At a school in Newcastle this year, I met a group of sixth formers who talked to me about what needed to change for them to have the kind of future they aspired to. They were gritty, realistic and knew where they wanted to get to in life, but they couldn’t see how to get there. Later that day, I did a local radio phone-in. A boy rang and talked about how he really wanted to be a pilot and to train at the aviation school at Newcastle airport.
But he couldn’t afford the bus fare from Newcastle so he had given up on that aspiration. This boy didn’t know anyone in his family who had a job, yet he had forged an ambition to be a pilot, which was then smashed for want of a bus fare.
I call it ‘the straw that breaks…’ This boy probably had so many odds stacked against him, that a simple bus fare seemed an insurmountable obstacle. We need MPs to be alert to the everyday reality of children such as these – voteless and usually voiceless – and to champion their rights to self-determination. And we need every corner of government to do its bit. This is what being the Children’s Commissioner is all about: the eyes, ears and voice of children within Government. While my role is an important check on the system, I have always taken the view that I can achieve more by working with Government, wherever possible. Hence I have worked in the past year, for instance, with ministers on the Serious Violence Taskforce; with the Chief Medical Officer on advice for families about children’s social media use; with the Department for Culture Media and Sport on a duty of care for social media companies; with Ofsted on off-rolling and illegal schools; and with NHS England on the development of its new long term plan.
My team undertakes complex, multi-agency data collections which are crucial for informing Government policy. We regularly provide data analysis and presentations about the causes and effects of childhood vulnerability in Parliament and throughout government.
And there does at last stir within government a recognition of the signs of childhood in crisis. The first national survey of children’s mental health for 14 years, published last October, showed one in ten children of primary school age had at least one mental disorder (using standard international classifications). Rising numbers of teenagers are excluded, anxious, depressed; at worst, stabbed, suicidal or forced to enter care. These are all signs screaming at society that something has gone wrong. A national inquiry will begin this year into the protection of adolescents at risk of criminal exploitation. Plans and strategies and panels and taskforces to tackle gang-related crime sprout in the offices of Whitehall and local authorities, police and Parliament. An Exclusions review is awaited, hopefully to
focus on how to keep more children within the protective structure of the school system. Ofsted is proposing changes to inspections, shifting the focus away from exam performance data and onto what schools do to help all children achieve their potential, rather than just the easiest to teach. All schools will now have to teach about relationships, and children are at last having lessons about mental health.
I welcome all of this; indeed my office contributes to much of it. But it has taken an explosion of violence on the streets and a rise in teenage suicides for the underlying needs of children to become visible, and for ministers to begin to act. The Children’s Commissioner’s Office (CCO) Vulnerability Framework has been developed to make these invisible needs visible to policymakers. We can show how many young kids (52,000, or 1 in 100) live in a household where an adult has all three of the most dangerous risk factors for children: they are violent, dependent on drugs or alcohol, and demonstrating severe symptoms of mental or psychiatric disorders. We can tell you how many babies under 1 are in these households (8,300). Some 123,630 children under 16 are technically homeless – living in bed and breakfasts, hostels, or hastily converted office blocks. The number of children permanently excluded from primary school has doubled in 4 years, while permanent exclusions from secondary schools have increased by two thirds. I regularly hear now from schools that they have to wash their pupils’ clothes, feed them and sometimes even house them: one primary school head rang my office last year because two of her pupils were sleeping with their mother on a shop floor.
Children are tough and resilient but many of them cannot thrive without additional help. I know that there is plenty of excellent work being done to support children by schools, councils and health professionals up and down the country. But with the 30th anniversary of the landmark Children Act this year, it is time to focus on the ‘forgotten’ part of section 17 of the Act – the duty of local authorities not just to safeguard children in need but to promote their welfare. Analysis by the Department for Education last year showed 1 in 10 children in England had been registered ‘in need’ at some point over a three year period. We need to act now to help these children. Welcome as all the taskforces and panels and the focus on youth violence is, and urgent though their work, the evidence shows that intervention in kids’ lives needs to come before problems spiral in order to be most effective. This year I will produce a manifesto for childhood, to show how a society shaped around the needs of children should look.
The building blocks of a good childhood haven’t changed – secure relationships, a decent home, inspiring schools, and time. Time perhaps above all: time to play, and grow, to spend with your family and peers, time to explore, time to think. Our national, representative, survey of children, conducted to inform this business plan (and published alongside), asked what could make things better for them. The second choice from children under 12, after safer places for them to hang out, was having more time with their parents.
We live in a highly pressurised time, with families straining to meet the demands of work and childcare, fewer and fewer parents able to afford relaxed time with the kids, and schools caught in a treadmill of exam results and league tables. One in three teachers leaves the profession within 5 years and a teacher recruitment crisis is biting.
Changes to the benefits system can show callous disregard for children living in this time-poor, high pressure society. An un-noticed change to bereavement benefits in 2017, for instance, led to reductions in support so that when a parent dies, the surviving parent now has to go back to work much more quickly, affecting thousands of families each year. The effects of universal credit itself on families with children were last modelled in 2012, since when the policy has changed significantly; we are pressing the Government to assess its impact on children as part of the ‘pilot’ roll-out of phase two. I have personally demonstrated to the Work and Pensions Secretary how easy it is to identify families with children at risk of tipping into crisis due to the transition to universal credit – this may be a projection on a spreadsheet to an official, but to the children it can mean homelessness, mum in tears at the food bank, loss of school and friends. And yet the data and the means exist to identify these families and help them. Over 100 years ago Charles Booth and his team of researchers roamed the streets of London, notebooks in hand, methodically creating a social map of the city. It took them 7 years. Today you can do this with a computer programme and administrative data which the Government already holds. To map the families at risk throughout England would barely take 7 days. So why on earth not do it, and help those families before catastrophe strikes?
This sort of short-sightedness – or as a child might say, mean-ness – plays out in children’s lives and ultimately in huge waiting lists for CAMHS, teenage crises, children caring for children, missing school, or going home from school to empty houses, maybe finding an alternative ‘family’ in a street gang. Our analysis of data we gathered from youth offender teams showed children in gangs within the criminal justice system are 76% more likely not to have their basic care needs met at home than other young offenders, according to the assessments of youth offending teams. Helping kids requires help for families. That’s why a major focus of our work this year will be families and the financial and social pressures upon them. In the chaos of Brexit, ordinary government is barely functioning. Legislation is held up, the Cabinet is enmeshed in Brexit turmoil, and the Treasury has delayed the next spending review. In the midst of all this, children are growing up. That doesn’t stop. Nor should we.