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Just one in five children in England believe their views are important to the adults who run the country, while only 10% of teenagers believe they have the power to influence the issues they care about.

Findings in a landmark survey of children’s voices, The Big Ambition, published today by the Children’s Commissioner for England, show this generation of children is engaged with the world, full of practical solutions and optimistic for their futures – but they are frustrated and disempowered because their experiences are rarely reflected in policy making.

At the same time, the volume of responses – which, combined with the Commissioner’s 2021 survey The Big Ask, provides, to the office’s knowledge, the world’s biggest survey evidence base from children – shows how keen children are to resolve the kinds of issues and worries that were previously unique to adults. They want to be asked what they think and their responses listened to, with action taken to affect change.

The report, to be launched formally in Parliament today alongside the Commissioner’s 16 youth Ambassadors, draws on the insights of the children who responded to The Big Ambition and offers practical, straightforward solutions to overcoming these: from staying safe online and challenging harmful myths around body image, to lessons in how to manage their money and more enriching activities that divert away from crime.

It also calls for shifts in policies to focus on care rather than custody, to protect their childhoods and provide specialist support: an end to the practice of making profit-making from children’s homes, raising the age of criminal responsibility and pushing police forces to direct young offenders towards positive activities that divert them from crime or exploitation.

It also recommends that children with mental health or special educational needs get the right support within one school term and that every child should receive an annual health check from a school nurse.  

Children’s Commissioner for England Dame Rachel de Souza said:

“Children in this country constantly amaze me with their insight and awareness. This is a generation of children faced with ever-evolving technology, stiff competition for jobs and university places, a postcode lottery in access to good healthcare, parents struggling with rising costs and lives played out over social media – but rather than becoming despondent or pessimistic, they are charged with energy and a passion for making change.

“Yet – disappointingly – only one in five feel listened to by the adults in power. Without the proper structures in place to consult with them, it means when it comes to elections, manifestos, promises from their local MPs or councillors, their opinions are too easily ignored. They are talked about, rather than to – they are not truly heard.

“Childhood is precious and should be protected. My vision for children is one where they believe in their ability to drive change without bearing the weight of adult responsibilities. This report, which marks the halfway point of my term, is a call to action to all politicians and policy makers in this general election year: listen to children and act on what they are telling you.”

Covering 10 themes of family, education, social care, youth work, online safety, health, safety from crime, jobs and skills, unaccompanied children seeking asylum, and thoughts on ‘a better world’, key statistics in The Big Ambition include:

Empowered to make change: Just over one in five children (22%) agreed that people who run the country listened to them – this was the most negatively answered question in The Big Ambition survey. Eight-year-olds were the most likely to agree, while 17-year-olds were least likely. Only one in 10 teenagers (ages 12-18) and 29% of adults responding on behalf of under-sixes agreed that they felt empowered to change issues they care about;

Body image: Less than half of children (49%) agreed with the statement ‘You feel happy with the way you look’. 60% of boys agreed, compared to 40% of girls. This was the biggest difference between boys and girls of any question;

Having somewhere to call home: 84% of responses by and on behalf of children with a social workers agreed they had somewhere to call home, compared to 95% of children without a social worker. 85% of children with a social worker (and adults responding on their behalf) agreed they lived with people who made them feel loved and cared for;

Growing up in poverty: 71% of children agree they have a healthy diet – though this declines to just 65% among 17-year-olds. 83% of children agree their family gets to spend quality time together, but only 69% knew about money and life skills. Among children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) this drops to fewer than half (48%). 73% of children with SEND, and adults responding on their behalf, agreed their family has everything it needs, compared to 90% of children without SEND;

Enriching schools: just 60% of children agreed they enjoyed school or college – but this rises to 75% when asked about whether they have great teachers who support them. Among children not in education, just 48% agreed they felt safe and protected in their local area, compared to 73% of those going to school or college;

Community safety: The feeling of safety in their local area was highest among younger children – 80% of six -to 11-year-olds agreed they felt safe and protected in their local area, compared to 66% of 12- to-18-year-olds. Children aged seven were most likely to agree they felt safe (82%), compared to 62% of 15-year-olds, and there were notable differences around the country; 61% in Croydon felt safe, compared to 79% in Richmond upon Thames; and

Fun things to do: Three-quarters of children (72%) agreed they had fun activities to do near where they live – this decreases with age, peaking at age nine (82%) and falling to just over half of 17-year-olds (54%). Children told the Commissioner in The Big Ambition that activities should be better funded, accessible for every child, held in-person and easy to find as an alternative to falling into crime or gang activity.

Only 1% of children responded positively to all the questions posed.

In response to the findings, the Children’s Commissioner has set out 33 ambitions that, taken together, offer a vision to transform childhood – not only protecting its importance but also making it safe, healthy and joyful.

Underpinning each of these ambitions are clear actions to achieve them:

“The government should listen to children’s ideas more and children shouldn’t have to pass their idea to an adult to make it happen. Children should be able to change the world too.” – Girl, 11. 

“I think school is a great place for us to go everyday and we learn new things, which I will forever be grateful for.” – Girl, 14.

“End child poverty and ensure all children have the same opportunities.” – Boy, 15. 

“That foster children and refugees should be treated the same…it is the government’s job to make sure they are loved.” – Girl, 11.

“There should be more activities for the youth to do/ partake in and make them feel included no matter their background to lower the amount of crime.” – Girl, 15. 

“Instead of investing so much money into keeping guys in prison, invest that money into them before they end up in prison – Child, age unknown. 

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