Longfield has set high bar for commissioners

Derren Hayes
Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Anne Longfield signed off her six-year stint as children’s commissioner for England with a scathing attack on the Treasury’s lack of understanding of children.

Derren Hayes, editor, Children & Young People Now
Derren Hayes, editor, Children & Young People Now

In her last public address before handing over the role to academy trust chief Dame Rachel de Souza on 1 March, Longfield turned her ire on government officials for failing to properly engage in children’s issues, too often viewing them as “remote concepts or data points on an annual return”. Just a few weeks earlier, she lambasted ministers for their inaction on child poverty and warned of dire consequences if they continued to do so in light of the anticipated post-pandemic economic hardship.

A reflection of how Longfield’s star has risen is that her speech and its contents featured high on news bulletins and newspaper front pages. However, while the criticism of government caused a splash, it is the boost she has given to the role’s public profile that should be more long-lasting – she has appeared on BBC Question Time, made a Channel 4 documentary on the rise in elective-home education and sat on the Good Morning Britain sofa.

Alongside her final speech, Longfield published a report linking school and social care data to show how poverty is impacting on children’s education. This approach has become synonymous with reports published by the commissioner’s office. These reports mine a database of statistics about vulnerable children’s needs and outcomes to both identify where there are problems and gather the evidence to underpin calls for action (see analysis). The data it has generated has enhanced the commissioner’s credibility among policymakers and experts in the sector.

The combination of Longfield’s rising profile, increased confidence in challenging the government and strong evidence base came together during the pandemic. She was one of the first to highlight the impact that lost education was having on children’s wellbeing, argue for prioritising the reopening of schools after lockdown and challenge ministers over their initial refusal to fund free school meals during holidays. It was a coming-of-age moment for the status of the role.

In terms of infrastructure and profile, de Souza starts from a very strong position. She must capitalise on this in the difficult times that lie ahead. With child poverty and youth unemployment set to rise, vulnerable children must continue to have a loud voice championing their needs to policymakers and the wider public.

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