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Foreword from Dame Rachel de Souza

My first and most important task as Children’s Commissioner for England is to listen to the voices of children up and down the country, particularly those who don’t always have their voices heard, to understand what matters most to them, and what help they need to have good childhoods and to grow up to be successful adults.

That’s why last year I launched The Big Ask, the largest ever survey of children. Over half a million children responded, filling out the survey and sending in their personal thoughts and ideas about their lives today and their aspirations and dreams for the future.

I now feel a responsibility to build on what children have told me. It is their right to be heard, and I have made it my priority to listen and then act. I have five more years in this role and The Big Ask provides me with a clear roadmap of what children want – and how to make this country the best place in the world to grow up.

Seven clear priority areas have emerged from The Big Ask. These are the things children value in our society: their family, their community, their health and wellbeing, their education, their future jobs and skills, and making a better world. I will also pay particular attention to children in the care of the state and those who have a social worker. These children have the same dreams and aspirations as their peers, but they often need additional and distinctive support to reach their goals. I want us to be as ambitious for these children as they are for themselves. I have also consulted widely with organisations working with children, which has helped to shape the office’s strategic priorities. These seven priority areas will steer my time as Children’s Commissioner.

Over the last year, following on from The Big Ask, I have already begun to focus on these areas, and as my one year in role publication demonstrates I am already delivering for children. I have also responded to live issues affecting children that they have raised with me directly or where their voices haven’t been heard loudly enough, including the tragic deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson. I will continue to address emerging challenges children face over the coming year.

Key highlights from the last year include the Government commission where I was asked to suggest ways to make the online world a safer place for children. This work included hosting a roundtable with the Secretary of State for Education and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and the major tech companies. I also hosted a roundtable with the adult companies and published my guidance for parents ‘The Things I Wish My Parents Had Known’. As a result of this work, a lot of the office’s asks have been adopted in the Online Safety Bill, such as securing full coverage of commercial pornography sites and a requirement on these platforms to age verify users. This year, I will continue to follow the Bill closely as it passes through Parliament and represent children’s voices in it. I will also be working to hold social media companies to account on children’s use of their platforms, hearing more from children and young people about their experiences of harm online, and pushing for stronger safeguards for children online ahead of the Bill.

I have also undertaken a major project into children’s attendance at school. School is the best place for children to be, to receive an excellent education, take part in sporting and enrichment activities and to receive any additional support they might need. Some children, however, struggle to stay in school, and are either persistently absent or not in education altogether, often because of unmet mental health or special educational needs or because of bullying or problems at home or at school. This was the case before the pandemic, but the disruption of the last few years has exacerbated this problem. I have conducted a survey of all local authorities and deep dives into 10 areas to explore these issues in more detail, and to understand how these children can be identified, and how their needs can be better met. I have already published the interim findings of this work and will publish my full findings and recommendations in early summer.

As Children’s Commissioner, I have a particular responsibility towards children who rely on the state for their safety or protection. Over the past year, my team and I have supported hundreds of children and families in the most complex and serious situations, through my Help at Hand service. This document sets out my ambition to make sure this service reaches even more children, at the moments when they do not have anyone else to help them and provides an accessible digital offer to demystify the care system. I have used the experiences children have shared with me to set out my vision paper for children’s a social care system built around the core experiences every child deserves. This document sets out how my office will build on this vision, with practical work to support reform of the system which delivers on children’s aspirations for the care system they want to see.

A major piece of work that I am particularly excited about doing this year is the Family Review. The Government has asked me to conduct this work. In The Big Ask, children told me how much they care about family – families in all their forms. I will be exploring all aspects of modern family life, and how as a society we should be thinking about families and how they can best be supported, with a particular focus on children’s perspectives on family life. This major review, reporting in the autumn, will involve extensive qualitative and quantitative research, and build on the knowledge and expertise of key stakeholders and experts in family life.

Alongside these extensive projects my team will continue to conduct further analysis of the wealth of information about children’s views within The Big Ask and undertake a range of further research under seven priority areas. All this will help us work towards the Commissioner’s goal of placing children’s voices at the heart of public policy in this country. It is my responsibility to work on and address issues facing children across the whole of the United Kingdom. I will continue to convene and discuss things that matter to children with fellow BINOCC colleagues.

This Business Plan for the next year outlines the office’s priorities which are drawn from what children think, feel, and need as outlined in The Big Ask.