Interview - Anne Longfield

Nicole Weinstein
Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Anne Longfield OBE has been a passionate champion for children for more than 35 years, taking on the role of England’s Children’s Commissioner in 2015, after running charity 4Children. In an interview with Nursery World, just before her tenure in the post ended on 1 March, she describes the challenges she has faced and her accomplishments over the past six years.

Anne Longfield: 'I think early years is coming of age and has an opportunity to come centre stage'
Anne Longfield: 'I think early years is coming of age and has an opportunity to come centre stage'

HOW HAS YOUR ROLE EVOLVED IN THE PAST YEAR DURING THESE UNPRECEDENTED TIMES?

The last year has not only been the biggest test of whether you can bring children to the fore but also the biggest urgency to do so. Every day since the beginning of lockdown, we have had a 9am meeting where we look at what needs to be done and what urgent issues need to be raised.

Most of these things are behind the scenes, for example, letters to ministers and officials; others involve press liaison. This week, there is a letter going off to Kevin Collins, the new recovery commissioner, and the Prime Minister, outlining the fact that it’s really important to focus on education but children’s well-being must remain a key focus, too.

WHAT DO YOU THINK THE GOVERNMENT’S EARLY YEARS PRIORITIES SHOULD BE, GIVEN THE CHALLENGES FOR SETTINGS AND FAMILIES IN THE PANDEMIC?

When I started my role as children’s commissioner, the focus was very much about how to increase the number of places for the free 30 hours entitlement and for two-year-olds. That was what early years embodied six years ago. There is now more of a consensus about the importance of early years in preventative terms. Some of the data provided by the Early Intervention Foundation has gone a long way to help make this happen. They have shown the hard figures, so when I talk to the MoJ [Ministry of Justice] now about youth custody, they talk about early years; when I speak to the police about kids in gangs and vulnerability, they talk about early years.

Across different policy areas, there’s an increased understanding that it would be a lot better – and cheaper – to focus on the early years. And I hope what we have been able to do, with others, is show where those gaps are. The work that Andrea Leadsom is doing, combined with the family hubs, has the potential to combine to take policy on early years to a new place.

YOU RECENTLY SAID YOU WANT A WELL-BEING NHS COUNSELLOR IN EVERY SCHOOL.  DO YOU THINK THIS SHOULD BE EXTENDED TO EARLY YEARS SETTINGS?

The prevalence rates for children with probable mental health conditions have raised by 50 percent from one in nine to one in six. Children have told us that they want more help in schools and this is currently being rolled out, but it will only ever get to a quarter of schools in another two years’ time. Part of the recovery plan needs to be around mental health support in and around every school.

When I was at 4children and we were advocating and running children’s centres, our ambition was that they would all be what is now described as a family hub, providing a range of additional services around a cluster schools and early years settings. Through these hubs, families and parents would be able to access services, such as mental well-being, for the youngest most vulnerable children.

WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF ACHIEVING IN YOUR ROLE AS CHILDREN’S COMMISSIONER?

A big mission of mine was to try to show how many kids were vulnerable and the nature of that vulnerability. Working with Professor Leon Feinstein, we set out to have the most credible figures on child vulnerability and to have them in a format that could be constantly renewed and moved with time. There are more than two million children living in families where they have really fragile home environments: addiction, mental health, serious violence. This information is now in a children’s app, a free resource, which shows the national scale of vulnerability. It has 120 different indicators and it’s by local authority area and by constituency area.

We wanted Government to adopt and work with these figures, so I think it’s been an important building block. It provides a narrative to show us where children are falling through the gaps. It looks at when children go missing; when they are excluded by school; when they are groomed by gangs; and how those looking to perpetrate and exploit children are able to find them when they are not known to the authorities.

WHAT ABOUT THE YOUNGEST, MOST VULNERABLE MEMBERS OF SOCIETY GETTING LOST IN THE SYSTEM?

In my opinion, the two-and-a-half-year-old check is the golden gateway to finding out which children need extra help and putting the help in place to give them the boost and springboard into school. We know that if they start school behind, they will probably stay behind the whole time. The disadvantage gap at 16 shows that 40 per cent of that happens before they start school. This is the moment to intervene. But our research found that half the local authorities don’t know if there is support offered after the checks have taken place, and a lot of local authorities don’t know who hasn’t done the checks. These checks still remain, for me, a brilliant mechanism, but they need to be used effectively, followed up in a systematic way.

WHAT IS NEEDED TO ‘BUILD BACK BETTER’?

I’ve been pleased that early years is now spoken about alongside schools and that they have stayed open in the last lockdown – I think that has been a very good move – but a lot of early years providers are small businesses who are in a really difficult situation. I know that the prospects of them being able to survive reduces every time there’s another lockdown, so I think there has to be a serious recovery package for the early years. But I do think that there are more people than ever talking about early years seriously than ever I have known.

WHAT ARE YOUR IMMEDIATE PLANS?

I will be continuing my work with the health board taskforce to improve inpatient mental health. I am also working with some charities to help older children with very complex needs, where there are huge gaps in provision. I have been arguing the case around early years and children for decades now, so I’m not going to stop.

WHAT IS YOUR OUTGOING MESSAGE TO NURSERY WORLD READERS?

It’s been a tough year, but there has been a change in public attitude. More people can see what it’s like not to have resources to draw on during the pandemic. I think there is a renewed public feeling that these institutions – be that early years or schools – are more than just what happens during those few hours. They are like anchor points in our communities.

So, I think early years is coming of age. There’s going to be a period where I think communities and I hope Government as well will reset themselves in terms of what support we offer children, and I think early years has an opportunity to come centre stage within that.

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