The government’s pledge to ‘build back better’ and ‘level up’ after the Coronavirus pandemic is just a slogan unless it focuses on children, the children’s commissioner has warned.
The prime minister and all political parties should set a clear goal that’s about children’s lives, not the institutions they attend, Anne Longfield said in her final speech as children’s commissioner.
Instead of talking about increasing the number of children going to a good or outstanding school, Ms Longfield wants the government to commit to making children better off and 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,” said Ms Longfield.
“As we come out this pandemic, our memory should be the new opportunities it gave children, not what it took away.”
The children’s commissioner highlighted that 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.
Furthermore, one in five children reaches the age of 19 without getting 5 GCSEs, a technical equivalent or an apprenticeship - the basic benchmark for all children to set them on the path to successful adulthood.
“We accept that after 14 years of compulsory education and training almost a fifth of children leave without it? That is abysmal,” said Ms Longfield. “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,” she added.
The children’s commissioner highlighted the link between educational attainment and a child’s circumstances.
- 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.
- However, if that child is growing up in poverty, or involved with social services, brings the chance of passing down to slightly less than 2 in 3.
- 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% - a 7 in 8 likelihood of failure.
Therefore, 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.
850 million school days lost
“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,” said Ms Longfield. “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.”
Even if schools open as planned in March, England’s children will have missed 850 million days of in-person schooling since the start of the pandemic. There is now definitive evidence of the harm this time out of school has caused children and Ms Longfield said that it is 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,” she said adding that the UK is on track to have the highest levels of child poverty since records began in the 1960s.
While the Prime Minister said educational catch-up was the key focus of the entire government, the children’s commissioner warned that it is still not clear whether the Universal Credit uplift will be removed from millions of families from next month. Ms Longfield stated that “the two positions aren’t compatible”. If the government is really focused on educational catch-up, she added, it would not even consider pushing 800,000 children into the type of 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,” added Ms Longfield.
The silos in government therefore need tackling, she said, and politicians on all sides must raise their level of ambition.
In government, children are seen as pupils, or a child in care, or a patient on a mental health waiting list, or the recipient of an EHC plan and the process comes before the child. However, 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.
Children and families are the recipient of multiple services and the same family can be hit by cuts to early help, family hubs, benefits and health visiting.
Furthermore, investment in one service can deliver outcomes in another, for example, investing in family hubs or parenting programmes can lead to improved educational outcomes, behaviour and mental health – and ultimately better employment. The Treasury can bridge the silos, but doesn’t, she adds.
As we come out of the pandemic there is a desperate need to build back better for children and a year of opportunity should be launched 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.
A “Covid covenant” should be developed, taking children out of boxes marked ‘problem’ and seeing them as the opportunities they are.
“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. 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,” said Ms Longfield.
“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,” she concluded.