Half way through my term as Children’s Commissioner, I am as ambitious and aspirational for children as I ever was. This role is a constant reminder that a childhood that is happy and full of love is the best springboard to adult life that any of us could have; that children are resourceful, and achieve great things, even in adversity; and, sadly, that many children live in such difficult conditions that the state has to step in to help.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is bound into our laws and in many ways this annual report is an assessment of this country’s delivery of the fundamental right of every child to a healthy, stable and safe childhood. Most children in England are doing well, yet sadly, millions of children in England are living vulnerable lives. That is why the core of our work remains focused on four particular groups: children living behind closed doors, children invisible to the system, children in care and digital children.
Over the last year, we have continued to shine a light on the experiences of the most vulnerable children. Our series of ‘Children’s Voices’ reports gave first-hand experiences of children who are rarely heard, living in a number of different vulnerable settings. Our vulnerability study published last year showed how many children are living with multiple risks in their lives. This year’s study will build on that work, seeking to identify those children falling through the cracks in the system because one problem on its own not deemed sufficiently serious to warrant help: children living with parents with mental health and substance abuse problems, for instance, or young carers in overcrowded accommodation. By producing estimates by local authority, we will seek to develop the framework into a live interactive map, so that childhood vulnerabilities can be tracked, compared with other areas and we can identify where children are falling through the gaps and need help.
Last year our briefing for Parliamentarians highlighting the lack of available care and treatment for children suffering from mental health illnesses prompted much debate about the failings of the present system and we contributed to the joint select committee’s report into the issue. We will continue to campaign for a properly-funded, joined-up mental health care system which provides treatment for children when they need it, not just when they reach a crisis point.
Our briefing on children falling through the gaps in the schools system has also contributed to the discussion around the ‘off-rolling’ of vulnerable children from school rolls, and this is an issue we will be working on in more detail.
In March, we published our ‘Growing Up North’ report, sparking a debate about the unacceptable gap between the educational outcomes of the poorest children in the north of England and those in London and the need to put children at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse. Our study of the experiences of children growing up in service families showed the unique issues facing young people whose parents are serving in the Armed Forces.
The special responsibility we have to speak up for children within the care system remains a key part of our work. The number of cases coming to us through our Help at Hand advice and assistance service for children in care continues to grow. Our team of advisors responded to over 1,500 enquiries last year – double the number of the previous year. Our second annual Stability Index highlighted how many children are ‘pinged’ around the care system between social workers, placements and schools, leading to the beginning of a change in the way that stability is managed in the care system. The launch of our ‘IMO’ digital hub, linking children in care councils together and offering a space for children in care and care leavers to share their experiences and access special offers, is an exciting initiative that we want to continue to thrive over the coming years.
Technology can help children to learn and connect, but it is clear that social media is exposing children to significant emotional risks and that more needs to be done to make sure the time they do spend online is healthy. Our ‘Life in Likes’ report shone a light on the experiences of children aged 8-12 growing up amidst the whirlwind of social media – chasing ‘likes’ and trying to emulate the lives of the famous and glamorous. To help build children’s digital resilience we created simplified terms and conditions for apps they sign up to and a Digital 5 a Day guide to help parents talk to their kids about using their time online healthily and responsibly. The pressure is now on the social media companies to change their behaviour and to take more responsibility and provide more transparency. We have also successfully campaigned for a new clause covering the digital rights of children to be added to the UNCRC, a huge achievement. We will continue to push for more to be done to address the imbalances in power that exist between the internet giants and children.
I am proud of the excellent team we have built to deliver this work. We work in many different ways to bring these important issues to the attention of the Government, Parliament, local authorities and agencies, the public and the media. Where something needs changing, we will continue to fight for it. Where it needs to be seen and understood, we will shine a light on it. This year we will campaign for a better deal for children in government spending and we want to build a national consensus for fair funding for services for children and for families with children. The enormous financial challenges facing local children’s services risk many more children falling through the gaps. We will continue to argue for early intervention in the lives of the most vulnerable children, before major issues arise.
Every day I am struck by the resilience and creativity of the vulnerable children I meet: the self-harming teenagers campaigning for better mental health services, children in care building support networks for younger children, children looking after sick parents but not telling anyone for fear they will be taken into care. It remains an enormous privilege to represent these children in Parliament and Whitehall. As I enter my fourth year as Children’s Commissioner, we will continue to be their independent voice and to do all we can to make sure their views and interests are at the heart of policy-making and shape the world around them.