In all our work with young people and policy-makers this year, this Autumn Budget and Spending Review has felt critical – a major opportunity to make meaningful commitments which put children at the heart of the recovery from the pandemic.
In that light, it is heartening to be able to welcome a number of announcements which mirror what children named as their priorities in the largest ever survey of children, The Big Ask, and in our subsequent set of policy papers. Across a range of policy areas – family, community, health, education, jobs and skills and care – children described their optimism and ambition, but also where they need further support.
Most children told us that they were happy with their family lives and told us how much they cared deeply about their families. When families were under strain children spoke about wanting more support to be available. In response, we called for expanded family help, through both Family Hubs and an expanded Supporting Families programme. It is great to see both delivered. We celebrate the prominence given to early childhood in the Chancellor’s speech.
An almost universal priority for young people in The Big Ask was life at school. Children told us how much they value school, education and how ambitious they are to do well. So, we asked for targeted investment where it is needed most. Overall, by 2024/25, the level of new catch-up funding promised for schools will reach £4.7 billion. Within this, we called for a focus on provision for 16 to 18 year olds and are glad to see this provided. We hope the initial investment of £1.8 billion can be deployed quickly and shrewdly as schools work hard on their top priority – to close the attainment gap which has widened during the pandemic. This combined with the confirmation that per-pupil funding will continue to increase in both real and cash terms, should enable schools to devote additional resources to supporting vulnerable children. Within education, there is widespread acknowledgement that we need to do more to support children with special education needs and it is therefore good to see significant funding for new special school places.
One of the top three priorities for children in The Big Ask was to get outside and play – to have more activities to take part in near to each home across England. Children wanted to have things to do in their local areas and to see their friends. It was heartening therefore to hear that £560 million will be provided for youth services, and that the Holiday Activities Fund is to be continued for a further 3 years. These are things we called for and will help to benefit children across the country. Children will also benefit from funding for multi-use community sports facilities, football pitches and tennis courts as well as funding for 100 new parks to ensure access to green space in urban areas.
An issue of particular concern for the Children’s Commissioner has been the provision of residential care for children in residential care. Our Help at Hand service, as well as the High Court, are seeing an increase in children with acute and complex needs for whom no suitable care is available. In response, we called for urgent investment in new children’s homes, and so we welcome the commitment of £259 million. In addition, the commitment to £104 million to implement the ban on unregulated care for under 16s is welcome. More investment, from central and Local Government, will be needed to address issues in 16 to 18 care, but this is a welcome start.
Elsewhere, there are major funding announcements which we hope to see directed towards children and their families. The further big uplift in NHS funding should ensure the NHS can deliver the vision for children’s mental health outlined in the NHS Long Term Plan. Progress on this needs to be rapid because we know from The Big Ask that whilst most children are happy or fine, there is a group of children who need support and help with their mental health. Similarly, increases in Local Government funding need to be translated into increased funding on children’s services. Within the £24 billion announced for housing, a focus must be placed on affordable family-sized homes. We hope that the £3.8 billion funding announced for new prisons means that the Government can increase the roll-out of Secure Schools. Recent inspections of youth custody settings, including Oak Hill, demonstrate how badly this is needed.
Large parts of the Autumn Budget and Spending Review have focused on children, something that The Big Ask showed us was a real priority as we emerge from the pandemic and that we welcome. But, there is always more that can be done. While the change to the Universal Credit taper rate will be welcomed by many low-paid working families, we would like to see more focus on children and families as a whole within the benefits system.
Our message at the Children Commissioner’s Office has been consistent in recent months and remains the same today: we want to see children at the heart of policy plans as we recover from the pandemic. Today, we can see progress on some of our most important recommendations. As the shift moves to implementation, we hope that the optimism we’ve seen from this brave generation of children is well-founded. It is what they richly-deserve.