This is my final year as Children’s Commissioner and so my last Annual Report in post. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to hold this Office and to work with so many people to stand up for the rights of children and to bring their experiences and their point of view to those with power over their lives.
Throughout my term, I have repeated my belief that most children in England grow up living happy and healthy lives. They receive a good education and they go on into apprenticeships, to university or jobs well-prepared for adulthood. We should be proud that this is a good country to grow up in for most of our children. But we should also continue to be relentless in holding those in power to account when they don’t do enough or fail those many vulnerable children who need extra help and support. It is those children who I have focussed on in particular over the last five years, and who are at the core of so much of our work. They are the children who fall out of school, have lower life chances and poorer health – the children who are consistently left behind.
Over the last twelve months I have continued to show again and again where these children are falling through gaps in the system: those growing up in care who are too often moved around the country, sometimes ending up in places they can’t even pinpoint on a map; the hundreds of thousands of children leaving full time education without even the basic qualifications; the children who are still struggling to access mental health services that are improving, but still a decade away from being able to treat all those who need help; the children who are ripe for criminal exploitation; and the children who are not being protected online by the big tech companies who hold so much influence over their lives.
This report sets out all that work and how we have continued to reveal the realities of life for millions of the most vulnerable children – not only those already in care but those on the edge of it, not quite meeting the criteria for being taken into the care of the state, but living in homes where they are at risk or experiencing trauma or neglect. Standing up for these children and hammering home their need for help to Ministers and Whitehall has accounted for so much of our work over the last year.
The scale of the challenge of keeping those vulnerable children safe is enormous. We estimate there are 2.1 million children in England in homes where there is either a problem with drug or alcohol abuse, domestic violence or serious parental mental health problems. There are also 128,000 children living in temporary accommodation, nearly 200,000 children referred to social services but not getting help, and 100,000 children caring for other family members. Our data work contains many more examples.
However, I am proud of all we have done to continue to fill the many gaps in the knowledge about these children’s lives. Sometimes government has been unaware, unwilling or just too slow to confront and address the huge problems facing many children. From the services provided to children with lower level mental health needs, and waiting times for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) appointments, to a children’s social care system that is in crisis, or even the most basic level of knowledge about how many children are locked up in this country at any one time, and where.
Inevitably, the COVID-19 crisis has had an impact on our work in recent months. From the moment the Government announced schools were closing and a lockdown was in place my office has worked tirelessly to ensure that the enormous impact of the lockdown on vulnerable children was understood and responded to. I am pleased that Government quickly made vulnerable children a priority in its early response and pleased too that many schools have remained open to provide places for them. However, my concerns that the majority of vulnerable children were not in school remained. Throughout the emergency I pressed the Government to prioritise support for vulnerable children so that they could attend, called for additional funding for struggling families and highlighted issues raised through our Help at Hand helpline, including the need to protect vulnerable care leavers.
Our local area profiles of child vulnerability, published in April 2020, helped government and councils identify how many vulnerable children there are in each local authority area, and those children at heightened risk during the lockdown. This analysis was also used to inform the Government’s own work to create a dashboard to monitor the safety and care of vulnerable children throughout the crisis.
In many ways, the COVID-19 crisis has forced government to act quickly to protect vulnerable children in a way none of us could have predicted even a few months ago. After the crisis passes, I hope that the Government will understand better the dangers facing many vulnerable kids, and that it will be bold and brave enough to recast our country so that we offer the best start in life to all children. I also hope that it recognises there are groups and communities who have been left behind and who are in desperate need of help.
For a country as wealthy as ours, it cannot be right that in 2018/19 over four million children in England were living in poverty – an increase of 600,000 children since 2010/11. This rise has taken place most significantly for in-work families, with 72% of poor children now growing up in working families compared to 58% in 2010/11. For these children, being in poverty is not a statistic, it is an inescapable and all-encompassing element of their lives. This poverty will not go away with coronavirus, and indeed it may even worsen. How the Government responds to this challenge will affect the lives of millions of children for many years to come. Any failure to address child poverty will lead to failures in many other policy areas which ministers say they wish to tackle, from gang-related crime to the rising costs of the care and SEND systems.
Helping children should not be a consequence of a once in a lifetime public health crisis, it should be a mission of every government of whatever political persuasion. It is undeniable that there are millions of children who are not part of our nation’s progress. Each one of them has the right to expect the same life chances as the millions of other children who are doing well. Identifying these children, standing up for their rights, making their experiences known to those in power and, crucially, trying to improve their lives, has been my mission since 2015, and I will continue to fight their corner for my remaining time as Children’s Commissioner for England.