It’s the end of my first week as Children’s Commissioner for England and what a fantastic week it has been!
I am determined to use my six year term to make the country a better place for all children and young people to grow up in.
I will be drawing on my 30 years’ experience campaigning on behalf of and delivering services to children to do so. Children and young people are relying on us to help them have their voices and interests heard and I’m determined to make a difference in every way I can.
The post, which makes me responsible for promoting and protecting the rights and of the country’s 12 million children and encouraging and persuading decision-makers to make these a priority, is a unique one. I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to take up the challenge and do not under-estimate in any way the task or responsibility ahead.
I was appointed to the job late last year, so I have had some time to talk to people and think about how to approach it. I know there is no time to loose and it is important to hit the ground running, so I was delighted to get the opportunity of talking about my immediate priorities on Sky News on Sunday – 11 hours into my new job!
I want to listen to what children and young people, politicians, and people in the children’s sector say about what I and my team should focus on. In the coming weeks I will be meeting with many of them and I intend on publishing a plan for my term in office this summer.
There is much to do. Although most children in England have a great childhood, we know that there are many who do not. Some face severe disadvantage, experience abuse or neglect, are discriminated against, or simply do not get a fair start in life. We know one in four children live in poverty. We know that although the care system works for some, there are many others for whom it must do better. We know children and young people want more advice on negotiating the problems they face and it should be clear to everyone after the events we have heard about this week, that we all need to act urgently to prevent child sexual abuse and neglect.
Tackling these things head on will be my immediate priority.
We need to put a spotlight on poverty. Being poor, affects almost every part of your life. The place you live, being cold, having no space to do your homework. It means your diet is limited and you can’t have the same clothes, go to the same places or have the same things as your friends. We also know that it’s the poorest areas where the poorest services are.
All political parties signed up to a 2020 target to end child poverty which they now expect to miss. I want to all parties to reaffirm this commitment. It will mean doing more to help families into work; it will mean helping poor to children to get the best start in life; and it will mean transforming our poorest areas to make a determined difference.
I want to work with children to make sure their interests are at the forefront of decision-making nationally and locally and I want to see if this can be developed into a national programme to expand horizons for our poorest children and young people.
As Children’s Commissioner I have a specific responsibility for children in care, living away from home, and those who receive social care services. Growing up in care can severely affect life chances for our most vulnerable children. I want to see a step change in ambition for children growing up in care to secure real improvements and outcomes. Ending B&B accommodation and getting specialist support to have positive life experiences are just two things that I want to push on.
Young people tell us that the transition into adulthood and leaving foster placements or residential care is a particularly critical time for them. I want the Department for Education to develop a new duty for local authorities of continuing support and accommodation up to the age of 21 so care leavers can have the same chances as any other child. I want children and young people to be able to participate in their care planning to ensure that their plans meet their needs and interests. My Office will be here to help make this happen and to offer advice to children and young people at every stage.
Issues that young people face today are challenging: on and offline bullying; access to pornography; pressure to have sex at an early age and so on. Education, particularly effective PSHE, is essential to help children and young people develop into well-rounded individuals who can make informed decisions and choices. I want PSHE to become a statutory subject and for relationships and sex education to be taught in schools. I know that there are lots of other organisations who are pressing for this change too and I look forward to working with them to make this happen.
Like many of us, I have been appalled at the many cases of child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation which have dominated the news in recent days and weeks. The failure of so many adults who should have been there to protect children is clear. Changing the culture of response is a major priority and I want to look at training for professionals and other adults to enable them to respond appropriately to neglect and abuse.
We are pioneering a new approach to put the needs of children at the centre of planning and responding to child sexual abuse and exploitation which is being piloted in areas at this moment. We will be sharing initial findings over coming months and are keen to talk to people around the country about getting involved.
The fact that so many children and young people had no one to turn to or talk to in this terrifying situation is one that should concern us all. That’s why I’ve already had initial discussions with the NSPCC about setting up a new helpline for children who are being sexually exploited. They already run ChildLine and an extension of this kind would offer a life line to abused and neglected children. They are hopeful that they can do this.
None of these things are easy and there are no instant solutions but it is very possible to make real change happen and the Children’s Commissioner is uniquely placed to do so.
I am looking forward to working on behalf of children in England. I want to raise the country’s aspirations to make childhood a great experience for all children. I intend to ensure that in six years’ time, I, the children and partners I’ve worked with, and staff in my team, are proud of the very real improvements we have made to the lives of children.
I look forward to working with you.