After a decade as chief executive of EveryChild – an international development charity working to stop children growing up vulnerable and alone – I took over as the new boss at the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) last month. My second day in the office coincided with education secretary Nicky Morgan addressing the Conservative Party Conference.
NCB’s focus on education and learning through our long tradition of looking at how schools can enhance children’s wellbeing and social and emotional development is an important priority for me. And it now seems that with the new minister settling into her job in Westminster there is an opportunity to push this agenda forward.
In our conversations with officials and advisors, we have detected a welcome shift in emphasis. Although her conference speech understandably emphasised her commitment to following through on her predecessor’s policies on free schools and academies, Ms Morgan is also understood to be interested in looking at how schools and child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) can better meet the needs of children.
And following Rotheram, Ms Morgan and her advisors are giving serious thought to the important role that schools play in preventing children from getting involved in abusive and coercive relationships. We will be using our influence to shape both of these developments.
First, we are encouraged by the fact that Ms Morgan has given her junior minister, Sam Gyimah, responsibility for mental health within the Department for Education (DfE). He will be leading the DfE’s input into a new Department of Health (DH) and NHS England taskforce on children’s mental health. We are particularly concerned that schools, health services and others have a clear understanding of how they can support children and young people, both to look after their emotional wellbeing and to access specialist support when they need it.
This will be supported by better data about the challenges facing today’s young people from the ‘What About YOUth?’ survey and the new prevalence study commissioned by the DH.
It will also require, however, a clear strategy for promoting mental health and ensuring identified needs are met, backed by national leadership and accountability to ensure decisions made across government and public services are consistent with this goal. In spite of positive aspirations in government documents on mental health, we have seen reports of disinvestment in CAMHS locally and a crisis in access to specialist inpatient services.
Second, following Rotheram there is now a political opportunity to push for more effective PSHE, including sex and relationships education (SRE), in schools. We have long made the case for pupils to have a statutory entitlement to PSHE. Children and young people want opportunities to discuss issues that are relevant to their lives, such as sexual health and relationships, emotions, mental health, diet and exercise, and personal finance.
Research shows that good-quality PSHE promotes children and young people’s health, wellbeing and personal safety, and can improve learning and attainment. However, we know from Ofsted that what is currently on offer to many is not good enough. Providing pupils with a statutory entitlement to PSHE would drive up the quality teaching and enable schools to give sufficient time to this vital subject.
With these policy movements in government and as the political scene becomes even more interesting in the run up to a general election, it is an exciting time to be joining the children’s sector. NCB has a critical role to play in speaking up for children and young people so that all politicians see their needs as a priority that they must not ignore.
Anna Feuchtwang is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk