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Introduction by Dame Rachel de Souza, Children’s Commissioner for England

When I took up post as Children’s Commissioner, over two years ago now, I wanted to make sure that every child in England felt listened to. But more than that, I wanted the adults around them to mirror the ambition they have for themselves by striving to achieve the best possible outcomes and care for every child, wherever they are in the country and whatever their needs.

I spent my first year in post listening. I travelled across England visiting the different settings where children live, speaking to parents and the professionals that support them, and of course, hearing directly from the children themselves, through undertaking the largest ever survey of children, The Big Ask. Over half a million children, through the survey and those I visited, told me of their hopes for the future and the barriers they felt were preventing them from reaching their aspirations.

My priority for the second year was to use what children had told me in The Big Ask to design ambitious solutions to the questions they posed. I didn’t just want to communicate the data, I wanted to do innovative and unique work that would further elucidate what children, and their families’ experiences are today. Children who are strip searched. Children in youth justice settings. Children living in children’s homes or in mental health settings. And children who arrive in England seeking asylum.

Across all the pillars set by The Big Ask: family, children’s social care, community, schools, health, jobs and skills, and better world, I have wanted to demonstrate how, collectively, by listening to and understanding children’s needs and experiences, particularly of the most vulnerable, we can make their lives better.

This was particularly true of families. Across all groups and regions of England, the message from The Big Ask was universal: family forms a fundamental pillar of children’s lives and of their happiness, but as adults we have become too shy about speaking about just how important it is. This year, I published my Family Review, revealing new insights into the dynamic and changing nature of childhood, how children define family and the ‘protective effect’ it has. Family, in all its forms is a support network that children turn to in times of difficulty but also in times of celebrating achievement. My research showed that by looking at family through a child’s lens and putting it at the heart of all policy and decision-making, both at a national and local level, we can create impactful services that nurture stronger and happier future generations.

It was also important to me that we captured what family life meant to those living in care, or with care experience. They told me that family was just as important to them, and that they wanted the same things from it – love, stability, enjoyment – even if that was sometimes more complicated to achieve. In addition to my Family Review, this clear message has informed my work on what a children’s social care system should be. One that will do whatever it can to support families so they can safely stay together, but where that is not possible, it should be a system that ensures that every child feels safe and lives in stable, loving homes that are truly familial, and one where this support network does not abruptly end when they turn 18.
Feeling safe and supported whether at home, at school, or in their communities is important to children at all stages of their lives. It is not surprising that when children feel safe, they are happier overall. But sadly, we continue to hear from children who have been exposed to inexcusable trauma in their young lives and where they haven’t always been able to trust the adults whose job it is to keep them safe.

This year, I have continued my relentless focus on making the online world safer for children, hearing from thousands of children and parents on exposure to harmful content online. I have encouraged Ministers and Parliamentarians to ensure a robust Online Safety Bill is enacted as soon as possible that will see us be as concerned with keeping children safe online as we are in the analogue world, and when this doesn’t happen, appropriate action taken.

My team’s work has also looked into the prevalence and deeply concerning practices of children being strip searched and the lack of consistent measures in place to safeguard children in their communities. Whilst I am pleased that some of my recommendations to address this including better training among police forces and a child-first approach to policing have been accepted, we cannot forget that this work stemmed from the bravery of one 15-year-old girl who told her story: Child Q, who was strip searched while at school in Hackney.

It is in this vein, that I want to use my Annual Report to thank every child and young person that has spoken to me and my team throughout this year. From the surveys, focus groups, roundtable discussions, visits to settings up and down the country including those accommodating unaccompanied children seeking asylum, and the children and young people that call my Help at Hand service every day. Whilst this year has undoubtedly been challenging, there have also been opportunities to make progress with the Schools White Paper, the Special Educational Needs and Alternative Provision Green Paper, Hewitt Review and the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care where my office has been able to contribute insightful research and practical policy recommendations to shape the consultation processes, all informed by the voices of children.

In my Attendance Audit, hundreds of children and professionals spoke to us as part of an ambitious programme of research to understand the barriers that children face to attending school including speaking candidly about bullying; poor mental health; poor physical health; having a special educational need but feeling unsupported. Whilst there is still more to do to reach my goal of 100% attendance, by better understanding these contributing factors, we can identify what needs to be done to address them.

I want to thank the children that took part in activities such as The Big Ask Maths Week Challenge, using real data from The Big Ask to find out what other young people told us about their wellbeing and future priorities, or used our mental health guides for both primary and secondary school children to help them talk about their feelings and where they can go to for help, and of course, the brilliant young people that have given up their time to be part of my Children’s Advisory Board and Care Experienced Advisory Board.

This is what ‘better world’ is all about. It encompasses children in England’s ambitious, socially-conscious, reforming vision of the world they want to live in. They want to be involved, get stuck in and contribute to a world of equality, diversity and inclusivity.

Looking ahead, my mission remains: I want the UK to be the best place in the world to grow up. Where children and young people’s needs and voices are at the front and centre of thinking for policy makers both in addressing today’s challenges and supporting children to achieve their future ambitions and thrive.