This is how children fall through the gaps: Anne Longfield's final, exasperated warning to Whitehall

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Unafraid: Children's commissioner Anne Longfield is stepping down after six years in office, during which time she often spoke some very uncomfortable truths to government

Known for speaking truth to power, children’s commissioner Anne Longfield has held true to form in her final address. Her stark views on how many in Whitehall view children and why the vulnerable continue to slip through the net will not make comfortable reading for policy-makers. Pete Henshaw reports

“I have been shocked to discover how many officials 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.”

After six years as the children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield has delivered a stark warning to policy-makers as she steps down from office.

In an online address on Wednesday, February 17, she revealed that she was less than impressed with how many in Whitehall view children and said she often has to “force officials and ministers to the table”.

She said that the basic issues holding many children back are not being tackled by government and emphasised once again just how much poverty affects children’s educational outcomes.

She said: “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 SEN. A child growing up in poverty is 88 per cent more likely to have an SEN than a child who is more well-off.

“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.”

An analysis published alongside her final speech shows that three-quarters of the children who do not achieve the basic qualifications had at least one of these issues.

It shows that a child who is not in poverty, does not have SEN and has not been involved with social care, has an 80 per cent chance of passing maths and English GCSEs. Being in poverty or involvement with social services brings that chance down to less than two in three. If the child in poverty also has SEN, their chances fall to one in four. If a child grew up in poverty, was involved with children’s services and has had SEN, their chance of passing falls to 13 per cent, or one in eight.

Ms Longfield added: “It’s when these issues combine they do the most damage to a child’s prospects.”

However, the government, she says, still works in silos, not considering cumulative impact on families of cuts to different services.

During her time in office, Ms Longfield has developed a reputation for being a powerful advocate and voice for children and speaking often-uncomfortable truths to power and the gloves were certainly off in her final address.

“I’m fed up with hearing ‘we don’t know’ from people whose job it is to know. Politicians on all sides must raise their level of ambition. I believe the public would support them if they did.

“In Whitehall, children are pupils, or a child in care, or a patient on a mental health waiting list, or the recipient of an EHCP. They have only one issue that concerns the departmental silo. The process comes before the child.”

She continued: “What government seems unable to fathom is that 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.

“I have to force officials and ministers to the table, to watch them sit through a presentation, maybe ask a question, and then vacantly walk away.”

She accuses the Treasury of “consistently refusing” to analyse the cumulative impact of multiple spending cuts on families. She added: “Children and families are the recipient of multiple services. The same family can be hit by cuts to early help, children’s centres, benefits and health visiting.”

She compares the £1bn spent so far on recovering lost learning during the pandemic to the tens of billions given to other sectors of the economy: “What all this shows is an institutional bias against children. Whatever the data, the outcomes, the successful interventions – the system still says no.”

Ms Longfield warned prime minister Boris Johnson that his publicly stated commitment to “catch-up” was “incompatible” with looming plans to take the 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.”

She issued a challenge for politicians: “It’s not that we can’t do it. It’s not that we ‘don’t know what works’. It’s that we don’t set out to do it. The challenge I want to present to government and all political parties is threefold.

“Are you serious about children and their life chances? Will you follow this through not just this month, but this year and next? Do you understand the additional harm that has been done to children during the pandemic? Are you serious about ‘building back better’ and ‘levelling up’? And will you put those children who were already disadvantaged at the centre of it? This is not just about missing a few chapters in a textbook.”

Ms Longfield said it should be considered a “national scandal” that almost a fifth of children leave formal education without basic qualifications: “That is abysmal. 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 per cent of children are incapable of achieving basic qualifications.”

Ms Longfield is to be replaced by Dame Rachel de Souza, whose appointment is controversial because of her links to the Conservative Party. Dame Rachel is a founding chief of the Inspiration Trust, which was set up by former academies minister Lord Agnew.

However, she also has a strong track record of improving schools serving disadvantaged children and in accepting the appointment reiterated that she would be a “passionate advocate” for children living with poverty.

It remains to be seen just how critical and challenging of government policy Dame Rachel will choose to be. She certainly has a strong act to follow.


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