Five tasks for the incoming children’s commissioner

Jonathan Stanley
Monday, August 10, 2020

Each regeneration of Doctor Who brings strong visions of the person and role that are shared publicly - that’s the sort of energy we need now that the job of the children’s commissioner for England has been advertised.

The job specification was advertised by the Department for Education last month, with the deadline for applications set for 18 September and an announcement on who will replace Anne Longfield to be made in December. 

In the absence of a consultation from government, a worrying current theme, we need to support those who might be thinking of applying by sharing how we see their role and task, their contribution to our future.

In this blog I am suggesting there are five tasks for the incoming children’s commissioner: regeneration, reset, reposition, recover, reconnect. I don’t tie them to specifics as I think they are themes that need to run throughout.

Our views matter. It took over 130 organisations campaigning for 13 years to establish the Office of Children's Commissioner for England. The government appoints the person, but they must have an accountable relationship to children and the people who provide services for them. Those directly affected need to be an integral part of the selection and appointment procedure. Currently, the selection panel is appointed by the DfE and there is scrutiny by the education select committee. The panel does not, yet include any care experienced people, and, to date, the committee seems to be concentrating on schools.

The children’s commissioner job is concerned with ensuring the very best for children and childhood. At the start, there were diminutions of ambition with the children’s minister who established the post removing references to rights. The original role was about the awareness of views rather than promoting and safeguarding the rights of children.

The children’s commissioner needs to be able to champion positive parenting. Resourcing parents, including those fostering and in children’s homes, and communities is the first step in ensuring all children have opportunity to thrive. In the job pack the DfE state their focus is of ‘equality of opportunity’. If all children do not have the conditions to thrive then equality of opportunity is compromised.

Taking reflective practice into policy will require a repositioning of the role. Such championing requires independence - a capacity shown by all three commissioners so far – but this independence could usefully be reviewed, and a clear separation of duties and interests be restated.

Currently, the strategy board does not include care experienced people or those directly working with and for children. Key issues need to be communicated directly from the experience of those being cared for and doing the caring. The children’s commissioner needs to experience childhood through the eyes of a child. The commissioner needs not to be captured by the moment, but their work directed by the requirements of children and childhood.

The legislation relating to the children’s commissioner is permissive, allowing significant flexibility for the commissioner to determine how best to carry out his or her primary function of promoting and protecting children’s rights. The role and responsibility has to be seen as relating to all ministries - childhood is not an issue confined to the DfE but is created by what is done, and not done, by all of government. For example, it is not only a question of the opening of schools to enable parents to go to work but also of ensuring there is time to play as a family. When we are defining the ‘new normal’ it will be different if we put childhood central to it. A reconsideration of children’s rights impact assessments could be more widely applied to all new policies and legislation across all of government. As every policy impacts on a child’s life they are all of importance to the commissioner. Getting it right for children is getting it right for us all.

As to the person, it might be that they by necessity do not come with direct experience of involvement in children’s services but can bring a new perspective. In my view, it will be crucial that the next commissioner has the ability to actively shape policy and to do so having an authorised capacity to be enquiring, to develop the role as one of the necessity of critique, of asking questions, facilitating civic debate, whose role is structured so as to explore an emergent issue through discussion, who prompts flow of debate, ensures that if sketched over then it is returned to, who gives clarity and summary on where debate is up to, who listens intently bringing out the unsaid quiet issues, dealing with matters constructively, not allowing negativity and redirecting disrespect.

Out of this process comes a product of agreement and consensus. The contestation of ideas is recognised for the performance benefits it brings for children. Through such incremental work can come incisive child-centred conclusions.

Jonathan Stanley is chief executive of NCERCC

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