broken’.

The idea itself was co-produced by the young people at a meeting of the Five Rivers Youth Council, a democratic group that meets regularly to discuss issues and suggest solutions for their own care. Young people attending the 2017 Five Rivers Youth Council expressed concern about teachers’ and other professionals’ lack of understanding of the lives and experiences of children in care.

They wanted to express how hurt they are that their behaviour is misunderstood as they undergo their journey through care which although difficult, can be positive and transformative:

“There are over a hundred thousand children living in care in the UK and Ireland we think we might be some of the bravest, most resilient children in the country.”

Letter to the Children’s Commissioner from the Five Rivers Youth Council, May 2017

Young person wearing a mask

Our young people were keen to create an artwork that would enable them to collectively speak out and be heard – the decision was to combine theatre, music and poetry and make a film of the outcome.

To achieve this, Five Rivers’ Participation approached a series of independent collaborators to work alongside a group of seven young people living with Five Rivers fostering families. The team included drama workshop specialist Jo Tatum, composer Adrian Chappell, writer Daniel Marcus-Clark and mask-maker Vikki Liton. The production took place over two residential weekends in spring 2018 and the final artwork was filmed and edited by Beccy Strong.

What role did co-production play?

Co-production was at the very heart of the project. The young people worked alongside creative professionals in a spirit of openness and equality to devise and create a project that shines a light on the importance of speaking up and disclosure of abuse. ‘The Masks We Wear’ is a blend of the young people’s stories that they kept silent about in the past. The characters represent real people and situations they have encountered in their families, in care, in school and as potential employees.

What helped?

Five Rivers is an accredited member of Investing in Children, a movement that encourages children to get involved in dialogue to change their own care. As a social enterprise, Five Rivers upholds social values – investing in projects that improve the experiences of children in care both in Five Rivers and in the wider society. This drives a strong commitment to ambitious projects suggested by young people. Grant-giving charity, the Reed Family Foundation made a generous donation to support the venture.

What difficulties were encountered?

  • Sourcing: finding the right collaborators was key to a successful experience. Hiring a company proved too expensive so the project lead had to put in a lot of time to source independent professionals with the desired ethos and therapeutic approach.
  • Barriers: the young people had never met before so it was difficult to open up and engage. To overcome this they were helped to explore and dramatise their own prejudices towards each other on first meeting.
  • Emotional: the production was an intense experience uncovering difficult themes. The team put special emphasis on achieving closure – this was facilitated with a ‘goodbye’ ceremony where masks used to express emotion in the production were thanked and put away with care.

Strengths of the co-production approach

Young person wearing a mask

‘The Masks We Wear’ is a unique piece of work which could not have been made without the children’s own personal stories combined with the professionals’ skill in bringing them alive. The children’s decision to perform the roles themselves achieves a poignancy that could not be replicated by actors.

The positive outcomes

The work had a therapeutic impact as well as an artistic output. While sharing their stories the participants looked closely into the lives of the people who had hurt them and noticed that they were once victims as well. They considered how the cycle of abuse can happen. Using this knowledge they developed the theme, ‘Silence can be deadly if it never gets broken’. By revealing their untold stories they developed resilience, bringing them through and out of difficulty in the face of adversity.

Other outcomes

  • The recording of the scripted poem that forms the soundtrack has been accepted by the Digital Sound Archive of the British Library.
  • The film is being used to raise awareness of the young people’s experience in Five Rivers’ staff training.
  • The film is regularly shown to stimulate discussion among groups of people considering becoming foster carers – unleashing the power of the young people’s personal stories to motivate others to act positively to help.
  • The film is available to education, children’s social care and psychology professionals on request. Please email


This article was published as a Best Practice case study in co-production on the Social Care Institute for Excellence website

The artwork was selected for exhibition at the first UK Care Experienced Conference at the Liverpool Hope University 26 April 2019.

To read the poem and find out how to watch the film visit our Participation Programme Page The Masks We Wear

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