The Children’s Commissioner has today given a speech at Reach Academy in Feltham to launch Part 2 of her independent Family Review.
Thank you so much for having me, it’s a pleasure to be here and to speak to all of you today. The work you do here at Reach Feltham is fantastic and it’s so wonderful to see you all here.
Earlier this year I was commissioned to conduct an independent Family Review by the Government, to explore what modern family life in Britain looks like today.
I was excited to take on this role after completing The Big Ask, the largest-ever survey of children, with over half-a million responses. The Big Ask revealed just how important family was to children.
In fact, if they were unhappy with their family life, they were nine times more likely to be unhappy with their life overall.
As one boy told me, ‘A loving family is worth more than money and will give you guidance support and love and advice’.
That’s why I didn’t think twice about taking on the Family Review. Whilst children had told me just how important family life was to them, for too long family in all its forms has not been understood by policymakers.
And more importantly the incredible insulating effect a wonderful family environment can have on us all has not been recognised either.
I addressed this in Part 1 of my Family Review which I published in September. With unique research I showed how family formation has changed over the last twenty years.
More couples are cohabiting rather than getting married and we are seeing more dynamic, changing families with 44% of children living in a non-nuclear household at one stage in their lives, and 23% of families headed by a lone parent.
For me though, the most significant finding from Part 1, was proving the protective effect of family for all its members. If children have a good family environment, they are more likely to do well in later life, feel happier, and more able to cope with life’s challenges. Among adults who said they could rely on their family a lot, 80% are satisfied with life overall compared to 66% for those who can’t.
This work captured how important family is and what it means to all of us. But, there was one particular area which I wanted to build on for Part 2 of the Review which I am speaking to you about today.
Policymakers, Government, and services often shy away from recognising its role in all our lives and how much it matters to us. This Review is a chance to change that.
As a parent myself, I wanted to take a second, at what we know is an incredibly busy time of year, to recognise just how much you all do for your children. How much you strive even in challenging times, and how much you try to do for your children to give them the best possible future.
Throughout my Review, I have heard from thousands of children – who told us just how much they love spending time with their parents.
My team has also had a fresh look at existing research.
The research showed us that reading, spending time with each other, and building strong relationships has a huge impact on a child and their development.
But more than just defining a child’s outcomes in life, children have told me how much they like spending time with their family.
My office conducted a survey of over 15,000 school-aged children. 89% said they enjoyed all or most of the time they spent with family over the summer. When asked who they spent time with during the summer holiday, 79% mentioned their parents/guardians and 51% mentioned siblings.
With children of all ages telling me just how much these relationships mattered to them.
And it also brings to life, just how important it is for all the parents in this room when you choose to spend time with your children reading with them, playing with them, and supporting them.
All these things are crucial. But I want to take a second to recognise the wider pressures we are all facing at the moment, including cost of living pressures and the after-effects of the pandemic.
Whilst I have shown in my research that the pandemic increased the amount of time some parents and children spent together. For others, it created a more challenging environment.
I have looked at the latest data from the Early Years Foundation Stage, showing only 65% of children are at a good level of development at age 5. While not directly comparable to pre-pandemic assessments, this suggests a large fall in children’s development.
Other research shows that parenting behaviours at age 3, particularly reading, are linked to better development outcomes at age 5.
And sadly, indications are showing that the pandemic may have impacted more disadvantaged families the hardest.
That’s why we need a renewed focus on parenting. I want it to make it personally my mission to look at this, and also the support that exists for parents currently.
And this is not me telling you as parents that you need to do things differently, but more just recognising the difficulties you are all facing right now, and what a wonderful job you are all doing.
Throughout my research, parents have consistently told me that their preference for getting help is to turn to their own networks – whether that’s wider family, close friends, or the community.
I know personally when I was raising my son that we relied on my in-laws and my friends for help when we needed it, and in-turn, they relied on us.
But of course, let’s recognise that at times people want to access different areas of support such as neonatal or parent/toddler groups. That’s why it’s so important that it is easy to access.
My team has done brand new research looking at the information available from Family Information Services across local authorities. This is a service for parents that should be statutorily available.
But I found it’s often difficult to access.
In half of towns and cities, it is hard to even find the relevant local Family Information Service.
In 35% of local authorities Family Information Services, it is difficult to find a local toddler group.
And if you are looking for support with older children, in 78% of local authorities this is difficult to find.
Perhaps unsurprisingly because of this, the most common way parents are finding out about services are through friends and family rather than through public services such as GPs or health visitors.
And whilst we did find some local authorities displaying good practice, it needs to be the same across all areas of the country.
I want to see all services delivering for parents and families – and I want it to be familial, local, freely available, easy to find and crucially, affordable.
That’s what parents have told me they want. I was a teacher and a headteacher for 31 years and parents wouldn’t hesitate to chat to me at the school gates about how hard it can sometimes be to be a parent.
However, since moving to Whitehall, I’ve noticed a hesitancy from Government to talk about the realities of parenting and the kinds of challenges that come with it.
And that’s why my Review includes recommendations for Government, for how these services can be reformed to support families better, and crucially, how we can remove the stigma associated with asking for help.
But more importantly, I want to move the dial on parenting and start a national conversation.
10 years ago, Government and policymakers were nervous to talk about mental health. I’m finding the same thing about parenting now, which I think is something we can change. It should not be the case that parents feel they cannot be open about the natural struggles and the challenges that come with raising children.
In that spirit, I am here today to talk to you all – to hear about the good, and the bad bits of parenting, and how you can be better supported to deal with that. I look forward to hearing from you all.