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Draft speaking notes – speech to the RE Council Speech 3rd May 2023

Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here with you today to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the RE Council.  

I qualified as an RE teacher in 1991, after my degree in Theology and Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London and my PGCE at Kings. I spent two years as a Head of RE in an Oxfordshire comprehensive where I set up RE at GCSE and RE and Philosophy at A level. I then moved to Tower Hamlets, working as the head of RE and PSHE. The Bangladeshi community was still arriving and despite having to cope with BNP activism, overcrowding and learning English I saw a community, that revered education & RE, rocket boost its educational outcomes.  

After my son was born I worked part time as a subject lead in Religious Studies at Luton Sixth form college growing the subject from six pupils to hundreds and starting Philosophy A level too. Spearheading Diversity work, we set up student training groups, celebrating the hugely diverse student body, setting up a prayer room & facing and transforming the challenges – radicalisation/ forced marriage and girls education – with the community. Then as a DHT/ Academy principal and Trust Leader, I was always championing RE. I’ve engaged with so many types of RE – experiential/ Church environments/ world faiths. It was great as a Trust leader to appoint Richard Kueh to build our Abrahamic faiths KS3 curriculum – ensuring it was knowledge rich and diving deeply into beliefs and concepts… 

As a former RE teacher myself, I know first-hand how enriching the subject can be for children and young people. It’s a chance for them to learn and understand more about the world, other cultures and religions, and also about themselves. RE helps us understand the different faith and communities which make up modern Britain and crucially, RE is a place where these young people can discuss important and exciting philosophical, religious and moral conundrums in safe spaces. 

The Covid pandemic crystallised what those of us who have committed our lives to education have always known: that schools are about so much more than teaching and learning. They sit at the heart of their communities, trusted by families, able to reach those who others cannot.  

Coming into my role as Children’s Commissioner, I knew that I needed to do something significant to hear from children, to understand what they wanted and what they needed. 

That is why I launched The Big Ask, a survey for all children in England aged 4-17 so that I could hear about their aspirations, the things they care about, and the barriers that hold them back. With over half a million responses, it is the largest ever survey of children conducted in Britain, and second only in the world. 

When I asked these children about the barriers they perceived to be holding them back, one child said, “not learning the basic life skills at school and having something more like spirituality”.  

Responses like these are why it is vital that in my role as Children’s Commissioner, I work alongside our excellent teachers and headteachers to make sure that students have access to great RE provision. RE lessons offer an opportunity for students to learn these important life skills: debate, listening skills, and how to speak passionately on a variety of topics. For me, good RE lessons are the cornerstone of creating a modern and tolerant Britain.  

It was clear from children’s responses how much they valued their education. They are a brilliantly ambitious generation, and see education as the thing which will help them achieve those ambitions and live the lives they dream of. 

It was because of what children told me that I made attendance in education such a core part of my work – because children can only benefit from an education if they are actually there. I have an ambition for 100% attendance in schools, which is an ambitious goal, but one which I want all of us to make our mission.  

As I continue to talk to children about their experience of school, it is clear they see them as being about so much more than their education. When I ask children about where they most want to go for help, so often the response is the same – they don’t want to ‘go’ somewhere for help, they want help to meet them where they are.  

And mostly, this means in school. They want teachers to understand their mental health needs and be able to guide them to support. They want to learn about life skills, relationships and how to set themselves up for the future. And they want schools to understand when things are difficult for them at home. I know that so many of you here today provide that care, attention and love – seeing all aspects of a child’s life and understanding that, for a child to learn well, they need home life to be going well too. 

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.  

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 2023, 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 carried out new and innovative analysis to provide a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the data.  

We need to celebrate, understand, and invest in families. Getting family right has a wider impact on our lives. Children are happier and more successful as adults if they are happy at home.  

My review recognised the importance of family and sheds new light on what modern family life is. I have found that there are 8.2 million families with children in the UK – some of which are headed up by married couples, some by cohabiting couples, and some by a lone parent. 

And we found that family structure has gradually changed over the last 20 years. There are fewer married couples. There are more couples cohabiting. And there are fewer ‘traditional’ nuclear family units today. 

44% of children born at the start of the century, were not in a nuclear family for their full childhood, compared to 21% of children born in 1970.  And over 80,000 children are in care, and many more in less formal arrangements, including kinship care. 

So, as you can see, family is dynamic and we need to find new ways to stay up to date with how it is changing so we can support it effectively. But despite the change during the pandemic and families coming in different formations, and sizes. What I want to recognise today is that there is one thing that unifies all families.  

Irrespective of ethnicity, gender or age, the most frequently used word to describe family was love. And they all recognise that family has a protective effect. It insulates us from life’s adversity, and every child should have the benefits of it.  

It turns out that the boy who told me: ‘A loving family is worth more than money and will give you guidance support and love and advice’ was exactly right. 

But I also found that sometimes, things got too much for families to cope with alone. 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.  

That is why part two of my Family review looked at delivering services that are designed around children and families, not ‘service users’. Because we need to see services that build strong, trusting relationships with families, modelling the loving relationships we value within families.  

Families tell me that they want services that are local, available when they need them, and utterly reliable – just like the strongest families are. We need to reset the conversation to understand that all families have their strengths, and all have their difficulties, and that there is no shame in seeking help. We need to place the family at the centre, rather than the structure of competing bureaucracies. 

And for those children who do not grow up with their birth parents or their birth family, I want the system to replicate the protective effect of loving relationships, strong support, and shared experiences, even if they are not found in a family setting.  

As Children’s Commissioner, with a statutory duty towards children in care, I want every single child to grow up in a loving family, even if that cannot be with their biological one. I have heard from so many children who love and care for their adoptive, foster, or kinship family – and I want that especially for those who need it most.  

And this includes the children arriving in the UK seeking refuge from conflict, fleeing persecution, or as victims of human trafficking and exploitation. In the last 18 months, my team and I have spoken to children living in hotels – many of whom are acutely vulnerable: frightened, with no knowledge of their rights and usually without family or support networks.   

That’s why I have been vocal with my concerns about the Government’s Illegal Migration Bill, which, in its current form, will deny children who have arrived in this country irregularly from seeking asylum. A child is a child, no matter their country of origin, which is why I will be continuing to make the case for the protection of vulnerable and traumatised children arriving in this country.  

The UK has a long history of protecting children – its offer of sanctuary to my mother in the 1950s opened doors for her, and ultimately to my brothers and I that would otherwise never have been possible. And it is a reputation that cements our standing in the world, of which we should be proud.  

I believe there is a real opportunity to be grasped at the moment, as reforms are being considered across the system. The Government has now published its Implementation Strategy on children’s social care and its ‘SEND and alternative provision improvement plan’, which is focused on supporting children with special educational needs. Health is also facing 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.  

 But there is another vital element I want to talk about today, and that is communities. Because children and families don’t live in isolation, and nobody is better placed than you to understand the value of community.  

Schools are of course a vital part of that community. I recently set out my ambitions for a childcare system that truly works for children and families, and I envision schools sitting at the heart of it, with before and after school provision as standard, so that children have somewhere safe to play and develop their interests.  

It was a cause of real concern for me how many children responding to The Big Ask were deeply worried about their personal safety, particularly young people aged 16 to 17 years and those in the most deprived areas. 

Research suggests that children are most likely to be the victims of serious violence in the hours immediately after the school gates close should give us all pause to reconsider what it means to work together to keep children safe.  

Just as I worry about those children at risk of violence on the street when they leave their school, I worry about those who get drawn into dangerous territory online. Children don’t think – as adults do – about the ‘online’ and ‘offline’ world.  

For children the worlds are one, and we need to take their safety online as seriously as we do offline. We must be the adults they need us to be, and provide safety in these spaces. I think so often of the children who have been let down – Frankie Thomas, Molly Russell – who have been drawn down dangerous avenues, in a world that has been allowed to run wild.  

My team is currently exploring the role that online pornography plays in sexual assaults children suffer, because I am so concerned about the effect on children of what they view. I have been, and remain, absolutely clear that we need an Online Safety Act, and we need one soon.  Of course, the online world can provide previously unimaginable opportunities. Of course, free speech must be protected. But there can be no compromise when it comes to keeping children safe. 

Every day I speak to civil servants, MPs, Ministers – of the religious and government variety – to try and deliver the same message. That the children of this country are hopeful, ambitious and positive. It is up to us to deliver for them so that they can have the childhoods they deserve, in a family that loves them, a school that supports them, a community that embraces them and of course, fantastic RE teachers. I know that is a mission on which we are allies, and I am confident it is one we can achieve. 

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