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Anne Longfield’s final speech as Children’s Commissioner challenges the Prime Minister to show he is serious about putting children at the heart of ‘building back better’

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  • Children’s Commissioner for England calls for a new “Covid Covenant” of education and wellbeing support in every community to help children and young people recover from the pandemic
  • Reflects on what her time as Children’s Commissioner has taught her about why government often fails to help the most vulnerable children.
  • Argues that Government silos and ‘institutional bias against children and families’ in the Treasury consistently means resources are not where they would make most impact. 

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, will today (Wednesday) deliver her final speech in post with a challenge to the Prime Minister to show he is serious about children by putting them at the heart of his post-Covid plans. Her speech will warn that the Prime Minister’s promise to ‘level up’ will be ‘just a slogan unless it focuses on children’.

In the speech, Anne Longfield reflects on her six years as Children’s Commissioner, and looks ahead to the challenges to childhood brought about by the pandemic.

She will begin: 

“As Children’s Commissioner, I’ve always said I want to be ambitious for all children – but especially vulnerable children. I’ve taken on the naysayers who have told me “some children can’t be helped” or, “we just don’t have the evidence to know what to do”. Neither is true. Every child has the right to a good education, to be fed, clothed and kept safe, and ultimately to succeed in life. All these things are possible … The terrible thing is, one year into the pandemic we know most of their lives will have got worse.”

The Children’s Commissioner will set out the extensive evidence showing the harm that time out of the classroom has caused to millions of children: 

“It’s impossible to overstate how damaging the last year has been for many children – particularly those who were already disadvantaged. Covid is the biggest challenge to our society in seventy years. But also an opportunity to reflect and rebuild … ‘Building back better’ must mean rethinking our priorities and the way we care for children. We must be honest about the scale of the challenge and face the tough questions about the gaps that we know exist. For example, how many children are in families that are struggling to support them; how many are starting school so far behind they’ll never catch up; how many children with mental health needs or special education needs aren’t getting the help they should be?”

Anne Longfield will also reflect on how many in Whitehall view children: 

“I have been shocked to discover how many officials have never met any of the children they are responsible for. So many seem to view them as remote concepts or data points on an annual return. This is how children fall through the gaps – because too often the people in charge of the systems they need simply don’t see them and try to understand their world.”

The Children’s Commissioner will call it a ‘national scandal’ that the system seems to accept that after 14 years of compulsory education and training almost a fifth of children leave without basic qualifications: 

“That is abysmal … I don’t know what’s more shocking: that these things happen, or that they’re hardly recognised. No one can honestly believe that 20% of children are incapable of achieving basic qualifications. It should be a national scandal.”

Referring to new analysis published alongside her speech, Anne Longfield will highlight how poverty impacts on children’s educational attainment: 

“A child who is known to social services is three times more likely to be growing up in poverty, and twice as likely to have special educational needs. A child growing up in poverty is 88% more likely to have a special educational need than a child who is more well-off. There is a large group of children who face a combination of challenges including an unstable home environment, poverty, social and emotional health problems, communication difficulties, or caring for family members. Our analysis reveals that three-quarters of the children who don’t achieve the basic qualifications had at least one of these issues. But it’s when these issues combine they do the most damage to a child’s prospects.”

The Children’s Commissioner questions why the basic issues holding many children back are not being tackled by the Government: 

“It’s not that we can’t do it. It’s not that we “don’t know what works”. It’s that we don’t set out to do it. The challenge I want to present to Government and all political parties today is threefold. Are you serious about children, and their life chances? Will you follow this through not just this month, but this year and next? Do you understand the additional harm that has been done to children during the pandemic? Are you serious about ‘building back better’ and ‘levelling up’? And will you put those children who were already disadvantaged at the centre of it? This is not just about missing a few chapters in a textbook.”

Anne Longfield praises President Biden for proposing a huge package of tax credits and benefits, aimed squarely at families with children, contrasting it with uncertainty about the uplift in Universal Credit: 

“This is projected to halve child poverty in just a year. The Biden administration knows that children are the heart of our future economic success. Yet in the UK, we’re on track to have the highest levels of child poverty since records began in the 1960s. Two weeks ago the Prime Minister said educational catch-up was the key focus of the entire Government – yet we still don’t know if next month he is planning to take the Universal Credit uplift away from millions of families. The two positions aren’t compatible. If the Government is really focused on educational catch-up, it wouldn’t even countenance pushing 800,000 children into the type of devastating poverty which can have a much bigger impact on their life chances than the school they go to or the catch-up tuition they get. This is the basic flaw in how Government functions: different parts of the system know different areas of these children’s lives, but nobody connects the dots.”

She will continue: 

“The Prime Minister’s promise to “level up” is just a slogan unless it focuses on children. The Prime Minister – indeed all political parties – should set a clear goal that’s about children’s lives, not the institutions they attend. Instead of talking about increasing the number of children going to a good or outstanding school, I want the government to commit to making children better off. I want them to say within five years we will reduce the number of children starting school with developmental issues by 80%. Or within five years we will reduce the number of children leaving education without basic qualifications by 60%. Otherwise, we will repeat the mistakes of the past ten years, when governments have focussed on school improvement targets without noticing that the outcomes for children attending these schools are, overall, getting worse.”

She will talk about her frustration that Whitehall is failing to tackle many of the problems facing millions of vulnerable children: 

“I’m fed up with hearing “we don’t know” from people whose job it is to know.  Politicians on all sides must raise their level of ambition. I believe the public would support them if they did … In Whitehall, children are pupils, or a child in care, or a patient on a mental health waiting list, or the recipient of an EHC plan. They have only one issue that concerns the departmental silo. The process comes before the child. What Government seems unable to fathom is that children can be all of these things simultaneously, and that it is because they are still a child on a mental health waiting list that they have now become a child excluded from school, and will soon become a child in care.”

Anne Longfield will criticise Treasury ‘siloed thinking’: 

“Children and families are the recipient of multiple services. The same family can be hit by cuts to early help, children’s centres, benefits and health visiting. But the Treasury has consistently refused to undertake analysis of the cumulative impact of multiple spending decisions on families. When I ask the Treasury to explain how they connect these dots, I get lost in a world of bureaucratic jargon … The IFS has estimated that the long-term cost to the economy of learning loss caused by the pandemic will be £350 billion. However, the Treasury has committed just £1 billion to in-school catch-up and £200m in wider support, while giving tens of billions to other sectors of the economy. What all this shows is an institutional bias against children. Whatever the data, the outcomes, the successful interventions – the system still says no.”

The Children’s Commissioner talks about how many in government are unwilling to face up to the scale of vulnerable children: 

“I have to force officials and ministers to the table, to watch them sit through a presentation, maybe ask a question, and then vacantly walk away. I do not believe this truly reflects the extent of Government and the public’s commitment to helping children succeed.”

Anne Longfield calls for the desperate need to build back better for children: 

“We should launch a year of opportunity once the virus has been suppressed. Enabling every child, from whatever background, not just to learn in the classroom, but also to develop their own interests at weekends and in the holidays. Finding joy in finding out, with confidence and resilience by forging their own path. I want to see the now-empty school rooms, sports halls, and swimming pools being used at evenings, weekends and holidays to help all children catch up with confidence. They can get a meal, a break from home and more time to play with friends. Libraries open, art galleries and theatres too – free for families. Music workshops, drama, digital clubs to spark interest and grow talent. In every area of the country, but especially our left-behind areas.”

She also urges the Prime Minister to get passionate about building back better for children: 

“I want to see the Prime Minister getting passionate about making sure that we don’t define children by what’s happened during this year, but we define ourselves by what we offer to them. It will take political will and funding – an opportunity fund – measured in billions, but it would be worth every penny. It should be led by the Prime Minister. A national effort to reopen our institutions and country and reboot childhood. To celebrate everything that is good about growing up in this country and begin to make good where things are not. With backing from all political parties and unions. A “Covid Covenant” from us to our children that takes children out of boxes marked ‘problem’ and see them as the opportunities they are.”

Anne Longfield concludes with a final message to politicians: 

“It’s an indescribable privilege to do a job like this, and I won’t stop fighting for them once I leave this post in a couple of weeks … My parting plea to you is this: please don’t forget about vulnerable children … these are your children now. You have a chance to put them centre stage. When you do build back better, make sure you do it around them.”

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