All children should have the right to the best start in life with the love, security and opportunities they need to grow and flourish. Most of the 11.5 million children growing up in England have just those overwhelmingly positive opportunities. For them, England is a great place to grow up.
However, there is no room for complacency. Concerns over the growing pressures of 24/7 communications, mental health and digital presence have continued to come to the fore over the last year. Childhood changes and for the ‘smartphone generation’ the changes have been swifter and more far reaching than any of us may have imagined. Highlighting and responding to these changes have been a high priority for me during the year and will continue to be so.
We must also acknowledge that for a significant minority of children, the experience of growing up is not as positive as it should be. There is an increasing population of children who are growing up in care and many more are in need of protection. Whilst the number of children in custody continues to fall, the population is still very high when compared to other countries in Europe. As Children’s Commissioner, my central priority is helping all of these vulnerable children overcome and break the cycle of disadvantage – this is at the heart of all that I do.
Children’s views and experiences are still too often overlooked when decisions are made and it is my job to be ‘the eyes and ears’ of children in the system. It is my responsibility to bring concerns over the areas of children’s lives where difficulties are occurring to the fore. I am indebted to the many children and young people who have shared their experiences with me throughout the year which have guided and shaped my work and to the professionals who have shared their expertise. This report demonstrates how I have addressed the issues facing children growing up in England in my first year in office.
I am also grateful to the public bodies and organisations who have provided my team with data that has enabled us to understand the experience of children in the system and to identify where change and improvement are needed. My powers of entry enable me to ensure that the rights of individual children who are in care or living away from home are protected. To this end, I and my team undertake regular visits to children in custody, living in residential homes and in hospital to ensure their wellbeing. Again, I am grateful to the statutory bodies for their co-operation.
In my first year of office there have been many highlights. The publication of Ambitious for Children in July 2015 set out my strategic priorities for my six-year term of office. It focuses on five areas of policy priority:
- Enriching and supporting positive childhoods. This new area of activity began with the creation of a ‘Growing Up Digital’ taskforce in 2015, an extended Takeover Challenge and new work on access to mental health support;
- Children growing up in care are a particular responsibility for me in law – this year saw the launch of the first Care Monitor report which highlighted the areas of the care system young people felt needed improving and concluded with recommendations to support stability in care, offer better help to recover from trauma, and allow greater permanence so that all children can remain receiving support until they are 25 if they wish. My advisory and assistance service for children in care and those living away from home was reviewed as an early priority and will be relaunched in 2016;
- Children’s Commissioners have a long track record of seeking to protect children from harm and neglect. I was proud to launch a high profile report into child sexual abuse in the family during the year. The report, which established the significant prevalence of abuse, will be built on in the next year to identify how to prevent abuse, improve service response and provide children with the support they need to recover. I am also piloting new approaches to child-centred child protection;
- Reducing inequalities and changing the odds for the most vulnerable children is a major area of activity for me which last year saw an important report on early years and life chances. We have continued our membership of the National Preventive Mechanism, to help improve conditions of detention and prevent cruel or degrading treatment. To this end we have regularly visited places of detention to assess and report on children’s rights, views and experiences and to gain a better understanding of the use of segregation in youth justice and promote alternatives. Improving the response to and support for the high number of child refugees and unaccompanied asylum seekers entering the UK since the summer of last year has also been a high priority. I also published a report into family separation due to immigration rules;
- Putting children at the heart of decision making.
While delivering this work, we have continued to improve the value for money we provide, with an operational budget of £2.904m for 2015-16 down from £2.924m in 2014-15. A major reorganisation of our team has taken place to enable us to deliver the ambitious plan going forward with a strengthening of our strategic, evidence, communication and digital roles.
I will continue to build on the achievements of the past year as I take Ambitious for Children into its first full year of delivery. It will take place against the ongoing backdrop of opportunities and challenges for children. I will use my unique powers to systematically identify when children are being let down and work nationally and locally to improve the odds and life chances of the most vulnerable young people. My work will also seek out new approaches that put children’s needs and best interests at the heart of everything that affects their lives.
I want all children to have the opportunities they need to flourish and am determined to continue to help bring about real change for those who need it.