Putting children at the centre of government

, 20 January 2011

Long before the latest savage cuts, the UK’s failure to prioritise children was an international disgrace. At today’s Westminster Education Forum, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the former Children’s Commissioner, urged children’s advocates to shape up and work together to challenge the government.

Children are the living messages to a time we will not see; Marx argued they are the human capital for the future. They are our nation’s single most precious physical, intellectual and potential wealth-generating resource, and their outcomes should be of keen concern to every adult. Putting it selfishly: Who will pay for our pensions and our late life care? – The adults of the future who are the children of today.

But it takes politicians of rare vision and intent to frame policy with children in mind. They need our help in understanding the concept of the ‘nurture’ of children and building policy around it. The components of nurture to realise children’s full potential are:

· Love and care

· Physical contact, comfort

· Security and stability

· Nutrition, warmth and protection

· Play, exploration, managed risk

· Friends

· Education

· Expectation, values and purpose in life

· Together with provision of appropriate, evidence based and needs-led services along with full protection of their human rights as citizens of today.

Education is only one, albeit very important component.

The nurture of children should be everybody’s business — parents and families, local communities, schools, faiths, voluntary organisations, local and national government.

It is for government — through policy — to signal that children matter, to prioritise children’s interests in new legislation, and ensure that resources are allocated with children’s best interests in mind.

As a nation we have been failing, are still failing and are likely to continue failing too many of our children.

International benchmarks all point to outcomes for our children that are far from satisfactory, being way below those achieved in other developed countries. Credible reports include the UNICEF Innocenti Report Card 7, 2007, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2008, the OECD Report, 2009, The Good Childhood Inquiry, 2009 and the UNICEF Innocenti Report Card 9, 2010.

Education attainment shows a steep decline in reading, mathematics, languages and science, whilst the poor outcomes for children’s health, especially mental health, should be of grave concern.

These dismal data reflect society’s low value of children and childhood, long standing political failure to give children policy priority, failure to fully resource services, coupled with a failure of effective advocacy by the children’s sector.

The current financial and political turbulence will further adversely affect the outcomes for children.

So, what do we need from Government? We need:

1. Political ideology that treats children as a vital priority and resource as citizens in their own right

2. Explicit commitment from the very top of government especially for the most vulnerable

3. A policy addressing all the key needs of children and not just education

4. Clear policy vision, objectives and desired outcomes

5. Integrated responsibility for all aspects of policy affecting children across Government

6. Legislation and resources

7. Delivery framework including local government responsibility

How does the present coalition government perform against this? Not well.

Where is the political and intellectual construct on what it wants to achieve for children? Where is the vision and explicit statement of intent from the very top that children, and not just education, are a key priority? Who is responsible for ensuring that all departments of state are held to account for how their policies affect children? What regard is there for protecting the most vulnerable? What delivery framework is proposed to effect change?

We need more than ‘localism’ — a convenient excuse to deny government’s responsibility for failure.

How do we influence Government?

My work as Children’s Commissioner in addressing the plight of young people being admitted inappropriately to adult mental health wards and the plight of children detained for immigration purposes deployed a ‘scientific’ approach to effective advocacy.

1. The cause

2. The facts

3. The argument

4. Brigading support

5. Who to target

6. Using the media

7. Follow through

The UK’s outcomes for children reflect badly on the efficacy of children’s advocates, among whom the science of effective political advocacy is poorly understood.

Few outside Westminster know how government ticks, how the Bill process works, what Select Committees and All Party Parliamentary Groups do. Few children’s organisations have full time, highly skilled Parliamentary Officers, let alone the philosophy of working together to achieve common objectives.

Have our leading voluntary organisations forgotten the outrage of their founders by being so low key over the circumstances of children now?

Why in the midst of so many savage cuts is there so little explicit, effective and above all concerted challenge to government? Are many too close to Government by being dependent on public money for their survival? Is this why there is so little public challenge from them at present? Is this fear being exploited by government in applying pressure to stay silent? Recent news reports on the furore over the proposed loss of independence for CEOP suggest that this might be the case.

In Parliament, have the Select Committees and All Party Parliamentary Groups been effective in holding government to account? I have called for a joint Health and Education Select Committee investigation into the impact of the NHS reforms on health services for children. Why have they not risen to the challenge?

If we believe that children really are our most precious resource, then the time has come for a critical examination of the impact and efficacy of agencies in the Children’s sector, including Select Committees and All Party Parliamentary Groups in improving the lives and outcomes of our young citizens.

Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green, first children’s commissioner for England 2005 to 2010, is professor emeritus of child health at University College London, honorary fellow of Oriel College, Oxford and an internationally recognised authority on children’s services, child health and childhood.