17th June 2022

Confederation of School Trusts 2022 conference: Truly Civic

Thank you, Leora, for inviting me to speak at the Confederation of Schools Trusts (CST) 2022 conference – it was an honour. From poet Harry Baker to Dr Jo Saxton, chief regulator of Ofqual, it really was a ‘Truly Civic’ conference. Please see below my speech from the conference.

Good morning everyone – I am delighted to be here. CST has done and continues to do amazing work for our school system. You really are working towards a more connected, more reflective, more compassionate, and truly civic family of schools.

From my 30 years of experience in education, I understand the importance of good schools and good teachers in helping children dream big and achieve their ambitions. Every child deserves a school that believes in them, and I truly believe that children can achieve if their potential is matched by our ambition.

As many of you know, last year, I launched The Big Ask, the largest children’s survey of its kind in the world. We had the privilege of hearing from just over half a million children across England about their families, their school, their wellbeing, their communities and the things that matter to them.

They are a generation of thoughtful, passionate individuals who care about their communities and getting a good education. We need a school system and community that supports them to be truly compassionate, truly connected and truly reflective. In order to do this, we need to model this behaviour ourselves, as you are discussing in today’s conference.

What children told us in The Big Ask has given me a wealth of understanding into what children want and need from the systems that support them. The responses have helped form my business plan which has been divided into seven pillars.  Today I want to share with you.

Better world

In The Big Ask, children spoke about how much they care for the environment, each other and for society as a whole.

They are an altruistic generation – and it’s because of this I will continue to prioritise listening to children and ensuring their voices are at the heart of policy making, particularly on the issues they care about most.

Family

In The Big Ask, children told us how much they care about their families, and how much they value seeing them. Whatever form home life takes, it is a fundamental pillar of children’s lives and their wellbeing.

So, when the government asked me to conduct an independent review into contemporary family life – I immediately got to work. I want to speak to as many children, families and family services as possible to understand family life today, the services that are provided to families, and what can be done to improve them.

Next week I will be publishing the results from the first Family Review Call to Action – nearly 4000 respondents have told me about what family means to them. As one teenage boy said:

“Family means everything to me. Family celebrates the good times and are there to support you during the bad times.”

Children told me about who they consider to be family – including their relatives but also their friends and even their pets. Another teenager said:

”My family are the people closest to me as a literal definition, but they also include close friends. They are the people that are closest to me and know me well.”

Children spoke about what family means to them in very moving ways. A girl told me:

“Family means to me spending time together, being loved, feeling safe and my mum, sister and my pets.”

Over the next few months I will be launching more calls to action – aimed at families with young children and aimed at schools – I will be reaching out to you all to share these in the months ahead. I am looking forward to uncovering exactly what family means to children and parents today and sharing these findings with you later this year.

Children in care

There are about 80,000 children in care. The equivalent of about 80 big secondary schools. These children are some of the most vulnerable in our society and we must judge our success on their success above all else. Whilst local authorities are statutorily their corporate parent, we must all act like their parents too. We need to ask ourselves would this be good enough for our own child and if not, we must do better.

Nearly 6,000 children in care responded to The Big Ask and whilst some spoke of positive and loving experiences, others spoke of a lack of consistency and stability which was limiting their life chances.

Children in care want the same thing as all other children: to be loved, to have friends and to make plans for the future. I want this to be possible for every single child in the country. But, we are failing to give children loving, caring and stable homes; we are failing to get children into good schools which can support them, and we are failing to get children vital mental health care to help them recover from trauma. For this, strong relationships are vital. To me, this means all children are able to make at least one positive, trusting and stable relationship through which to engage the system. This could be a social worker, a teacher, a foster parent. Whoever it might be, we need to put a system in place that enables this. We owe it to all children in care, wherever they are in the country.

I know that too often schools are a primary source of support for children who are vulnerable. And while it is not a teacher’s job to play the role of social worker, children are likely to open-up to their teachers, and teachers are well placed to spot problems. So it is vital that there is a team of support built around a school so children can get the help and support they need. I don’t want you to have to do it alone. And I’ve seen for myself how inconsistent support and services are across the country. I know often that you end up filling these gaps.

From experience, I know that strong families of schools are putting some of this support in place. The opportunity presented to us by the timing of the Care review, schools white paper, SEND green paper and ICS reform must be grasped so we can truly deliver a system around the child.

To make this happen – schools and trusts need to be part of the safeguarding community. I have long been calling for schools to become full and statutory members of safeguarding partnerships and am delighted this is getting such traction. This will enable schools to have a voice at the table, working together to keep children safe and getting them the support they need.

Jobs and skills

In The Big Ask, having a good job was children’s top future priority. There is no shortage of aspiration and ambition amongst England’s children.

But children want more advice and support to succeed in their chosen careers. They wanted more information on vocational careers and more opportunities, no matter where they live.

Following The Big Ask, I was pleased to see the Government continue the kickstart scheme, as I had called for. However, there is still more to do to improve the quality and quantity of apprenticeships, improve careers guidance in school, and to provide supported internships for those most at risk of becoming NEET. I will be engaging with the discussions around post-16 skills to ensure children’s views are represented.

Jobs and skills remain a key challenge for care leavers, a group of young people that I – and society – have a particular responsibility for. My office are currently working to establish a Care Leavers Advisory Board to ensure that we represent the needs and views of these young people properly.

In The Big Ask girls spoke about the importance of female STEM role models. I launched a series of career profiles of women who use maths in their jobs. I want to help girls link stem school subjects to where they dream of taking their careers.

Children and communities

Children told us that, for them ‘community’ is more than having a place to go after school. It’s about how they feel, how they treat people and how they are treated by others.

Children told us about when they felt safe and when they don’t. Sadly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, girls told us they are more worried about their personal safety than boys and all children told us how difficult the online world can be.

As school leaders, we know how deep-rooted harmful attitudes can be, and how they are shaped by harmful and inappropriate content online.

I was commissioned to understand children’s experiences of this harmful and abusive online behaviour. I heard very clearly from children and parents what they want and need to make the online world safer.

Since then, I have been working with government to strengthen the Bill, closing the ‘loophole’ by covering pornography sites which don’t facilitate user-user interaction; providing better age assurance; and ensuring that there is a standalone offence on cyberflashing.

I want the bill to be passed quickly, with the protections for children fast-tracked by Ofcom. We need to make the online world as safe as possible, as soon as possible, with children’s voices at the heart of this Bill.

Alongside this work on the Bill, I will be exploring the role of pornography in shaping children’s understanding of sex, consent, and relationships.

Children’s health and wellbeing

Intrinsically linked to the online world is children’s health and wellbeing. We all know that the pandemic had a detrimental impact on mental health and wellbeing, for children especially. In The Big Ask, children told us how much they care about feeling happy and well. They also recognised the importance of their mental health for their future success – just over half said having good mental health was one of their main future aspirations. The good news is that most children are happy, but 1 in 5 were worried about their mental health and that was children’s biggest worry overall. So, we need to make children’s wellbeing and access to good healthcare our priority.

This is why I was delighted to see DHSC’s landmark consultation on a ten-year plan for Mental Health and Wellbeing. Right now, my team are going out to talk to children about what they want to see in an early help offer, where they would like to receive help, and how adults might better support children and young people’s sense of wellbeing. Our findings will feed in directly to this review.

I want to see prioritisation of funding children’s mental health services, with the aim that 100% of children will be able to access services. We need better use of digital mental health support to provide a more accessible option for children who want to use it. Most children told us they wanted to access support in school, so we need to prioritise improving mental health support in and around school. In addition to this I want community mental health hubs so children can easily access help wherever and whenever they need it.

I am going to keep working with the Secretary of State for Health, NHS England and others across government to push for these solutions. I won’t stop until we get the changes, we all want to see and our children deserve.

Schools

The reform of the school system is well under way and there is already lots to be celebrated. But, we need to keep going together with our partners to deliver for every child.

We desperately need better support for our children with SEND and those in alternative provision. These children tell me how ambitious they are for themselves and their future. Unfortunately, too often the quality of support and educational provision is highly variable and in some areas is letting them down. This needs to change.

On the same day as the publication of the Government’s SEND consultation, I published my own report on the inconsistent approach to SEND across England. My office analysed just under 650 EHCPs in two LAs. We found variation in the accessibility of EHCPs and the extent to which outcomes set are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound.

So, I really welcome the government’s focus and proposals for a nationally consistent system, standardising and digitising EHCPs, which I called for. This recommendation and the new national standards and more accountability are a step in the right direction.

We need to ensure that children’s experiences and outcomes are central to any system we seek to deliver.

This is why I am making it my mission to place children’s voices at the heart of my response to the SEND green paper. Over the coming weeks my team and I will be going out to speak to children with SEND across England to explore the barriers they face and understand what a more supportive education, health and care system looks like for them. The ambition in the Schools White Paper is clear: a flourishing school system can only be achieved by schools working in partnership with each other, in strong families of schools, so that the achievements of the very best schools can reach every corner of the country and every child.

A particular area of schools I’ve focused on is attendance.

Attendance, attendance, attendance!  Even before the pandemic, there has been a group of children who have struggled to attend school regularly and who have fallen through the gaps of our education system. Coming out of the pandemic this has only gotten worse! Post pandemic, almost 1 in 4 children were persistently absent from school compared to around 1 in 9 in 2018/2019.

I spoke to you in March about my plans for a deep dive into attendance in 10 LAs, including speaking to children missing from education directly, to understand better the extent of the problem and underlying causes. On Wednesday (15th) the findings of my Attendance Audit were published. As part of this, I have set out six ambitions my team have developed based on what children said, which, I believe, will ensure every child is accounted for and is receiving the right support.

The first ambition is to listen, ask and communicate. This is really about listening to children and their families about what they want from their education and their futures.

Ambition 2 is about meeting children where they are. I want schools to provide, and be supported to provide through a strong families of schools, a range of early support services.

We all know that exclusions should be a last resort but, when they do happen, we need to ensure that these children receive the targeted support they need. This is what ambition 3 is all about. Exclusions should be used as an opportunity to learn about the child’s underlying needs and implement appropriate support.

As many as 1 in 10 children in England are young carers. The reality for many of these children is that they feel they need to miss school to support their family. Ambition 4 seeks to address this and let children be children. Identification is key, all services need to be able to identify young carers and share data effectively to provide these children and their families with support.

Ambition 5 is about making attendance everyone’s business. I am calling for a relentless focus on attendance from school leaders. But school leaders can’t do this alone, they need partnerships with local authorities to discuss individual children’s attendance and progress.

Ambition 6 seeks to address all the unknowns in the system. I want a single unique identifier for children to facilitate better matching between organisations responsible for safeguarding and supporting children to ensure children that a lack of information is no longer a reason why children are not receiving a suitable education.

In the immediate moment, my mission is 100% attendance on the first day of the September term and if we want to achieve that we need to start acting now! I know it can often feel like LAs let you down with their lack of oversight over attendance in your schools – and that is incredibly frustrating. But I really need school leaders to step up and take on this challenge.

I want to end with a quote from The Big Ask.

When we asked children what was holding them back in England in 2021, a 16-year-old boy told us something sad:

“The social stigma of children from lower class backgrounds trying to achieve something bigger than themselves.”

I’ll read that again. Children from lower class backgrounds trying to achieve something bigger than themselves.

We should tell him of course that there is nothing bigger than the lives of children. So – not to scorn ambition – we could try to build something equal to it.

Thank you.