I was happy to be able to provide a written submission to an evidence session of the Public Accounts Committee discussing the recent National Audit Office (NAO) report on Supporting Vulnerable Adolescents.
“As Children’s Commissioner, I and my office, are able to represent and support vulnerable children and young people holistically, putting the child’s needs at the centre, without departmental responsibility boundaries. I talk to children about any support that they need and look across social care, education, family, healthcare, youth justice, online safety, play and communities, and jobs and skills, and always considering those who are the most vulnerable. This puts the office in the unique position of working with different government departments and also directly with local authorities to represent young people as a whole. I was pleased that my office was able to support and feed into the NAO’s report on ‘Support for vulnerable adolescents’.
I, and my office, see some of the lack of join up between government departments, and often within different teams in the same department, with regards to vulnerable children and young people. This can also be the case between central and local government. All of which has an impact on the definition and identification of vulnerable young people and their families and the lack of join up of services and funding of services to support them. I saw this through my work on attendance when I asked local authorities about the numbers of children in their area and those not attending school. Most local authorities were only able to provide estimates based on Office for National Statistics population estimates which are not expected to be an accurate count at a local area level. This is primarily because of lack of information sharing between local authorities, some multi-academy trusts, the NHS, home office and youth justice and so particularly vulnerable young people are falling through the gap because they are not being identified. This is a safeguarding concern as, for some young people, they may not be on school roll and may not be known by the local authority so could be at real risk of harm. There were a few local authority areas that did have very good local data sharing agreements and sharing of data and information which shows that this is possible. However, children and families can move across local authority boundaries which shows the importance of sharing of information and data at a national level. [i]
The office has also seen a lack of engagement in research and data and capturing the voices of children, young people and families to find out what they need. In March and April 2021, I launched The Big Ask survey, an open survey to all children in England and received responses from over 550,000 children (the largest ever survey of children) including thousands of vulnerable children and young people such as children in care, young carers, those with special educational needs and those in secure settings such as mental health hospitals. Nearly 260,000 children provided open text responses about the barriers that children and young people face for their future. Vulnerable children raise many issues that cross departmental boundaries, such as their family, education, future job prospects and worries about having enough money, their mental and physical health, their personal safety, having somewhere nice to live and somewhere to play and be outside. All of these were common themes across all children but those who are the most vulnerable face the most barriers. These barriers are often complex and overlapping and therefore cross departmental responsibilities such as education, social care, health, housing, income, and the justice system. As shown in the Childhood vulnerability report which was used by the NAO.
Through my work on attendance and the government commissioned independent Family Review, I have seen where collaboration between departments, arms length bodies’ and with local government can work such as with the Attendance Action Alliance and family programmes such as Supporting Families and Family Hubs where colleagues from various departments such as DLUHC, DfE, DHSC are working together. However, I would agree with the NAO report that this collaboration seems to happen at a programme level but not at an overall strategic level which it needs to be to provide the proper support for vulnerable children and young people.
My office will be doing further work on redefining vulnerable children and young people over the next year based on the existing vulnerability framework but also learning from the recent research that my office has conducted such as The Big Ask, the Independent Family Review, research on School Attendance, Children with SEND and Children in Care. I would encourage that there is central strategic co-ordination that uses this definition and works with my office to better identify and support these vulnerable children and young people. “