2nd November 2022

The Children’s Commissioner’s Speech to NCASC Conference

Thank you so much. First, for having me to speak here today, but more importantly for the work that you do to support children and their families, to help them to stay together where possible, or provide safe alternatives when needed. Before becoming Children’s Commissioner I dedicated my professional life to education – as a teacher, headteacher and CEO of a multi-academy trust. I am of course a believer in the immense power of education. But over the years I have come to believe there is one institution more powerful, more important, more transformational for children than a school – and that is the family. It is the one thing we all have in common. Whether families are close, argumentative, loving, aggravating, or all of the above, the influence they exert extends throughout a child’s life.

As Children’s Commissioner, I am tasked to bring the voices of children right to the heart of Government. This means sharing children’s thoughts on a whole host of issues – their hopes for the future, their education, their views on making the world a better place. This, of course, includes the most vulnerable children in the most vulnerable situations – from visiting children in hotels in Kent to collecting data on strip searching of children by the police – it’s my mission to take their views to Government.

When I took up the post I knew that I needed to do something significant to hear from children. To understand what they wanted from Government, and what they needed from me.

That’s why I carried out the Big Ask survey and was delighted that it became the largest survey of its kind, with over half a million children responding, including many from vulnerable groups. And the answer came back loud and clear from children – that I needed to be focusing on families. Children from all backgrounds, everywhere in the country and whatever their family set-up – including those children with a social worker, and those in care – spoke about how important family was to them.

That is why I was so pleased to be commissioned by Government to undertake my Independent Family Review. I wanted to understand the nuts and bolts of family life in the UK in 2022, to find out what families looked like, and to examine in detail the power they have. I travelled the country talking to families from all backgrounds, in nurseries, family hubs, and support groups. My team have carried out new and innovative analysis to provide a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the data.

When I spoke to parents and children about what family meant to them, they talked about lots of things. About family meaning someone you could always rely on, who’d be there through thick and thin; about spending time quality time together, about support and care. But most of all, they talked about love.

One twelve year old girl perfectly encapsulated what children appreciate about family when she said ‘ My family mean the world to me. They mean knowing I always have someone to love and care for me and supporting me in everything I do’.

The review showed that there is a huge diversity when it comes to family life, and the forms that families take. Family is dynamic, and changes over the course of a childhood. For example, I found that forty-four per cent of children will not live with both their birth parents for their whole childhood, so any understanding of family needs to include blended families, separated families, adoptive families and children who are cared for by foster carers, kinships carers, and in children’s homes.

But what my review found is that what matters most is not the form a family takes, but the quality of relationships within it. We may all instinctively feel the importance of a loving, caring family – but our research translated that into hard and fast evidence. Children who reported a close relationship with their parents at age 13 had higher earnings at age 25.

I worry that talking about families has fallen out of fashion. Some people seem to think that talking about family means only focusing on the ‘traditional’ married family with two children, so instead avoid talking about it altogether. But we need to talk about families. Because my research shows that when someone is facing challenges the place they want to turn is to family. 78% percent of people said that this is where they would go for help with their family life. A strong and loving family can cast a protective net around its members, helping all its members to flourish, and stopping problems from turning into crises.

For the most part parents, and wider family, love their children and want to do their best for them. But they can be overwhelmed – perhaps by their own childhood experiences, or poor mental health, or financial stress – and find themselves unable to provide the care they want to. And when these problems become too great for families to deal with alone, they need to turn to services. When that happens I want the services to be there to meet them, and to support them like a family would – without judgement, with love, and for the long term. I want services that have the highest aspirations for the children they work with, just as they would for their own child.

Since I took up post, as I have visited services across the country I have seen first-hand that there are places around the country that do just this. One mother explained that when everything had gone wrong in her life, and she had ended up homeless, she had gone to her local children’s centre because ‘I didn’t know what to do, but this place felt like home’

That is what I want from every service working with children and families – that they feel like home. I want to see services that mirror the protective effect of a loving family, wrapping care, support and love around them. I hope that with this approach more families will be supported to stay together, but when it is not possible for a child to live safely with their family I want there to be meaningful alternatives for them, ones that feel truly familial. Because family was just as important to children in care as other children, so we must focus on want they want – loving homes and relationships, not institutions and plans.

That is why part two of my Family review is going to be focused on delivering services that are designed around children and families, not ‘service users’. I want all of us, everyone working with and for children, to come together around the family. I want to see services that build strong, trusting relationships with families, modelling the loving relationships we value within families . I want to see them understand the family in the round – so that if an adult is facing difficulties with mental health, finances, or other issues, the impact on the child is considered and support provided. Families tell me that they want services that are local, available when they need them, and utterly reliable – just like the strongest families are.

I will be setting out some practical solutions to address some of the perennial barriers that services face. Nobody will be more aware than you that when things go wrong, what review after review has taught us is the same – the problem is so often systems which don’t work with one another, information that isn’t shared, and people falling between the gaps. I want to place the family at the centre, rather than the structure of competing bureaucracies. I will be setting out proposals for a shared outcomes framework, improved data sharing, and increased local integration.

I have seen in practice how transformational it can be, for families and children, but for professionals as well, when the support that is offered is seamlessly joined up, and where families know that everyone is working towards achieving their goals.

But professionals I speak to often tell me that although they and colleagues in other agencies are working as hard as they can, it sometimes feels they are being pulled in different directions, as they each have to meet their own goals and targets, which never quite align. I believe a shared outcomes framework will mean that different professionals, and different departments, can truly work together, and be relentlessly focused on children’s priorities, in the way that I know they want to be.

I will also be setting out proposals to improve data collection and sharing, so that everyone working with families feels empowered to share information whenever it will keep a child safe, and so we can make sure we have the right data to actually understand what is happening for children. I am so grateful to those of you who have worked with me to help elucidate some of the difficulties, and come up with sensible, practical answers.

I am also looking at the way the many local statutory bodies work together, to better understand how and where responsibility for supporting families should sit. I want to work with you to make these plans as practical as possible to make them a reality for every child, in every family.

In designing and delivering all of these strands of work I have worked with people across local Government, and I want to put on record my thanks for their time and insight, which has made this work, and the Review’s recommendations more practical and helpful.

I believe that there is a real opportunity to be grasped at this moment, as reforms are being considered across the system. The Government is soon to respond to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. We have a Green Paper on supporting children with special education needs and disabilities. Health is facing yet another structural shake up with the introduction of Integrated Care Systems. Now is the time to finally make sure that health, education and social care stop pulling in different directions, and start pulling together.

I want to speak specifically about how I can help. My office runs the ‘Help at Hand’ helpline, which offers advice and assistance to children with a social worker, or living away from home. When I asked family members across Britain what was most important to them about family, it was the sense that there was someone who would have their back, no matter what. For many children, their family are able to be their strongest advocate – always in their corner, and making sure they are able to achieve everything they want. For those children who don’t have that within their family, it is vital that all of us are there for them, replicating the role of a parent who will always be seeking the very best for them.

It is the security that comes with this trust that so many children in the care system are lacking. The children my office help are mostly children for whom no one has played this role, or given their voice and rights the primacy they require. But I also see the potential of the advocacy system in the cases where children do feel let down by the system, but still have one trusting relationship with their advocate through whom their confidence can be rebuilt.

Today I am publishing a review of my Help at Hand service, to understand how it can better serve the children we work with, as well as support improvement in the wider system.

Every child’s story is unique, but there are a few common issues that are highlighted in this report, which you will know all too well. Some of these are to do with the care system, such as the lack of stable placements and frequent moves experienced by children in care. Another theme is the interaction between care, health, and education. Nearly all the children my team helps are struggling with mental health, nearly all have difficulty accessing timely and consistent help from CAMHS, which has often been significant trigger for placement breakdown. Most children my team support are not in education.

But – by far – the most serious and pressing issue my team, and I know your teams, are encountering this year is the lack of places for children in care to live. Children in care have told me how fundamental a loving, supportive foster home is – as one young man explained, they can become a new family ‘From what I’ve experienced you can choose your family, I feel very lucky to have people that didn’t even know me to take me in from my actual family, it was a godsend that saved mine and my sister’s lives’

We should have the highest standards for children in care, but more and more my team are working with children with nowhere to go. They are placed far from home, moving often and increasingly spending long periods in AirBnB surrounded by large teams of staff who they don’t know. Imagine being a 15-yr old girl, the victim of sexual abuse, and being placed in a strange flat with no other young people, and a revolving team of 14 carers, many of them men.

I know none of us think this is good enough. The lack of decent, loving homes for children in care is something that needs to be a national priority. This is not dependent on reform of the care system, it is the foundations on which the care system can be reformed. This cannot wait, children cannot wait. We cannot make improvements to the experiences of children in care if we don’t have someone where for them to live, to feel safe, loved and secure. This is so obvious it should not need saying.

It is too easy to blame the private sector for this, but they are a symptom not the cause. I am shocked at the standards of some care provided, but I am impressed by the quality of others. What you don’t see on Twitter is the number of children’s home managers in the private sector who call my office to support the children in their care.

The private sector can have a role to play, as long as the standards are the highest. But they should be part of a picture completed with local authority and voluntary sector provision, and it is that which is increasingly shrinking from the market. Children are not ideological about their care.

Children repeatedly tell me that what they want is to stay near to family, friends and their wider networks. To live locally, in somewhere that feels as close to family as is possible. I want to see fewer barriers between different services so that health, education and home are all integrated; that’s what family feels like. So let’s make sure the system feels like that too.

We need national intervention to support the children with the highest need, but I want to see things located as locally as possible, unless it is not in their best interests, or not what the child wants. Children staying close to home, staying at their school, keeping links with their friends and family. And of course, in the long term, I want no child to be growing up in an institution.

I have been making the case within Government for local authorities to receive support with that investment, and I will continue to make the case.

I am well aware the NHS needs to be your partner in this, and I will support you in making that case. But we all need to act now.

Let me finish, by saying, the names of Star Hobson and Arthur Labinjo-Hughes weigh heavily on my mind, as I know they do on yours. And now new names, of the residential special schools Fullerton House, Wilsic Hall and Wheatley House are added to that list. A reminder that the reform we need to see is urgent. That there are children at risk as we meet here today, who cannot wait.

But I also believe that there is more that all of us here in this room can be doing for the children who are our collective responsibility. Whatever policy changes are introduced, they will always rely on the hundreds and thousands of dedicated individuals, like us, who work directly with families. They will rely on all of us in this room being curious enough to wonder what is going on in a child’s life; being empathetic enough to imagine how it might feel; and being brave enough to do whatever they need to for those children. I know this can be done, I’ve seen it be done brilliantly in so many places. And I want to support you in making sure that is the case every where. For every child. Every time.

Just as a parent would for their own child, I want every one of us working with children to be aiming not just for good enough, but for the best possible outcome. I want all of you to feel empowered to challenge a decision that isn’t ambitious enough, or isn’t in a child’s best interests. To be the person who asks ‘Is this what the child wants?’  or ‘Is this really the best we can do for them?’. When a child is told with only 24 hours that they will be moving to a new placement; when they are moved on from a loving foster home because it is cheaper. And I want to be with you in that, including making sure you have the resources to do so.

I know that I can do more. I have spoken about my Help at Hand service, which can provide advice and assistance to children, but I want it to achieve more. This year my team and I have been talking to children in care to ask who they go to in terms for support, and what they want in terms of advocacy.

One of the key themes to emerge was that children in care did not know about their right to advocacy. In many different areas of the country, my team visited children in care, often even children in care councils, to find that not one child knew they had a right to advocate. What my team heard was ‘I wish I’d know about this when…’ and that is the travesty, because my team also sees the advocates working tirelessly for children, and with professionals across the system. When advocacy works well it is improves outcomes and practice, but is also gives the child confidence and stability, a person they can rely on at the most difficult times.

We need to be ambitious in our approach to advocacy, so that we are putting children voice at the heart of the care system. We can’t build a system that works for children without hearing what they need. I want to see a culture change, so that children’s voices are embraced.

I want to work with you, and build partnerships between my advocacy service and yours to develop new models of working and empower children to shape their own care and improve systems.

I am committed to pushing for the changes we need to see at a policy level – the reforms to family support that will mean more families are given the genuine help that means they can stay together. The changes to the children’s social care system that will mean when they can’t, there are truly loving alternatives. Until that time, I want all of us here today to commit to never giving up on advocating for our children, for making sure their voices are heard, their views known, and their rights respected. I will be with you in that, so that in years to come we will look back with pride at what we have achieved.