The following is a letter sent from Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, to Susan Acland-Hood, the Permanent Secretary of the Department for Education, in response to the recent judgement on the need for consultation with the Children’s Commissioner and other organisations representing children about changes affecting children.
I was pleased to see the ruling from the Court of Appeal on Tuesday 24th November clarifying the importance of ensuring that those advocating for children’s rights, including my office, are always consulted on significant changes affecting children. I know that officials within the Department often work well and openly with members of my team. However, I think the judgement reflects a systemic issue within the Department’s approach to understanding the needs of children within children’s social care. This is an issue that I and other institutions, including the NAO, have raised in the past.
The Department has an ambition to be ‘user centred’ but it is not always clear who that end user is. In the case of education, there are the conflicting views of children, parents and teachers to be considered. In children’s social care, it is easy for the Department to consider local authorities and service providers as the key stakeholders, and to overlook the fact that it is children who are the end users the Department needs to focus on. Local Authorities and providers will often be dealing with the competing interests of tight budgets, staff capacity, and accountability measures, and cannot act only as advocates for children’s needs. Moreover, the relation between the state and a child in its care is one of extreme power imbalances. That is why it is vital that there exists a system of checks and balances on this power. Any decision to remove the rights of those dependent on the state must be informed by an understanding of how little power children have in the system. It is my view that, because the Department has historically not engaged proactively enough with children, including during the Covid crisis, its policy makers do not always fully comprehend how often children’s experience is of being at odds with the state caring for them. This approach also undermines the history of children’s rights legislation in England, on which the whole Children Act is based. The UNCRC, which the Department is committed to upholding, demands that those making decisions about children hear from them directly in making these decisions.
This should start with the Social Care Review. The over-arching aim of this review must be to improve the performance of social care for those children and families who need it. It is essential the review is set-up in such a way as to enable it to understand these needs, and not just the pressures facing providers of services. This requires engagement with children in care and those with care experience. I am concerned that the review team have not yet conducted their own engagement with children in advance of developing its terms of reference. The review secretariat needs to be led by someone with professional experience of engaging children and their families, to ensure these experiences can inform the review accurately and efficiently. I am happy to second staff from my office to the review team, and I understand Ofsted would be happy to do the same, to ensure a team with the necessary expertise is in place before the review begins.
Following the judgement, I would ask you to commit the Department to action on three fronts:
- Strengthen its engagement policy to ensure that children’s voices are at the heart of every decision it makes. This includes ensuring that the Children’s Commissioner and other organisations representing children’s experiences, are fully consulted on policy development at an early stage. This should include:
- A Department-wide policy covering engagement with children, including the most vulnerable and invisible who are normally missed, and training to staff to achieve this.
- Embedding engagement with children into the policy making process. This could include:
- An expectation all staff should engage with children in social care regularly
- A commitment to including children’s experiences in local authority intervention plans, by attending children in care councils and collecting intelligence from advocacy providers, including my own Help at Hand service.
- Ensuring the secretariat for the Social Care Review has the resources and experiences to engage effectively with children in care and social care.
- Embedding early consultation with my office and other organisations representing children’s voices at a much earlier stage of policy development.
I am publishing this letter and look forward to publishing your response. I would also be grateful for an urgent meeting to discuss these points.