This is my first annual report since taking up the role of Children’s Commissioner for England at the beginning of March 2021. It is such an honour to have been appointed and I am excited about the challenges ahead and the opportunities to bring real change to children’s lives.
Part of this job is having the right answers to big questions. It is what children expect from us as adults – having some answers to the things that they are concerned about. Sometimes they may not even be able to say it yet, but it is what they expect. I have spent my working life trying to get those answers right, firstly as a teacher, then a headteacher and then as the CEO of a family of schools. I will do the same as Children’s Commissioner.
If you work with children, it is tempting to see those big questions as daunting. In 2021, as we emerge from the Covid pandemic, the challenges are in many ways greater than at any time since the Second World War. Yet there are also opportunities. A previous generation came out of the trauma of the 1940s with a blueprint for a National Health Service, an expanded education system and social security to protect the most vulnerable. They remade the social settlement.
There is no doubt that for our children the last year has been one like no other. The sacrifices they have made have been enormous, from not seeing friends and family, to spending months out of school and missing out on so many of the things children love to do. The Covid pandemic has also revealed some of the major structural barriers that exist today which are holding back our children.
As life now begins to return to normal, I believe we are at a pivotal moment when it is time to take stock of where we are, understand the impact of the pandemic on children’s lives and build a consensus around the vision and ambition needed to ensure every child in England has a good childhood and reaches their full potential.
That task will be helped by the excellent work done by this office under my predecessor Anne Longfield over the last six years. Most of this report covers Anne’s final year in post, from the beginning of the first national lockdown at the end of March 2020, to just before schools reopened for a second time a year later. It shines a light on a range of issues affecting children – particularly the most vulnerable, like improving the children’s social care system, making sure we have children’s mental health services that meet every child’s needs, helping those children who have fallen behind during lockdown to catch up and protecting the rights of children in the secure estate.
In my first month as Children’s Commissioner, I launched the ‘Childhood Commission’, to put the prospects and welfare of children at the heart of our economic recovery. I want it to have the spirit and the ambition of the Beveridge Report – something that leads to long term changes that improve the chances of every single child, whatever their early standing in life and wherever they are in England.
The Childhood Commission will re-cast Beveridge’s ‘five giants’ for children today, identifying the barriers which prevent them having the best childhoods, the best preparation for successful futures, and a better life than their parents. It will not focus only on the problems that have been highlighted and amplified by the Covid pandemic but will also address the policy shortfalls that have held back the lives of many children for decades. It will propose bold and radical solutions with measurable impact on children’s lives, and ambitious targets by which Government and local agencies can be held to account for progress.
At its heart is ‘The Big Ask’, the largest ever consultation with children in this country. The scale of this survey means I will have heard from children from every background about how the pandemic has affected them, their hopes and ambitions for the future, and what is holding them back. It puts children’s voices at the centre of the Commission, with their views, experiences and ideas shaping the way we deliver better outcomes not just for them, but for all our children in the decade ahead.
When I hand over this role in six years’ time, I want to be able to look back at six years in which the adults in power in this country have done even more for children than the post-war generation. I want to see not just a golden age of policy-making, but a golden age of delivery. This report shows how Children’s Commissioner’s Office can help drive that change, as well as holding to account those who make the big decisions about children’s lives.
I am in no doubt that the experiences of this last year will have changed our children. But I am optimistic this does not have to be a lost generation. It is our job to make sure this is a turning point that changes children’s lives for the better. Children should leave this pandemic with the knowledge they were able to weather the trickiest of storms, and that we are there to help them through the next stage. When they come to us with their questions about how we can improve their lives, it is our responsibility to have the right answers.