Children's commissioner Anne Longfield takes ministers to task in final speech

Annette Rawstrone
Wednesday, February 17, 2021

‘The Prime Minister’s promise to “level up” is just a slogan unless it focuses on children,’ challenged Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield in her outgoing speech today [Wednesday].

Anne Longfield: 'Too often the people in charge of the systems children need simply don’t see them and try to understand their world'
Anne Longfield: 'Too often the people in charge of the systems children need simply don’t see them and try to understand their world'

She called for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to show how serious he is about children by putting them at the heart of his post-Covid plans.

In the speech, Ms Longfield reflected on her six years as Children’s Commissioner and looked ahead to the challenges to childhood brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.  She highlighted that the pandemic will have made the lives of many children, especially vulnerable children, worse.

It’s impossible to overstate how damaging the last year has been for many children – particularly those who were already disadvantaged,’ she said. 

‘Covid is the biggest challenge to our society in 70 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?’

Ms Longfield called for a new ‘Covid Covenant’ of education and wellbeing support in every community to help children and young people to recover from the pandemic.

‘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,’ she said.

‘It will take political will and funding – an opportunity fund – measured in billions, but it would be worth every penny.’

She also considered how those working in Whitehall view children and questioned how they can draft policies when they do not understand what children are experiencing.

‘I have been shocked to discover how many officials have never met any of the children they are responsible for,’ she said. ‘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.’

A government spokesperson said, 'Protecting vulnerable children has been at the heart of our response to the pandemic, driven by our commitment to level up opportunities and outcomes. That’s why we have enabled the most vulnerable children to continue attending school in person, while providing laptops, devices and data packages to those learning at home and ensuring the most disadvantaged children are fed and warm.'

Dame Rachel de Souza will take up the post of Children’s Commissioner for England next month. She has worked in education for more than 25 years, most recently as chief executive of Inspiration Trust, a multi-academy trust based in Norfolk and north Suffolk.

  • Read our interview with Anne Longfield in the March issue of Nursery World, out at the end of February.

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