NCPS | NCPS Responds to the Children's Commissioner Report: The Big…

The Children's Commissioner has just released a new report titled "The Big Ambition: Ambitions, Findings, and Solutions".

The report covered a wide range of issues related to children and young people, and we are delighted to see that - among the many recommendations made by the report - much of what the Society has been campaigning on is reflected. It confirms that the work we're doing supports both our profession, but also society more broadly.

Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children's Commissioner, initiated The Big Ambition to directly hear from children, young people, and parents about their aspirations and challenges, hearing from over 367,000 participants. She wanted to bring children and young people's voices to the forefront, especially those often overlooked, such as those with social workers, living away from home, or with additional needs.

A substantial portion of children feel they have supportive people to talk to about their feelings, yet this decreases with age. The data in the report highlights the urgent need for accessible mental health support, with figures revealing that over 270,000 children are currently waiting for support, and that in the last year nearly 40,000 were experiencing a wait of more than two years.

The report also shows that the level of care that children receive depends in large part on where they live, with waiting times varying “hugely” across the UK, from an average of 147 days in Sunderland to just 4 days in Southend.

In her foreword, Dame Rachel de Souza asserts that the current generation of children has experienced “uniquely uncertain and challenging times”, including the coronavirus pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, and increasing harms associated with social media and online exploitation. At the same time, she criticises the “lack of prioritisation” at both a national and local level of children’s mental health provision, citing a stagnation of investment in critical services.

Dame de Souza calls for “fresh, long-term thinking” on children’s mental health and wellbeing, setting out a number of key recommendations:

  • A bold strategic long-term vision for children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing through the development of a 10-year plan that has a strong focus on addressing the determinants of poor mental health, including poverty, inequality and insecurity.
  • Understanding and responding to prevalence of need, informed by Integrated Care Boards’ (ICBs) Joint Strategic Needs Assessments.
  • Identify and close the gaps in support. The Care Quality Commission should carry out a thematic review of children’s mental health services, identifying where the most common gaps in thresholds lie between statutory provision.
  • Early support for children with their emotional health and wellbeing through the creation of an Early Support Hub to deliver services in every local area and the national rollout of Mental Health Support Teams (MHSTs). The MHST model should be expanded to make a qualified school counsellor available to every school, helping to bridge the gap for children who fall between the thresholds for MHST and CAMHS support. (Read our recent report for more information around this)
  • Reducing waiting times for mental health services. The report sets out a number of steps to achieve this.
  • Loving, caring support for children with the most acute needs through reform of the Mental Health Act and the creation of a new model of care for those at risk of needing secure care.

A key ambition for the Children's Commissioner is for every child to have access to high-quality mental health and wellbeing support directly in their educational settings. The report has also advocated for every local area to have an Early Support Hub, which is an initiative supported by the NCPS, acting as a one-stop shop for young people's mental health and wellbeing, among other needs.

In addition, the report calls for ensuring every child has timely access to mental health assessments and treatment, aiming to eliminate long waiting times for services - another core aspect of our Access to Counselling for Every Child campaign.

Again, echoing what we have been saying about adopting a child-led approach to mental health support, the report really highlights our collective responsibility across government, local authorities, schools, and healthcare providers to implement a child-led, child-centred approach in addressing mental health and educational needs. It aligns directly with the Society's campaign by advocating for:

  • Immediate access to mental health support in schools and communities
  • A unified approach in addressing the comprehensive needs of children and young people
  • Special attention to the "Missing Middle" by ensuring no child's needs are deemed too complex or insufficiently severe for support

Excerpt from the Children's Commissioner's website:

As Children’s Commissioner it is my job to promote and protect the rights of children, and to make sure their voices are heard. That’s why in September 2023, I launched The Big Ambition to hear directly from children, young people, and parents across the country.

I wanted to hear about what they wanted for the future, their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. In the year of the General Election, I thought it was a critical moment to take children and young people’s voices to policymakers, decision takers, parliamentarians, government, and all those working with and for children. And over 367,000 children and adults engaged with it. I was particularly pleased that this include so many children with social workers, living away from home, with additional needs, or missing education. A truly ambitious vision for childhood must have at its heart those children who are too often overlooked.

When I first saw the results of The Big Ambition survey, one number stood out to me above all others. 22% of children agreed that people who run the country listen to what they have to say. Initially this made me feel despondent. That this was a generation who had lost all faith in leaders and politicians. But as I read more and more of the responses to the survey, and reflected on the hundreds of children I had spoken to, I realised the message was in fact a very different one.

This is not a generation who have become cynical, who believe that nothing will ever change. This is a generation who feel frustrated that they are not listened to, exactly because they have complete faith that if they were listened to, then politicians could and would transform their lives for the better.

Four years ago, in the pandemic, children saw the power that the government has to change lives. They saw the government step in to protect children and adults against the threat of the pandemic, to support their families through the furlough scheme, and to rollout a nationwide vaccine drive. Children saw the Prime Minister making decisions in almost real time about whether they could go to school, or see their grandparents. This generation witnessed the power of government to affect radical change. This inspired a belief that governments can and should change policies and laws to make their lives better.

And they are right to believe this. I believe it too. From my years working in education, and from my time as Children’s Commissioner, I have seen governments of different parties show that it is possible to commit to eradicating the harms of smoking, to radically reduce the number of children in Youth Offending Institutes, to narrow the education gap between rich and poor children, or tackle child poverty. What this takes is energy, political will and commitment.

I want this paper to serve as a call to action, for whoever forms the next government, to decide now that they will commit all their energy and effort to improving the lives of children.

The policies proposed in this paper draw directly on what children themselves told us. As such, they are ambitious. They would make the rights children are entitled to a reality. They are designed to be child up, rather than system-down. They provide a positive vision for what childhood could be like if only it were reimagined through the eyes of children.

Children are ambitious. And they speak with a moral clarity that is deeply refreshing for those of us verging on cynicism, who are perhaps too used to talk of cost benefit ratios or return on investment when it comes to childhood. As one of my youth ambassadors put it, when talking about tech firms neglecting their duty to keep children safe online, ‘it may be your livelihoods, but it’s our childhoods’.

Children don’t feel the need to debate why it will be beneficial in the long term to ensure that every family has sufficient financial capacity to support their children. They simply state that no child should go hungry, because it is wrong. They do not talk in the language of targets, and they do not set the bar at what is simply easy to achieve. They speak in terms of fairness. Children believe that true inclusion means that no child is left out. As such, our policies are designed to improve the lives of all children.

But this scale of ambition does not mean that children are purely idealists. Most of their ambitions are quietly pragmatic, and eminently reasonable. They want their local park to be a nicer place to spend time. They want to know they can have someone to talk to when they are sad. They want to stop worrying about the cost of living, and just enjoy their childhood. They want, in short, to be children and be allowed to be children. They believe in the power of adults to transform their lives for the better.

The Big Ambition results show how grateful children are for those adults who support them every single day. One of the most heartwarming findings from The Big Ambition was that young people from schools where the majority of children are eligible for free school meals were even more likely than their peers to agree that they had great teachers who supported them. Having dedicated my career to turning around the life chances of children in some of our country’s toughest schools, this finding gives me hope. It proves that we can change children’s lives, if we make their ambitions our priorities.

This paper sets out how, with a few clear ambitions, shared across government, both local and national, as well as everyone working with children, and underpinned by action that can be both radical and practical, the lives of children can be dramatically improved. This paper sets out a plan for making childhood not only safe and healthy, but joyful and ambitious.

So, I ask our political leaders now to address children’s frustration at being overlooked, and to repay their faith in you. Please listen to what they have to say, and more importantly – act, and make the difference they believe you can.

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