A ‘once-in-a-generation’ review of the future of childhood is being launched today by England’s newly-appointed children’s commissioner.
Dame Rachel De Souza, who took up the post on 1 March, replacing Anne Longfield, said that the review will be inspired by the pioneering 1940s Beveridge Report by William Beveridge, which laid the foundations of the post-war social security system and the National Health Service.
The review will be driven by the largest consultation with children ever undertaken in England: The Big Ask and it will re-cast Beveridge’s ‘five giants’ for children today, identifying the barriers which prevent them having the best childhoods; the best preparation for successful futures, and a better life than their parents.
Leading the consultation will be a new ‘Childhood Commission’ whose role will be to put forward solutions to improve children’s lives and develop tough targets to hold Government and others to account.
It will not focus only on the problems that have been highlighted and amplified by the Covid pandemic but will also address the policy shortfalls that have held back the lives of many children for decades.
After the Easter break, ‘The Big Ask’ online survey will be distributed to all schools; youth custody organisations; CAMHS inpatient units and children’s homes. It will also be posted on the Oak National Academy and advertised on social media, child-facing charities and other communications channels.
Face-to-face interviews and focus groups will be conducted with children who are under-represented and harder to reach.
Children will be asked questions about how the pandemic has changed their lives: for better or worse; what their aspirations are and the barriers to reaching them; how things are at home; how their communities and local environment could be improved, and how they feel about the future and the challenges facing the world.
Launching the Childhood Commission, Dame Rachel de Souza, children’s commissioner for England, said, ‘As we emerge from the Covid pandemic, this is the moment for something big for children to recognise the sacrifices they have made. I have seen first-hand the effect of this crisis on young people’s hopes and dreams, and sometimes our answers simply have not been good enough.
‘Our response to the trauma of the Second World War was to create a blueprint for a social service system and a National Health Service that improved our lives. We have the chance to do the same again now for children. There is a huge opportunity to remake our social settlement which won’t come again for decades, and we must seize it.
‘I want the Childhood Commission to have the spirit and the ambition of the Beveridge Report – something that leads to long term changes that improve the chances of every single child, whatever their early standing in life and wherever they are in England.
‘My ambition is for the Childhood Review to not just reveal the barriers that are holding children back, but also to help Government and others to provide policy solutions. It will also set out metrics and targets I will be using to hold them to account.
‘I want to see childhood right at the top of the Government agenda. That means every speech from the Prime Minister and Chancellor mentioning children, and every Government department constantly pushing to improve the lives of children.
‘We will start by listening to children, holding the largest consultation with children in England that there has ever been. We want to hear from children from every background about their hopes and ambitions for the future, and to hear what is holding them back. Their views and experiences and ideas will help shape the way we deliver better outcomes not just for them, but for all our children in the decade ahead.’
Timeline for change
The children’s commissioner will publish an interim report before the summer, setting out children’s expectations and aspirations, and the barriers to attaining them, informed by the results of the consultation, an evidence review and data analysis. A subsequent report will propose solutions, investment, metrics, and set out the challenge to society to pay back to this generation of children and re-set their future.
The Childhood Commission will look at the ways in which society and political structures often short-change children. The pandemic has exposed social fault lines which had been hidden from the view of many and affected the wellbeing and prospects of the young. The number of children with probable mental health problems rose from one in nine children in 2017 to one in six in July 2020, and the IFS has calculated that six months of missed schooling can be expected to reduce someone’s lifetime earnings by around £40,000. Multiplied across all of the 8.7 million school children in the UK, this would amount to £350 billion over their lifetimes. The long-term impact of the crisis across all areas of children’s lives will only be known in years to come.
The Commission will argue that the prospects and welfare of children must be put at the heart of our economic recovery and show the way to do it. It will propose a 10-year plan with annual metrics to monitor progress, across the sweep of childhood and the span of Government.
Children’s charities, teaching unions and others have welcomed the review.
Mark Russell, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, said, ‘We look forward to the commissioner’s recommendations to rebuild childhood after the pandemic. The scale of the challenge is huge and we need to be big and bold. Ultimately, it’s up to the Government to deliver change through an ambitious agenda for children and young people and we hope their intention for putting children’s well-being first as we emerge from the Covid crisis are not just warm words but lead to tangible action.’
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, said, ‘The voice of children and young people should be central to how the country recovers from Covid, not just immediately but in the longer term too. “The Big Ask” consultation will provide valuable insight.
‘In reality, it’s been long known that the fundamental issues are poverty and disadvantage, poor wellbeing, discrimination and inequality, and they can cut across every aspect of a child’s life chances. Covid-19 brought these long-standing problems into sharp focus. Government is yet to successfully tackle these issues, and seeking to address the problems individually will fail. Children need the support of well-integrated and well-funded support services.’
Responding to the launch of the review, Kate Green MP, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said, ‘Over the last decade the Conservatives have overseen record numbers of children being pushed into poverty, a worsening mental health crisis and an 18 month gap in learning between disadvantaged children and their peers at GCSE.
‘Labour launched our Bright Future Taskforce last week to help children to recover from the impacts of the pandemic and ensure all children can reach their potential. Alongside the children’s commissioner’s “Big Ask” I hope this will deliver a step change for children.’
The Government said it ‘welcomed’ the children’s commissioner’s challenge and said it would continue to invest in policies that aim to ensure children can fulfil their potential.
A spokesperson said, ‘We know that children and families have faced unprecedented challenges during the pandemic. We’ve expanded frontline charity support and provided new resources for schools and teachers to support children and young people’s mental health, as well as training from experts to overcome any anxiety or trauma as they return to the classroom.
‘Our £1.7 billion investment in recovery support will help tackle the impact of any lost learning and we are investing an additional £79 million to increase the number of mental health support teams working with schools and colleges.’