Good morning everyone – thank you for inviting me today.
I am delighted to be speaking to you all for the second year in a row. Virtual School Heads are immensely important, and I want to thank all of you for your commitment to making sure children receive the best possible education.
As Children’s Commissioner I am committed to promoting and protecting the rights of children and in particular, children who have a social worker, or are living in away from home. I feel personal responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of these children. I want every part of the children’s social care system to feel safe and nurturing to the children and families that come into contact with it.
As Children’s Commissioner, I am tasked to bring the voices of children right to the heart of Government. This means sharing children’s thoughts on a whole host of issues – their hopes for the future, their education, their views on making the world a better place. This, of course, includes the most vulnerable children in the most vulnerable situations – from visiting children in hotels in Kent, to children living in secure children’s homes – it’s my mission to take their views to Government.
This year I believe we have the opportunity to create significant and lasting change to the lives of children who interact with the care system. The recent implementation strategy, ‘Stable Homes, Built on Love’ is a starting point for achieving much-needed reform across the system. But we must not forget that at the moment we are still considering ideas on paper.
As I have said, the real work of implementation starts now. We need a steadfast dedication to system improvement, with a commitment to achieving excellence for every child in every area of the country.
I will continue to play a central role in amplifying the voices and views of children in care as we move towards this new phase of implementation. As a member of the government’s National Implementation Board for the strategy, I will be pushing for it to have a much clearer focus on ensuring that there are loving and table homes for children across the country. Every child should be receiving care not just up to their 18th birthday but far beyond it, and with no child living in an institution. Right now, there are too many very vulnerable children living in unsuitable environment that are unable to meet their needs. This is not good enough.
I would like to see the strategy outline how it plans to support unaccompanied children seeking asylum. These children are highly vulnerable and the system right now as it is set up is simply unable to meet their needs. This year I will be really focused on making sure these children get the help they need to be able to integrate and thrive.
For these reforms to truly deliver, they must join up with other reforms going on. We have now had the Government’s plans for SEND and alternative provision. Integrated Care Systems are just getting off the ground. I want to see all these reforms working seamlessly together, so that children’s lives can be transformed.
For that to happen, all those systems to have a relentless focus on what is most important to children themselves. When I speak to these children it is clear that they share the same hopes and aspirations as all other children. They want loving families, good health, a great education and career. To achieve this, they need a loving and stable home and adults who love and support them into adulthood.
That is why I was glad to see the government’s implementation strategy for children’s social care was focused on the importance of family.
Last year I carried out an Independent Review into family life.
My review found that family is everything to so many people. It represents love and care and can provide a support network that is hard to replicate. That’s why I am cleat that where it is safe and possible, we should be supporting families to stay together. I am glad to see the government’s plans to invest in exploring effective practice in Family Help.
The review I published called on everyone to put family centre stage of their agenda. Most importantly we need to prioritise loving, strong and enduring relationships.
As Children’s Commissioner, I wanted children, their views, voices, experiences, and rights to be at the heart of the Review. I also wanted to ensure that children in care, their carers, and the professionals that support them were represented.
A core focus of the of my Family Review was on children who are living away from their birth parents. Over 80,000 children are in care, and many more in less formal arrangements, including kinship care.
The Review found that there are many forms of families, and that family structure has gradually changed over the last 20 years. There are more couples cohabiting. There are fewer ‘traditional’ nuclear family units today.
44% of children born at the start of the century, were not in a nuclear family for their full childhood, compared to 21% of children born in 1970.
Despite their differences families in all their various forms all agree that family is a fundamental pillar to their lives, happiness, and success. The Review found that there is one thing that unifies all different types of families. Irrespective of ethnicity, gender or age, the most frequently used word to describe family was love.
And they all recognise that family has a protective effect. It insulates us from life’s adversity, and every child should have the benefits of it.
I found that the core protective elements of family are love, strong and enduring relationships, the ability to depend on one another for emotional and practical support and shared experiences. Families told us that these core elements give rise to an incredibly powerful effect which underpinned their confidence.
As Children’s Commissioner, I want every single child to grow up in a family, even if that cannot be their biological one, where living with their birth family might not be in their best interests.
In December, I published the second part of the Family Review. I made tangible recommendations for how Government, Local Authorities and policymakers can better support families and children.
I outlined that I want the Government to focus on the power of parenting and ensure all families can access a holistic support offer within their local community. This should be central to government reforms to Family Help.
I set out how services should be designed around children and families, not ‘service users’. I want to see services that build strong, trusting relationships with families, modelling the loving relationships we value within families.
I published my high-level outcomes framework, which I hope will support different professionals, and different departments, to truly work together, and be relentlessly focused on children’s priorities.
I made recommendations for how we can improve data sharing, so that everyone working with families feels empowered to share information whenever it will keep a child safe. And so, we can make sure we have the right data to actually understand what is happening for children.
As you will all know, it is essential that professionals supporting children, particularly the most vulnerable, are able to communicate efficiently to keep them safe.
I carried out a specific piece of research delving deeper into family life for children in care, focusing in on their relationships with their siblings. So often children in care and care leavers tell me that it is their relationship with a sibling that is the most loving, protective relationship that they have. It is that relationship that provides them with the sense of security, love and stability that they need. As one child said:
‘You don’t even need to speak. You just know. When it comes to Mum, or certain situations, there’s something where you comfort each other’
And you will all know that having that foundation of stability is vital for everything else in a child’s life – they certainly need it to be able to engage meaningfully in education.
And yet my research found that, an estimated 37% of children with a sibling – that is 20,000 children – are separated from a sibling when placed in care. I found that children were being separated from siblings for many reasons. Sometimes it was because there weren’t enough placements which could care groups of children; sometimes it was because decisions were being made in a way that wasn’t child-centred.
I heard from children who told me their family was split up by age, or by gender – with little consideration given to who they most wanted to live with. But of course, sometimes there were times when children did need to be placed apart – although these are, I think, much rarer.
I want to see changes to the system so that there is far greater emphasis given to placing children together, or ensuring contact happens if they aren’t.
While family is of course fundamental to all these children, it is no secret that school attendance is an issue very close to my heart. I was a teacher and headteacher for 30 so I know that for every child – but particularly the most vulnerable – school is where they need to be. That is why the jobs you do, every day, are some of those that I admire the most.
Over the past year, I have been steadfastly committed to making sure that every child has a school place and is attending school every day.
It was clear from children’s responses to my Big Ask survey how much they valued their education. As I mentioned last year when I spoke at this conference, today’s children are a brilliantly ambitious generation, and see education as the thing which will help them achieve those ambitions and live the lives they dream of.
It was because of what children told me that I made attendance in education such a core part of my work – because children can only benefit from an education if they are actually there. I have an ambition for 100% attendance in schools, which is an ambitious goal but one which I want all of us to make our mission.
In January last year I launched my ‘Attendance Audit’ and spoke to children across the country who were missing from and struggling to engage with education. I wanted to find out what they need to get back into school.
Through this project I investigated all levels of the education system and prioritised children’s voices and experiences throughout. I have seen clearly that children aren’t absent from school because they don’t want to learn. On the contrary, they are desperate to learn but everyday thousands of children find themselves without the support that they need to engage in education and attend school.
It is clear to me from all of the children living in care that I have spoken to directly, and the 13,000 children with a social worker that submitted responses to the Big Ask survey, that children are ambitious for their future. We must make sure that the systems in place to support them is equally ambitious.
While school engagement is important for ensuring the welfare of every child, it crucial for children who are in care. For looked after children in the care of the state, it is vital that they have access to a school place that can support them to thrive.
So many children in care have experienced many placements moves that can disrupt their education journey. If children aren’t supported to engage in school, and if their school isn’t equipped to meet their needs, it easy for them to slip between the gaps and miss out on education all together.
As I said last year, I find it incredibly concerning that there are children in care who are missing education or receiving unregistered education with no quality assurance. This is simply not good enough.
To get to the bottom of this issue, I am currently undertaking a nationwide audit of the education provision for looked after children.
I have used my statutory powers under section 2F of the Children Act to collect the education placement data from local authorities for their cohort of looked after children of statutory school age as of 31 March 2022.
The data will show, for the first time, how many looked after children are: out of education entirely, receiving tuition at home, being electively home educated, in part-time unregistered alternative provision or being educated in an independent school.
In the next month, I will be publishing my findings and recommendations for what I think needs to change to ensure that our most vulnerable children are able to access education. I want to work with all of you to make sure these recommendations are as ambitious as possible, and that every child gets the school place they need.
Virtual school heads play a central role in ensuring that looked after children get the education provision that suits their needs. But I know that your job is not easy and that you encounter barriers in being able get children the right education and support.
I want to let you all know that my independent advice and advocacy team is here to help you. My office runs the ‘Help at Hand’ helpline, which offers advice and assistance to children with a social worker or living away from home.
When I asked people across Britain what was most important to them about family, it was the sense that there was someone who would have their back, no matter what. For many children, their family are able to be their strongest advocate – always in their corner and making sure they are able to achieve everything they want. For those children who don’t have that within their family, it is vital that all of us are there for them, replicating the role of a parent who will always be seeking the very best for them.
And I know that often the best way that I can help children get the support they need is by supporting their professionals. The team has a proven track record of helping virtual school heads to unblock issues and get help get children the right education support.
As I said earlier, this year we have a chance to take substantial steps towards transforming our social care system. But we must all keep up the momentum and ensure that this plan delivers. I know that you are all deeply committed to achieving the best for children, and I want to
Thank you all for the incredible work you do every day to help looked after children access the help they need to support them to peruse their dreams.
I want to leave you with a quote from a care experienced child. I want every child in care and leaving care to feel as confident as the girl who told me:
“I know where I want to be in life, I know what I want to do, I know my aims, I know my dreams. I think ‘cos I’ve got that support around me, I am able to fulfil my dreams and what I want to achieve”