Building back better: Reaching England’s left behind children
Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, has delivered 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 warned that the Prime Minister’s promise to ‘level up’ will be ‘just a slogan unless it focuses on children’.
In the speech, Anne Longfield reflected on her six years as Children’s Commissioner, and looks ahead to the challenges to childhood brought about by the pandemic.
Six years ago, after three decades working with children and families, I came into this job knowing that many children miss out. They are not facing immediate harm, but they don’t share the same opportunities as others. Their families bump along from one difficulty and crisis to the next.
Often you wouldn’t know it from the outside, until they are thrown off course by something significant: a parent loses a job, a relationship breaks down, a child gets excluded so Mum can’t go to work. Suddenly life gets even tougher, the child loses their way, and life chances are diminished.
But I also knew that with a little help and understanding these families could still achieve remarkable things.
As Children’s Commissioner, I’ve always said I want to be ambitious for all children – but especially these ones.
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.
I still think back to those families I worked with 30 years ago in different parts of London. We provided pretty simple things for them – some family support, a break, help with a child in danger of getting caught up with a bad crowd.
I remember someone saying about one of the boys in these families, “He did OK, he didn’t end up in prison.” That’s how low ambitions were, and still are, for many vulnerable children.
These children had some of the worst outcomes, but often weren’t even on the radar. They were not quite vulnerable enough on one indicator or another to get help, even though the cluster of problems they were living with made their lives brittle. Every day they were on the cusp of tipping over the edge.
Over the last 6 years I’ve had the privilege of meeting thousands of children from all sorts of backgrounds in schools, children’s homes, hospitals, prisons. I’ve learnt so much from them.
And I realised early on that yes, we collect information in compartments – the number of children in jail, or in care, or who missed a centrally imposed target – but the people who make big decisions about vulnerable children often know so little about them, about their lives and why they ended up in prison or in care or in a gang.
We know whether they got 5 GCSEs or ended up in work, but we didn’t know what went on in the lives of children which determined whether they met these benchmarks. We put them in little boxes.
So I set out to collate much better data about the lives of the children I was meeting, who were invisible to the system until they themselves become another statistic.
Particularly those who fall through the gaps – who drop out of school, or who have problems but aren’t known to social services or mental health services. They don’t even get on the waiting list for help, let alone get help.
And every time I’ve pushed at the data, I’ve uncovered more vulnerable children out of sight – sometimes so many that people told me it couldn’t possibly be true.
But it always is.
The terrible thing is, one year into the pandemic we know most of their lives will have got worse.
I could never have imagined giving my final speech as Children’s Commissioner with children having spent the best part of a year out of school. Even if schools open as planned next month, England’s children will have missed, since the start of the pandemic, 850 million days of in-person schooling – for many, the last line of defence against being forgotten by the system.
And if the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s the fundamental role that schools play in vulnerable children’s lives – way beyond teaching.
Seeing headteachers walking around their communities handing out food parcels to locked-down children – not just to make sure the children are fed, but because it was the only way to see them and to make sure they were OK – has been incredibly moving. Like the staff at Surrey Square School in Southwark where 250 out of the 400 children are deemed vulnerable, and the team at Catch Leeds that are working with schools across the city. I thank them, and all the other remarkable organisations who have been keeping children fed.
We now have definitive evidence of the harm this time out of school has caused 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.
Remember the London 2012 Olympics. We looked like a united, outward-facing country, confident about what it could achieve.
We’ve seen that spirit so often over the last year. People want to help others and they want to believe this country can be great for everyone.
And our NHS and our scientists have shown us repeatedly how we can take on enormous challenges and succeed.
We now need to do the same for children.
‘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?
These questions speak to the basic rights of a good childhood.
Recently I read the serious case review into the death of a boy from Oxfordshire called Jacob. He died in 2019 aged 16. Jacob was a vulnerable child – groomed and then coerced by criminal gangs, as so many are, then taken into care for his own protection.
It didn’t work.
While he was alive, Jacob had been reported missing 20 times. There were 26 different police reports recording him as a suspect or offender. Yet despite services knowing that he was being exploited his family felt powerless. The report said he had been let down by many parts of the system – he was out of school for two years after four schools refused to enrol him.
This was not some evil criminal mastermind. This was a child who the report says talked to his friend about buying a school uniform and walking into school, just to feel like the other kids.
The lessons of his case are the same as the lessons from other serious case reviews – like those of Corey Junior Davis, or Jaden Moodie, two other children caught up in gang violence who were let down by a succession of adults whose job it was to keep them safe.
Jacob’s report concludes that “[The system needs to help] professionals develop relationships with children and support their world.”
This doesn’t just apply to frontline professionals who work with children, but also to the thousands of civil servants in Whitehall.
I have been shocked to discover how many of these 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.
For example, we know that one in seven 5 year olds in England fail more than half their developmental indicators in Reception year. These are children starting school with significant weaknesses in physical, emotional and social development.
We also know that nearly one in five children reaches the age of 19 without getting 5 GCSEs, a technical equivalent or an apprenticeship. That’s the basic benchmark for all children to set them on the path to successful adulthood.
Yet we accept that after 14 years of compulsory education and training almost a fifth of children leave without it?
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.
Today I’m presenting new data my office has produced linking educational data and social care data, and showing how they combine to determine a child’s GCSE results.
Firstly, a child who is not in poverty, does not have special educational needs and has not been involved with children’s social care, has an 80% chance of passing maths and English GCSEs. This is the right hand bar on the chart I’m showing now.
But as soon as you add these characteristics, their chances start to drop significantly.
Just being in poverty, or involved with social services, brings the chance of passing down to slightly less than 2 in 3.
When children have two or more of these vulnerabilities, their chances fall even further. If the child in poverty also has special educational needs, their chances of getting those basic passes falls to 1 in 4.
Finally, if a child grew up in poverty, was involved with children’s services and has had special educational needs, their chance of passing falls to 13%. That’s a 7 in 8 likelihood of failure.
These three vulnerability are in fact interlinked. This slide shows how many children are facing multiple issues.
What this means is that 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.
So 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 these 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.
I criticised Government earlier for viewing children as data points. My point here is: you need to go underneath the headline data, understand the interactions, and see where the same child has multiple issues that combine to damage their life chances.
And now we have that data – now what?
First, tackle the basic issues holding children back.
We can alleviate poverty, we can help people with mental health problems, we can provide speech and language therapy, we can monitor children’s early development and do something about it if children need extra help when they start school.
Once Government decides it wants to achieve something, it can focus on the steps necessary to achieve it.
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.
President Biden is proposing a huge package of tax credits and benefits, aimed squarely at families with children. This is projected to halve child poverty in just a year. They know 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.
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.
As we come out this pandemic, our memory should be the new opportunities it gave children, not what it took away.
Stop saying what can’t be done for children and put the full weight of government behind what can be done, with political will.
It will require our institutions to get out of the loop they are stuck in.
Too often officials tell ministers, “we don’t know how”, “we don’t have the data” or “it’s too expensive”. Vulnerable children stay in the “too difficult” box.
But 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.
It will mean tackling the silos of Government.
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.
The damage caused by these silos is also clear when we look at public spending on children. The Treasury, quite rightly, expects all public spending to be supported by cost benefit analysis. But it also uses siloed thinking to count the costs and the benefits, which I believe consistently discriminates against children and families.
Children and families are the recipient of multiple services. The same family can be hit by cuts to early help, family hubs, 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.
Secondly, investment in one service can deliver outcomes in another. Investing in family hubs or parenting programmes can lead to improved educational outcomes, behaviour and mental health – and ultimately better employment. But the NHS, police and DWP, which reap the benefits, don’t provide the funding because it’s not their job. So it doesn’t happen.
The Treasury can bridge these silos, but doesn’t. Instead, I am told the Treasury is looking to reduce revenue spending and focus on capital and investment – as if spending on the early years development or children’s mental health is not an investment for the future?
And third, short termism. The return on investment in a child will be realised across a lifetime. The economic payoff from investing in children only starts when they enter the workplace. And the economic case for providing help to parents relies on improving outcomes for their children – outcomes, which, in the long run, are worth a lot.
Yet when I made this argument to the Treasury in relation to the Government’s review of children’s social care, I was met with bemusement.
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.
It’s not complicated. The circumstance of a family determines the support they can provide. This determines the child’s life chances. That child then becomes a parent and their circumstances will determine their children’s life chances.
How can we ever expect to break the cycle of diminished life chances and missed opportunities if the bureaucracies inside Government can’t understand this?
Government can address these issues. But it’s a question of priorities, commitment and knowledge.
I’ve built a database in my time as Children’s Commissioner, gathering in one place all the known data about all childhood vulnerability in each local area in England. It uses the best statistical methods to come up with data where what we know isn’t granular enough. It’s the best possible information on the needs of children and the help they are or aren’t getting.
Ideally government would do this. It should be biting my hand off to find out more, see the data, and make use of it.
Instead, 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.
I believe that as a society, we have a moral imperative to help families help their children succeed. We must not accept any child growing up in poverty or starting school with a 90% chance of leaving without the basic requirements to succeed as an adult.
As we come out of the pandemic there is a 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.
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.
I’m so grateful to all the children I’ve met during my time as Children’s Commissioner. They’ve shared with me their stories and dreams and disappointments, and been so honest and so willing to trust me, a stranger, and to teach me about all we don’t know about them.
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.
Just as I will never forget the boy from 30 years ago who was deemed a success because he hadn’t ended up in prison, I won’t forget these children growing up now, who are still being failed by the system, by a lack of political will and a lack of ambition for what every child can achieve with the right support.
My parting plea to you is this: please don’t forget them either. And to any politicians who do care – 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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