The Big Answer

Foreword by Dame Rachel de Souza DBE

‘Listen.’

The day I began my tenure as Children’s Commissioner for England, that was my first task. To listen to England’s children.

Throughout the pandemic, the nation has been speaking to itself, to find healing, solace, and hope for recovery. As we took our first steps out of lockdown, the national mood seemed receptive, but uncertain – in search of something. Suddenly, it seemed normal for the manager of the national football team to write an open letter to the country beginning ‘Dear England.’

He spoke about childhood, about dreams, memories, patriotism, our national mythology, and perhaps most of all about values.

But how can a nation ‘write back’?

In lots of ways, it turns out – mainly through its children. By letters of thanks, by outpourings of pride on social media, by a children’s vigil at a mural of their hero player to tell him how much they loved him.

A post-pandemic national identity seemed to be taking shape, with all those hoped-for values of citizenship, kinship, fellow-feeling. It was as good a response as any country could wish for.

In fact, for some months, England’s children had already been composing a kind of national letter. In March, my office launched The Big Ask – a national survey of England’s children. I wanted to capture their voices as quickly as I could, so we could truly know the state of the nation for them. Not as adults see them, but written in their own words. To be able to express their views on childhood freely is of course a fundamental right at the heart of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.

We asked big questions. We wanted to hear their hopes, their fears, their dreams, their lockdown stories, their plans for tomorrow.

We did not know what to expect. We were still in the advanced stages of a rolling national crisis. However reassuring the promise of anonymity, to share the contents of your heart, even in an online form, is an act of trust, of courage, and of hope. A more cynical generation might have said no.

The results are clear. This is not a cynical generation – we received well over half a million responses – the largest survey response of its kind anywhere in the world.

Putting the contents to one side, the scale alone is stark – a landmark set of data. It is a record of an ambitious time and a historic moment. A reply commensurate with ‘Dear England.’

It contains multitudes. But it is striking how often the data reveals that children’s priorities across all groups – age, gender, ethnicity – are the same. A generation of children with a common voice.

The pandemic atomised us, but perhaps it has also been a shared experience. During lockdown, all of us have seen talk, expressions of love, learning, work, and play – all of reality – shrunk and flattened onto a screen.

Within the home, the dividing line between childhood and adulthood has been blurred – offices and schools and bedrooms all collapsing into one another. Children have seen the world of adult work come closer; adults, the world of school.

As we unlock, this has given us much to talk about. In the sheer volume of responses, we can see an ardent need for real communication. Between friends, between family, and – crucially – between generations.

If adults are to learn one thing from this report, it should be as follows. This is not a ‘snowflake generation.’ It is a heroic generation.

A generation of children who are veterans of a global crisis. They have seen how colossally frightening life can be, far too young, and have made a lot of sacrifices. But they have endured, and are emerging stronger and prematurely wise. Bruised, yes, and in many cases seriously vulnerable, but for the most part, happy, optimistic, and determined.

They are a survivor generation – a sleeves-up, pragmatic generation, with civic-minded aspirations.

They believe in family. Not just the nuclear family – families of all kinds. Simply, they want happy homes.

They want to be healthy – mentally and physically. They want to escape the digital labyrinth in which they have been trapped. This report tells you that they want to be outside – to be in open spaces, and play.

They want activities, sport. The oldest children in this report have seen England bid for the Olympics, stage them, and this summer, some of those children have taken part themselves. There is joy and pride in so much achievement, but the zest here is not for competition, it is for participation.

They want community. Denied friendship during the pandemic, this generation of children have thought hard about bonds beyond family. They want to improve their local area and make it safer. They think hard about regional inequality, about injustice, about prejudice, about British values, about the environment – they want to engage with these things and address them. They are patriotic. They want to vote. Isolated for so long, they want – yearn even – to be part of something bigger than themselves.

They like school. They see education as important in and of itself, but also as a pathway to opportunity. They are historians, spurred on by new national debates about our past. They are divergent thinkers, who can slip between boundaries of traditional subjects. They are apprentices who want to be trained in vocations and crafts, and have parity of esteem with undergraduates.

Children in care are no different. They share exactly the same hopes and aspirations, and are just as determined to make the most of their start in life. They want the care system to match these ambitions.

This generation wants to get on and do well. To do tough, worthwhile jobs, and have fulfilling careers. Many want to be teachers and nurses and paramedics and doctors. They have seen their parents and carers struggle and they want to help them.

We can encourage that spirit. But we simply cannot let children carry that burden unaided, weighed down as they already are by a sense of inherited problems. Climate crisis. Covid debt. Disadvantage.

What is so inspiring is that they see these challenges, and they want to reckon with them – a heroic impulse.

Bind all these hopes together, and we can see the birth of a coherent vision: a new England.

Our national story is a constant retelling of this dream. The first great epic written in English is a poem about a dragon-slayer, Beowulf, who by his heroism, strives to return a wounded community to safety and peace. From the national saint, to Blake’s Jerusalem, to Tolkien’s shires, to the reality of two world wars, the arc is the same: a progression through darkness to renewal. Re-watch our Olympic opening ceremony and you will see the same movement – from pasture, to ‘dark Satanic mills’, to utopian reinvention – the NHS, the internet.

Today, we hope we are at the part of the story when the dragon is gone, and we can remake our society. How we respond is a measure of our priorities. We need to look at two things: what children urgently need now, and what England’s children need long-term.

In 1942, the Beveridge report created a blueprint for social service provision and eventually the NHS, the Education Act of 1944 extended the right to state-funded schooling to age 15, the establishment of UNESCO in 1945, the establishment of UNICEF in 1946, the 1948 Children Act that was the first legal statement of the Government’s duty of care towards the nation’s children.

In 2021, as in the year 1215, we can, in a truly English tradition of radical action, meet a historical moment with a historical document. The report you are reading is a mandate for an intergenerational promise – a new settlement for England’s children – a grown-up, cross-party set of policy commitments that reward the nobility of their vision.

To follow the post-war generation and make historical change, the window of opportunity is brief. If we do not, and we let this moment pass, and all that attends it, then why ask in the first place? We simply go back to where we started. So let me end with my first word, and repeat it as a warning. The first word spoken by the narrator of Beowulf, who demands a heroic story is respected:

‘Listen.’

Key statistics


557,077

responses from children in England (aged 4-17)

80%

of children were happy with their family life

84%

of children said they were happy or okay with life at school or college

80%

of children were happy or okay with their mental health