Watchdog is parent with real power

Welsh children's commissioner Peter Clarke is well aware of the pressures on today's 18-year-olds thanks to his much-tested son. Adi Bloom reports

LIKE many parents of 18-year-olds, Peter Clarke worries that his son is being over-worked and over-tested. Unlike most parents, though, he is in a position to do something about it.

The 52-year-old is the children's commissioner for Wales - the first person to hold such a job in the UK. He is sponsored by the Welsh Assembly to stand up for young people and highlight their concerns. These currently include pupils being overburdened by exams.

He has just seen his son, Liam, take his A-levels in economics, politics and maths: one of the first year of pupils to be tested all the way through school. He fears that such excessive testing could lead to academic burnout.

"There is so much people of that age should be doing: rites of passage they should be going through, from taking their driving tests to embarking on their first sexual experiences.

"It's a highly testing time for them in the broader sense, at the same time that they're doing tests. As a parent, it's hard finding the balance between being encouraging and being overbearing."

He is currently timetabling a series of discussions with young people at different stages of school testing. Its conclusions will be presented to the Assembly.

He said: "Although education has such a high priority in everyone's agenda, we rarely hear the voices of children. The services are meant to be there for young people, but there is very little opportunity for feedback from them. That is one thing I see as my key role: ensuring that feedback happens."

Mr Clarke was appointed as the first children's commissioner in March 2001, when the post was created. The position, a fixed-term, seven-year tenure, followed a six-year term as director of ChildLine Wales.

He feels his previous role equipped him well for his current job: listening to children, and presenting their needs to judges and politicians. These needs range from complaints about the condition of school toilets, to concern about the award of "Rear of the Year" to 16-year-old Charlotte Church, to the undeniably serious cases of abuse and parental neglect.

The common factor, says Mr Clarke, is the fundamental issue of respect. It is this that informs his attitude towards young people: they can, he says, spot pretension immediately.

He said: "My sons always keep my feet on the ground. They're so rude about my appearances on television. They say: 'Don't try and be cool. Just be who you are'."

From his son Liam's perspective there are advantages to having a father whose job is to listen to the opinions of young people.

He said:"If I do something at school, he won't go off. A letter home to my parents isn't as much of a threat as it is to other people. And it feels like what I tell him does get heard."

He believes that a widespread patronising attitude has led to a genuine belief among young people that adults think very little of them and their ideas. "Although some of their ideas may be whacky, they are very good at recognising what is practical and what isn't. And they think laterally - they have new ways of thinking."

This is something that Mr Clarke hopes to harness, through continued classroom and youth-club-based discussions. From October, he will also pilot a programme of school ambassadors, who will raise awareness of his office among their peers. Through these ambassadors, he will be able to tap into the opinions of children across Wales.

"As the first children's commissioner in Britain, Peter Clarke is taking the office in the right direction," said Louise King, senior political officer at the Children's Rights Alliance. "He's very keen to listen to young people's opinions and to make sure they're being taken into account, which we obviously support."

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