Early years at ‘bottom of agenda’ says sector, as Children’s Commissioner takes Government to task in final speech

Kathy Oxtoby
Friday, February 19, 2021

Despite a ‘strong voice’ and a ‘wider remit’ outgoing Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield leaves the sector still at the bottom of the Government’s agenda, and her replacement must make early years a priority, sector leaders say.

Anne Longfield has been a strong voice for child protection.
Anne Longfield has been a strong voice for child protection.

A ‘strong voice’ emphasising children’s needs, but leaves early years remaining at the bottom of the Government’s priorities.

That was the verdict from early years leaders when EYE asked for an assessment of Anne Longfield’s performance during her six years as the Children’s Commissioner for England.

Purnima Tanuku OBE, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), told EYE: ‘As Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield has been a strong voice for child protection, online security and the need to focus on children’s needs in the response to the current pandemic.’

Bottom of the agenda
But Neil Leitch, Early Years Alliance chief executive said it was ‘hugely frustrating that even with the Children’s Commissioner’s wider remit, early years has remained resolutely at the bottom of the agenda for those at the highest levels of Government’.

The sector’s reaction came after the outgoing commissioner delivered her final speech in post with a challenge to the Prime Minister Boris Johnson to demonstrate how serious he is about children by putting them at the heart of his post-Covid plans. Her speech warned that the Prime Minister’s promise to ‘level up’ will be ‘just a slogan unless it focuses on children’.

In the speech, Ms Longfield reflected on her years as Children’s Commissioner since March 2015, and looked ahead to the challenges to childhood brought about by the pandemic.

She stressed how the pandemic will have made the lives of many children, particularly vulnerable children, worse.

‘It’s impossible to overstate how damaging the last year has been for many children – particularly those who were already disadvantaged,’ she said. 

‘Covid is the biggest challenge to our society in 70 years. But also an opportunity to reflect and rebuild. “Building back better” must mean rethinking our priorities and the way we care for children. We must be honest about the scale of the challenge and face the tough questions about the gaps that we know exist.

‘How many children are in families that are struggling to support them; how many are starting school so far behind they’ll never catch up; how many children with mental health needs or special education needs aren’t getting the help they should be?’

Ms Longfield called for a new ‘Covid Covenant’ of education and well-being support in every community to help children and young people to recover from the pandemic.

‘I want to see the Prime Minister getting passionate about making sure that we don’t define children by what’s happened during this year, but we define ourselves by what we offer to them,’ she said.

‘It will take political will and funding – an opportunity fund – measured in billions, but it would be worth every penny.’

Anne Longfield’s successor
Dame Rachel de Souza, will take up the post of Children’s Commissioner for England on 1 March. Dame de Souza has worked in education for more than 25 years, most recently as chief executive of Inspiration Trust, a multi-academy trust based in Norfolk and north Suffolk.

She has been a trustee at Shakespeare Globe and Ambition Institute, has numerous qualifications in leadership and education, and was appointed a Dame in the New Year’s Honours in 2014 for her services to education.

Dame de Souza said: ‘For many years I’ve been a passionate advocate for children and young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

‘As Children’s Commissioner I’m looking forward to standing up for children across England.

‘We all know just how difficult Covid has been for children and families up and down the country. I am going to play my part in helping level up opportunities for children, and ensuring their welfare everywhere, as we come through this difficult time and look towards a more positive future.’

Commenting on expectations of the new commissioner, Mr Leitch, of the Early Years Alliance, said she must ‘make early years the number one priority’.

‘In particular, this means adopting the clear recommendations for raising the pay and status of a dedicated but completely neglected early years workforce.

‘Not only is early childhood development the most critical time in a child’s life, this sector is at crisis point. With the ongoing loss of childcare providers and children’s centres, it is vital that the dire long-term consequences of neglecting our youngest citizens and their parents reaches the Cabinet table.’

Ms Tanuku said: ‘We know that children’s early years are absolutely fundamental for their whole educational journey and life chances. With a background in education the new Children’s Commissioner is well placed to champion the value and importance of high quality early education and care.

‘The early years sector has been like a fourth emergency service throughout this pandemic and we look forward to working with the new Commissioner on the reform and investment that is needed for the long term and the future of children from all backgrounds.’

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