Anne Longfield, Children's Commissioner for England, faces Education Committee

14/11/17

Previously we have covered Education Secretary Justine Greening's and Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman's Education Committee meetings. This week it was the turn of Anne Longfield OBE to appear in front of them to give an account of the work she has done on behalf of children. The Children’s Commissioner’s website says of Longfield's role:

“She speaks up for children and young people so that policymakers and the people who have an impact on their lives take their views and interests into account when making decisions about them.”

Her position is independent of government, and the Education Committee is cross-party, currently chaired by Robert Halfon MP.

The topics discussed were:

Alternative provision

This is when children, for a variety of reasons, are educated away from the traditional school setting. Longfield said that children falling through the gaps in education is something she and her team is closely examining, because at the moment outcomes are unacceptably low for those children. She has spoken to children in alternative provision about their views on it, and while some like the out-of- school setting, others have told her they are not keen on the limited scope of the curriculum they study.

Activities since last appearing before the committee

Longfield replied that she and her team have been working to gather evidence and put forward children's views to decision-makers. A particular priority has been children in care. She has established a vulnerability framework, since there was no common definition of ‘vulnerability’ as well as huge gaps in data. The framework has been recognised by government, academia and charities. Part of her report for government over the next few years will be how different government departments can consider the needs of children.

Disadvantage and the north/south divide

She was asked about the different outcomes and opportunities for children in parts of the north of England, where poverty and lack of opportunity play more of a part in determining their future lives than more affluent southern peers. She responded that there were lessons to be learned and applied nationally from some schools in London and the South East that had raised the achievement levels of their pupils, and that building aspiration for children at every stage of their school career was crucial.

Online safety, cyber-bullying and digital rights

Longfield spoke about her digital taskforce which has examined children’s use of social media. When prompted on the response from parents, she confirmed a positive reaction, since parents have been the audience “shouting out for help” in this area. There are online resources for teachers and parents, such as the digital five-a-day, which help to equip parents to talk to their children about online safety. Chair Robert Halfon asked if the law needs to be changed on cyber-bullying, because social media companies don’t do anything to stop it. Longfield responded that further legislation is possibly needed. There is a role for government in holding social media companies to account, but parents also have a strong role to play in protecting children online.

Are there too many children in care?

Everyone wants all parents to look after children, and government can encourage ways for parents to work to their strengths which prevents children coming into care in the first place is the view Longfield took. However, she also said that vulnerable children need help and may need to be taken into the care of the state for their own good. Although numbers of children in care have increased, it may be a good thing if children have needed state intervention for some time, and there are children in families with complex problems where parents have addictions or a history of domestic violence. Longfield had been an advocate of the Sure Start system, and suggested that more money on early intervention would be beneficial, because it prevents crises developing.

Is the government moving quickly enough on bringing in compulsory PSHE to all schools?

She is pleased with the government’s commitment to compulsory PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education) in all schools, with the caveat that it must be consistent, of a high quality and delivered by specialist teachers, and that there should be more urgency around plans to bring it in.

Mental health provision and the impact of government policies

Longfield responded that looking after children’s mental health was the job of schools working alongside parents and the wider community. Children said they wanted mental health support to come to them, in other words at school, rather than having to visit a GP. She proposed that children’s wellbeing at school should be a measure of success as well as academic attainment. The gap to fill is in being able to refer children in need to specialists in or around schools. Longfield hopes that an upcoming green paper on mental health will be 'bold and brave'.

Should children be given the vote at 16?

The measure was something Longfield had previously campaigned for, but the recommendations at the time came back that it was not a good idea. Now that young people are more engaged in politics, she suggested the issue be looked into again – but in her experience the issue was split among children.

What impact will Universal Credit have on vulnerable children?

Longfield expressed concern about the rollout of welfare reforms, where families with children will be the hardest hit, especially for those with more than two children. She will ask the Chancellor (Philip Hammond) to pause the rollout of Universal Credit to families with children until the impact is known.

What more can be done on early years and intervention?

The Commissioner said she is convinced of the benefits of early intervention and the positive difference financial independence makes to families. She referenced significant investment in children under five, but pointed to the fact that it’s hard for parents to know if they are eligible for benefits, or they have to choose between different forms of care. She would like to see government childcare initiatives become more universal and fluid, and fit around parents’ lives and working arrangements.

Does informal exclusion ignore the rights of the child?

With the number of children excluded from school on the rise, Longfield pointed out that many of them are SEND (Special Educational Needs or Disabilities) pupils, and that their alternative provision is often as a result of behaviour. She conceded that current policies don’t have regard for children’s needs and that the amount of home-educated children had doubled in recent years with numbers now around 50,000. Schools have been found to encourage parents that their child may be better off at home, and there may be incentives for schools to get such children out of school into alternative provision that may not be in the interests of the child.

Robert Halfon said that the government’s idea of a careers passport had stalled, and asked Longfield if she liked the idea.

“I would back strengthening careers support,” she replied, identifying careers passports as a good way to show employers what children are capable of. There is potential to engage businesses in schools and create options for children. 

You can listen back to an audio recording of the meeting if you missed it.