UK on track for record levels of child poverty, warns Children’s Commissioner, yet education secretary’s focus is a culture war

Commentary Opinion

The Children’s Commissioner for England has used her final speech to excoriate the people employed and paid to educate, look after and protect the children of this country, while simultaneously condemning the silence around their collective failings.

Anne Longfield, whose six year tenure ends this month, delivered a devastating final report on how far children are being systemically failed by the government and the agencies it funds and directs, while warning the UK is “on track to have the highest levels of child poverty since records began in the 1960s.”

The commissioner pulled no punches in condemning “the national scandal” that is children’s education while exposing the neglect that makes hypocrites of a government that claims to prioritise protecting vulnerable children yet perpetuates a system that keeps them invisible.

“The Prime Minister’s promise to ‘level up’ is just a slogan unless it focuses on children,” Longfield told an online conference, in a speech titled ‘Building back better: Reaching England’s left behind children’.

Longfield’s speech comes at the end of her six years leading the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, an executive non-departmental public body (NDPB), funded by the department for education, to promote “the rights, views and interests of children in policies or decisions affecting their lives. They particularly represent children who are vulnerable or who find it hard to make their views known.”

‘Children seen as remote concepts or data points on an annual return’

Reflecting on her six years as the children’s champion, Longfield said: “I have been shocked to discover how many of these officials [frontline professionals who work with children, and the thousands of civil servants in Whitehall] have never met any of the children they are responsible for.

“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.”

Longfield gives the example that one-in-seven 5 year olds in England fail more than half their developmental indicators in reception year – indicating huge numbers of children have significant weaknesses in physical, emotional and social development.

‘It should be a national scandal’

Longfield laments that “we accept that after 14 years of compulsory education and training almost a fifth of children leave without” attaining “the basic benchmark for all children to set them on the path to successful adulthood” – 5 GCSEs, a technical equivalent or an apprenticeship.

“That is abysmal,” said 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.”

Williamson’s focus – free speech

Longfield’s speech came just a day after the secretary of state for education, Gavin Williamson delivered his big announcement which, by definition, reflects the focus of his taxpayer funded department’s main concern in recent months – freedom of speech at UK universities.

Not the school closures or the home schooling by parents, or the exams’ confusion, or schools reopening, or free school meals, or refunds for university students, vaccinations for teachers, testing for pupils.

And nothing either about the fundamental issues raised by the executive of the Office of the Children’s Commission, described by the commissioner herself as “shocking” and “a national scandal”.

Because instead of anything about the plethora of other extremely serious issues affecting and impacting on children and education – such as resources for the most vulnerable, and checks on their well being – the secretary of state waded into the culture war.

Williamson said he is acting to save free speech because he’s been “deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring.”

“That is why,” he explained, “we must strengthen free speech in higher education, by bolstering the existing legal duties and ensuring strong, robust action is taken if these are breached.”

Which in short means arming the Office for Students – another independent regulator/NDPB – with powers to fine universities deemed to have breached their requirement to support free speech; and Williamson’s appointment of a “champion” to investigate allegations of no-platforming, sackings of academics or other infringements.

The elected treasurer of the London School of Economics’ Conservative Society, Jason Reed spoke for many in a column for the Independent, titled: “The government’s obsession with provoking culture wars is embarrassing”

More embarrassing is that Williamson, as education secretary, is “deeply worried about the chilling effect” censorious snowflakes are having on university campuses, while everyone else is worried about the impact the lockdown is having on children’s education.

‘UK set for highest levels of child poverty since records began’

The Children’s Commissioner is clearly worried about the impact – or rather the lack of an impact – government policies are having and Longfield challenged Johnson to ensure his promised plan to “level up” Britain is more than a slogan by committing the funds to actually help Britain’s children.

“President Biden is proposing a huge package of tax credits and benefits, aimed squarely at families with children,” said Longfield. “This is projected to halve child poverty in just a year. They know that children are the heart of our future economic success.

“Yet in the UK we’re on track to have the highest levels of child poverty since records began in the 1960s.

“Two weeks ago the Prime Minister said educational catch-up was the key focus of the entire Government – yet we still don’t know if next month he is planning to take the [£20] Universal Credit uplift away from millions of families.

“The two positions aren’t compatible. If the Government is really focused on educational catch-up, it wouldn’t even countenance pushing 800,000 children into the type of devastating 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.”

Gove wished he could clone Longfield’s successor, de Souza

Longfield is being replaced by Dame Rachel de Souza, the founding chief executive of the Inspiration Trust who is so highly regarded by Michael Gove, he once said he would like to clone her “23,000 times”.

De Souza – who was previously tipped to become head of Ofsted – becomes Children’s Commissioner for England in March and her close links to the Conservative party means she is a controversial choice.

In 2012, when Gove was education secretary under David Cameron, the current Cabinet Officer minister and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said: “If anyone asked me what my ideal education policy would be, it would be to clone Rachel 23,000 times.”

Announcing her appointment in December, Williamson said: “It is more important than ever before to have experienced and dedicated colleagues working with us in a shared ambition to protect and defend the most vulnerable children. I look forward to finalising the appointment of Dame Rachel de Souza as the next children’s commissioner, where she will bring her considerable experience of raising outcomes for every child to this essential role.”

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