The problem with services for children, Anne Longfield says, is that often the children are incidental.
“How can we reshape services that are meant to be there for children, but actually children get slightly grafted on?” the children’s commissioner says. “I guess I’m a believer in the fact that, if you shape services around what children need, you get better outcomes for kids.”
Longfield’s job involves standing up for the rights of children throughout England. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner is currently renting workspace alongside the Department for Education in Westminster. But its remit, in fact, cuts across education, health and social services.
Longfield has been in the post for two years. She was previously chief executive of the childcare charity 4Children.
In that role, she set up children’s centres and after-school clubs, and advised the Blair government.
In 2003, New Labour launched Every Child Matters, an initiative that required education, health and social services to work together to ensure children’s safety and wellbeing. This has since been dismantled. However, it is a model that Longfield continues to admire.
“I’m a big supporter of agencies working together,” she says. “I love the idea that GPs go into schools. Social workers in schools… If you can get groups of different professionals, including from the voluntary sector, working around a school, you can really offer really valuable range of support for children – and for parents, too.”
Longfield’s office is bright and light; an orchid blossoms on the windowsill. Summer sunlight reflects off the white walls, and – perhaps inevitably for the time of year – conversation drifts to the subject of exams.
'Stress-test the exam system'
“Whenever I get a group of children together, they do talk about anxiety about exams,” she says.
“I’m not an expert in exams at all. I don’t think I’m saying I want the exam system to change. But, whatever system it is, I think it needs to be stress-tested against the interests of children within it. I would like children to be able to get the support they need to go through.”
This support would not be limited to exam season. “Clearly, there needs to be particular attention around exam time,” Longfield says. “But I think this is also cumulative. A big part of this is prevention, as well.”
Longfield has personal experience of the difference that a supportive school can make. She grew up in the West Yorkshire market town of Otley, attending local schools. Even now, she says, many of her contemporaries in the town still define themselves by which local school they attended.
Neither of her parents attended university: “There were a fair amount of books around, but we didn’t spend all our time talking about current affairs or the like. If there hadn’t been really strong teachers at various stages that had said to me, ‘You can go for it – why are you holding yourself back?’, I wouldn’t have done half of the things I’ve done now.
“Actually having someone who has faith in you – having someone there who can see that potential – is really, really vital.”
For the remainder of her six-year tenure as commissioner, she wants to focus on children who are falling through the gaps: those for whom an encouraging teacher could make all the difference.
“There are those children who have already been identified: who are in care, or on the child protection register,” she says. “But actually, there’s a group of other children that were vulnerable but weren’t high enough in vulnerability to get that support. And it seemed to me that they often fell through the gaps.
“I would really love a dialogue with teachers about the issues that they’re identifying and covering and facing, month in and month out. In my experience, there aren’t many people that know more about children’s welfare and what’s going on in children’s lives than the teachers that see them in the classroom every day.”
Her first step will be to look at the areas where she says some children are falling through the gaps: pupil referral units, alternative provision, home-schooling and madrasas.
She will also focus on lower-level mental health: pupils who are not ill enough to require the intervention of child and adolescent mental health services, but who experience low levels of anxiety or depression. Longfield estimates such cases account for 85 per cent of mental illness in schools.
“I’d like to see counsellors in every school – I think that’s what children want to see.” She pauses. “There’s a cost about that, and I think that cost will have to be met.
“We suspect that, with children’s mental health in schools, there will need to be funding. I just think that there can’t be any other route than that more funding is needed for that specific issue.”
She is aware that funding for schools and children’s services is tight. But she is also unafraid of a fight. “We’re not afraid of talking about funding, at all,” she says.
“In lots of areas, actually, the amount spent on children’s services has gone up. But that’s because it’s spent on crisis intervention when things are going wrong. And probably less so on early intervention, when of course it’s much more cost-effective.
“What needs to be invested in is early intervention: pastoral care in schools and levels of support in schools for children.”
It is, she says, about working out collective priorities: do we want to ensure the best possible start for all children? “As a country,” she says, “I think it’s important we ensure the right services are in place.”
This profile originally appeared in Tes magazine on 23 June 2017