This is my final year as Children’s Commissioner, a post it has been a pleasure and a privilege to hold. We’ve spent the time relentlessly showing government where children are falling through gaps in the system – it’s undeniable that there is a group of kids who are left out of the nation’s progress. They fall out of school, have lower life chances and poorer health. Is the Government willing to sacrifice 20% of children to this? We’ve meticulously gone through every area where the social safety net does not exist for these kids – from social care support to schools and mental health services.
We have done so much to fill these gaps in knowledge, yet there is so much still to do. Particularly striking has been the Government’s failure to take on some of this complex data collection work itself. From the services provided to children with lower level mental health needs, to the amount spent on speech and language therapy; waiting times for CAMHS appointments; movements of children within the care system; drug and alcohol treatment for teenagers; homeless kids; local safeguarding arrangements; and even, at the very most basic level of knowledge, how many children are locked up in this country at any one time and where – the lack of curiosity from government has been stunning.
I don’t think it’s random at all. It stems from, first, the splitting of responsibility for children between multiple departments and ministers, hence why I called in our Manifesto for Children last year for a Cabinet committee for children. Second, it stems from a hopeless ‘lost cause’ attitude – because no-one in government has been able to work out what should be done about all these children in crisis. Time and again they ask, ‘What works?’ To which the only true answer is, ‘It depends’. What doesn’t work is cutting services and doing nothing – failing to collect any data, shutting your mind to the problems until school exclusions explode, mental health teams are overwhelmed, and violence spills out onto the streets.
One piece of research we conducted last year explored children’s feelings of danger on the streets. It arose from a consultation with kids for last year’s business plan in which they kept mentioning, unprompted, how unsafe they felt. This is also not random. It arises from the interaction between social media – the swift exchange of news and rumour – with the lack of police on the streets; spiralling exclusions leaving more and more children for whom a gang is the best hope of a place to belong; from a lack of visible people in authority with the time and care to speak to these kids; and from poverty. Until government makes children a priority, tries to understand them better, collects the basic information it needs, and invests in improvements, these problems won’t go away.
This is the challenge for government – this Government in particular with its strong mandate, which claims to believe in data, and has the time and power to change things for our most troubled kids. I’ve seen pieces of analysis here and there, organisations outside government working with local authorities to track the movements and risk factors of individual children. They can tell you precisely which kids are likely to end up homeless, or what are the signs that a child is at imminent risk of permanent exclusion. Yet central government (and there have been four different government administrations in my six year term of office) hasn’t been interested.
It’s for this reason that my business plan this year makes clear throughout what we know, what additional evidence we at the Children’s Commissioner aim to collect this year, and what I believe government needs to do in order to grow the evidence base and inform sound policy. As I publish this business plan – which is a statutory responsibility – the country is in the grip of the early stages of COVID-19, and schools have just been closed. We will do our best to deliver this plan of work but understand of course that government attention is elsewhere for the time being, and that we may be called upon to help in the fight against COVID-19.
The crisis will, however, pass. And then a government aiming to be bold and brave, wanting to recast the country as a confident global leader, comfortable in its own skin; a government that has recognised there are groups and communities left behind in modern Britain, and that has staked its future on levelling up – that government will still need to step up to the challenge of making sure all kids are part of their new Britain. It shouldn’t require a visit from the Children’s Commissioner to remind our public services that children are humans too.