May 2021 edition: The Big Ask

The Big Ask

This has been a year like no other for children. The sacrifices they have made are enormous, like not seeing friends and family, having to learn remotely, and missing out on the things that children love to do outside school. Some are also coping with bereavement. I visited a school in April where thirty of the children had lost a close relative to COVID-19. For some children, this pandemic has been a life-changing event.

It is so important that we come out of this crisis with a determination to repay children for everything they have done to help us fight COVID-19. They are asking us: what happens next? They want to know how we can help them not just to get back to normal, but to do even better. How can we make sure that every child, wherever they live, whatever their background, has a happy childhood and leaves school with good qualifications and choices?

As Children’s Commissioner, I want to find solutions to those questions. The pandemic has revealed some of the major structural barriers that have been holding back many of our children for decades, but we need to embrace the challenge and use the end of the pandemic to take stock of where we are and to develop the vision and ambition needed.

In the short term, I’m confident children can catch-up in the classroom. As a school leader, I had to go into schools where there hadn’t been a proper maths teacher for years, and yet we managed to get children through their GCSEs. We can turn things around for children now too. I know this is something Sir Kevan Collins is focussed on and, alongside learning, I am sure his proposals will help to boost children’s wellbeing and help them to catch up on social experiences. It is so important children are given opportunities to rediscover play, sport, clubs and activities.

We can now go to Government and to others who provide services for children and say: this is what children are telling us they want from adults, now put them top of your agenda.

Rachel De Souza

Then there are the generational problems, compounded by the pandemic – like a children’s social services system that doesn’t always deliver for every child, the children with SEND who aren’t receiving the right support, or the challenges around social media.

There is also the epidemic in children’s mental health, which was a serious problem even before the pandemic, and which has become even worse during lockdown. Mental health is the top issue that children have raised with me when I’ve spoken to them recently.

We also need to ask why some children in poorer areas are doing well compared to others facing the same economic challenges, and why there are thousands of children leaving school every year without basic qualifications. Or why so few girls are doing STEM subjects?

I want us to tackle these challenges through "The Childhood Commission”, which I launched in my first month as Children’s Commissioner, looking to the Beveridge Report in the 1940s for inspiration and harnessing its optimism and its spirit of hope that entrenched problems could be solved.

Our Childhood Commission will reveal the barriers but also propose policy and services solutions and develop targets by which improvements can be monitored. It will look at the ways in which society and political structures have often short-changed children and argue that the prospects and welfare of children must be put at the heart of our economic recovery.

We will update Beveridge’s ‘Five Giants’ for children today so they can have the best childhoods, the best preparation for a successful future and a better life than their parents. We will propose a 10-year plan and we will introduce annual metrics to monitor progress.

This work is being driven by the views of children themselves. Thanks to the support of schools, our survey ‘The Big Ask’ has received hundreds of thousands of responses from children and I have been travelling around the country visiting schools to hear about children’s experiences of the pandemic and their hopes for the future.

We can now go to Government and to others who provide services for children and say: this is what children are telling us they want from adults, now put them top of your agenda. I am optimistic that the blueprint we provide can inspire all our politicians to think about children when they are making decisions on spending, on poverty, on education reform.

When I hand over this post to a new Commissioner in six years’ time, I want to be able to look back at a period when the adults in power in this country did even more for children than the post-war generation. It is the least we can do after everything children have done for us over the last year, and I look forward to working with schools to make it happen.