‘People Tell Me These Children Can’t Be Helped – I Won’t Accept That’
Feature

‘People Tell Me These Children Can’t Be Helped – I Won’t Accept That’

By Aaron Walawalkar, News and Digital Editor, Rhys Norman, Video Assistant 7 Dec 2020
Education, Young People
Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner for England PHOTO:JEFF GILBERT Great Smith Street, London, UK 03.05.2018

Excluded series

Our new film, Excluded, amplifies young people's views on the complex topic of school exclusions. In the lead up to our 10 December film launch – we're diving deeper into this issue, and how it affects our rights, through a series of stories.

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It has now been 30 years since it became the right of young Britons to be listened to and taken seriously. By adopting the UN children’s rights convention, the UK delivered a blow to the centuries-old notion ‘children should be seen and not heard’. Yet, as decision-makers grapple with issues ranging from the pandemic to rising school exclusions, children are still “often at the back of the queue”. 

That is the view of Anne Longfield OBE, Children’s Commissioner for England, who since 2015 has carried a legal duty to protect and promote the rights of the nation’s 12 million children. 

“I do think we, as a country are getting better,” she told EachOther, on how adults in England – be it parents, teachers, politicians or the media – fare in respecting young people’s right to be listened to (Article 12, UNCRC).  “But I also think children are often at the back of the queue, when people are making decisions … often decisions will be made about adults, and children are kind of a lob on.

She pointed to the lockdown restrictions introduced in March as a case in point, where people were allowed to exercise only once a day. “It’s okay for [adults] to go out to exercise for an hour,” she said. “Well kids don’t look at going out and getting exercise in that way. They look at going out and playing.” 

By contrast, the governments of Norway and New Zealand each held press conferences exclusively for children early on in the pandemic.

“They were taking questions from children, and reassuring children that they were important citizens, their voice was being heard, and their experience was important,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to do that in this country. And I still think there’s time to do it.”

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A playground. Credit: Unsplash

In another example of how children’s voices have been ignored, last month the Court of Appeal ruled the government acted unlawfully by removing safeguards for children in care amid the pandemic. 

Judges said that the government should have consulted with the Children’s Commissioner and other organisations representing children before introducing “substantial and wide-ranging changes” that would affect more than 78,000 young people in care. These included reducing the requirement to visit children in care. 

“If there’s a pandemic, I think children need more reassurance, more visits, rather than less,” Longfield said. “And I think this comes back to the point that a lot of those decisions were made because they were looking at how the organisations, the institutions, the system, could cope during [the pandemic].

“They consulted those individuals … but no one asked those that represented children’s views.” 

For Longfield, listening to young people’s voices is key to delivering good public services.

“All of the decisions that affect children’s lives and the services for children are so much better if you involve children … because they’re the experts in living their lives.”

In February next year, the 60-year-old will come to the end of her tenure as Commissioner. Her role, which is independent of government, possesses important and unique powers to hold public bodies to account – such requesting data and visiting settings such as care homes and prisons. 

Among the issues Longfield has focussed her attention on is the alarming rise in schools exclusions. Last year, England’s state schools issued 7,894 permanent exclusions – a 60% increase from five years ago – a figure Longfield has said is “unacceptably high”.

Ahead of the launch of Excluded – our documentary amplifying the voices of young people affected by this issue – EachOther sat down with the Commissioner for a video interview to find out more about her views on the subject. 

 

Asked what steps are most important to turn the rising tide of exclusions, she had a number of clear recommendations.

She highlighted how, in London, 10% of schools were found to be responsible for 88% of exclusions. Targeted measures could be taken to review overly strict behaviour policies and offer more support for pupils with special educational needs.

She would also like to see a “set of interventions” introduced to prevent pupils, who have already been temporarily excluded once, being excluded a second time. “It’s the second exclusion that really is a real trigger for a declining child’s involvement in school and also vulnerability to being involved in much more dangerous activities,” she said.

A third recommendation is for there to be a mental health counsellor in every school in England. Meanwhile, education regulator Ofsted should measure pupils’ wellbeing at schools as well as their academic achievements – echoing calls made by the young people featured in our documentary.

EachOther has put its big questions to Longfield in an interview which covers everything from misconceptions around school exclusions to how we can ensure we uphold young people’s right to be heard more effectively.

Watch our video interview or read the full story below. 

What advice would you give a ten-year-old you?

What I would say I did not know at all, at that time, was that your experience in life is really important. And your voice is really important. So if there were things going on, around you that you think could be done better or could be changed or making you feel unhappy, then actually, there are things you can do about it.

If there’s people who are upsetting you, or intimidating, you can do something about that. Talk to adults, talk to teachers, if there are things around your local town that you think should be better for kids, actually, there are things you can do about it.

You have that ability to be able to shape the world around you. And there were some brilliant examples of how kids have really got involved in shaping their environment and shaping the world around them. 

… A lot of children who end up in real difficulties could have been had a much better experience if they’ve got help early on

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner

What would you say the most important lesson you’ve learned is as Children’s Commissioner?

One thing that really has solidified for me … is that a lot of children who end up in real difficulties could have been had a much better experience if they’ve got help early on. 

I’ve always known that, I’ve always thought that. But in this job, I get to go to visit children who are in prison. Thankfully, there aren’t that many. More in this country, actually, then in some other countries. That’s obviously a dreadful situation … and they will possibly have done dreadful things to get there. 

You talk to all of those children and they’ll say: “No, I think there was a point where if my family got bit of help … If someone had noticed, when I hadn’t been in school for a while … if actually hadn’t got moved around … so often, this wouldn’t have happened.”

That tells me that: when children get into real crisis, it doesn’t happen overnight. 

As a country, we need to be much better at not only spotting the clues if things aren’t going right, but actually looking for them and helping children and their families early.

Is there anything that you’d like to achieve what you haven’t yet?

I’m an optimist. Six years, which is the length of term in my office, feels like a long time at the beginning. There are things which I would have liked to have moved more. The number of children who are living in poverty, for instance.

Also, the number of children who are getting that help early. I’d like to have been able to influence more about that. We really focused on it. I think things have changed. But … there are too many children who are living in households where there’s not enough money. 

Over the last year, we’ve had the pandemic. That’s made some of these things much worse.  But also … over this very strange, extraordinary last nine months, more people have understood what it means to be vulnerable or to be poor. 

As we try to recover from a mass pandemic that no one saw coming, I hope people understand why it’s so important to help children and those living in very fragile home environments to be able to, not only catch up, but get ahead.

24 May 2018, London: Anne Longfield, Children's Commissioner for England at the Department for Education, Westminster. Picture credit Guilhem Baker for the Times.

Earlier this year, you said that the number of children being permanently excluded was “unacceptably high”. Could you explain why that rate is so high from your perspective?

Well, I know from what children told me how devastating it is when they’re excluded from school, and there are children who might be excluded several times. We also know that when some of those children are excluded a number of times, they don’t get back into school. 

They’re permanently outside the school system, and much more vulnerable to falling into poor mental health or, in very bad scenarios, being targeted and exploited by those who want to bring them into gangs and county lines and things like that. 

If you ask any of the children who are involved in those kind of activities, in gangs and violence, they will virtually always tell you that they were excluded from school.

It feels a very drastic step, to exclude a very young child from school. There are so many other things … you could do to help that child get on in school.

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner

That doesn’t mean that everyone that gets excluded from school ends up there. But nearly all of those that are, were [excluded]. So I’m really worried about that, and have been really trying to put a spotlight on that.

About 8,000 children are excluded from school in recent years. Over 1,000 of those were in primary school. So these are really young children. And actually, tens of those are under five, believe it or not.

It feels a very drastic step, to exclude a very young child from school. There are so many other things … you could do to help that child get on in school. Imagine if you’re excluded from school at the age of four, or five, or six. What does that say to the child who is just embarking on what is meant to be this … rich journey of knowledge? 

Also, through my own research I was able to find out that actually … nearly 90% of the exclusions happen in 10% of the schools. So most schools don’t exclude children, they will try and help and support them and keep them in school. But there is something going on in this one in ten schools that seemed to exclude much more than others. 

… [It] feels very unfair that a child in one school could get help and support and in another school could get excluded. 

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner

That might be that they have very strict behaviour policies, which move to exclusion very swiftly. It may be that they don’t offer the child the support they need to keep them in school. Because we know that 44% of children who are excluded actually have special educational needs. 

So when a child is excluded … it’s partly about the child themselves and what’s happening with them, but also partly about schools and the school they’re in. And that feels very unfair: that a child in one school could get help and support and in another school could get excluded. 

We also know that it’s not the first exclusion, it’s the second exclusion that really is a real trigger for a declining child’s involvement in school and also vulnerability to being involved in much more dangerous activities.

What I would like to see is that there’s a set of interventions – if a child is either at risk of being excluded the first time, or indeed is excluded the first time – to prevent a second time happening. That seems to be the really important and most sensible way to go about bringing down those numbers.

What’s the single most important thing that needs to happen to bring this down?

In addition to that, it is for schools to be able to provide that support for children with special education needs and also provide mental health support. We know that both of those factors will have a real impact on the wellbeing of the child, but also their behaviour in school. 

One thing that some children will say to me is that they don’t want schools to be a one-size-fits-all, they want schools to be able to respond and adapt and help them manage situations. So, there is something there about schools being able to anticipate and provide that support. And indeed, I would like to see a mental health counsellor in every school.

24 May 2018, London: Anne Longfield, Children's Commissioner for England at the Department for Education, Westminster. Picture credit Guilhem Baker for the Times.

There’s a huge amount of compassion in most schools.

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner

Do you think our approach to education in England is compassionate enough?

There’s a huge amount of compassion in most schools. What we’ve seen during the pandemic is schools really helping to support those vulnerable children: getting them in school, supporting them at home, and the like. 

As children have returned to school, there’s been a big emphasis on emotional wellbeing, on children’s mental health, and really supporting children and creating that kind of pastoral care for them. So it is something which I know schools are very concerned about, and would like to do more about. 

I think some aspects of the school system isn’t as compassionate as I’d like to see it. And certainly, for those one in ten schools that are excluding most children, I think they could look again, at how they actually support children to prevent that. 

But I’ve always said that I would like [education regulator] Ofsted to measure children’s wellbeing as well as their academic achievements. And I think those two things do go hand in hand.

If you could introduce repeal, amend a law or a policy in the in England to improve life for children who have been excluded, or are at risk of exclusion? What would you do and why?

I think I would want schools to be much more inclusive in their support for children. I’d like all schools to be able to provide the support for special educational needs.

The law actually is there for that – but often schools don’t feel they have the resources to be able to do that. I’d also like there to be a much greater intervention around children who are displaying real signs of unease.

Obviously, if a child’s been excluded from school, things aren’t going well. I’d like there to be much more of an emphasis on helping that child to find a way to continue within the school.

There’s been a big focus about alternative provision (AP). I’d like that, rather than [AP] being a separate entity that shifts children out [of mainstream school] not to come back, to have what I’ve heard about in some areas … which is teams that can actually go into schools, and work with children or at risk of exclusion to keep them in school, rather than having them leave school and not get back.

There is a misconception that these are children who can't be helped. 
SEN children can eel isolated in a classroom, says Dr Kitchener. Image: Taylor Wilcox/Unsplash
There is a misconception that these are children who can't be helped. 

What do you think is the biggest misconception about school exclusions? And could you set the record straight for us?

First of all, I think that there’s this misconception that they are all [getting excluded for] very, very dangerous activities. Of course, some are and … some children will need to not be in school. 

What there isn’t an understanding of is that: these are often children are struggling with the system and, with help and support, they could stay within school. There is a misconception that these are children who can’t be helped. 

Sometimes people do say to me, about children, that they’re too complicated to help. They can’t be helped. 

I just won’t accept that. For all those schools who do amazing things, they don’t have to look at exclusions as a major aspect of what they do. 

They look at ways they can support children, they can celebrate their diversity, and then can help all children learn in a way that is good for them. 

That I think, would make a major change in how we all looked at the whole thing about children’s behaviour in school and those that are currently being excluded.

Children have a right to express their views be listened to and taken seriously. How do you think adults in England – be it teachers, parents, politicians or the media – how well do you think they fare and respecting us right?

Well, I think we’re getting can better. It’s my job to speak up for children. I don’t want to speak on their behalf because children need to have that voice themselves. I’m kind of the eyes and ears of children in the system. 

I’m independent of government, but I can see what’s going on. It’s my job to understand children’s experiences and views, and also make sure that those are making decisions about their lives understand that too and take that into account. 

I do think we, as a country are getting better. If we looked at it over 30, 40,50 years ago, there used to be this sense that children shouldn’t be heard … that their views aren’t important. 

I think we have made some changes about that. We now have the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which I think is embodied and does make a difference. 

But I also think children are often at the back of the queue, when people are making those decisions. Often decisions will be made about adults, and children are kind of a lob on. 

You see that in some of the decisions about through the coronavirus. This was a pandemic, it was an emergency. But when people talked around lockdown … for instance, going to parks and having exercise … it was all done from an adult perspective.

It’s okay for you to go out to exercise for an hour. Well kids don’t look at going out and getting exercise in that way. They look at going out and playing. 

When we looked at groups of children, as part of the so-called rule of six of how many people could get together … in some other countries, they exempted children under 12. You didn’t have to count them in that. So children could still play in groups with relatively low health risk, and the like. 

It’s something which I think still has a huge way to go … and one where we really need to make sure that children not only have the right to be able to have their voice heard, but actually are able to do that. 

That’s so much the case from children who depend completely on the state, for those that are in care and the like … all those that we want to be active citizens. How we make children active citizens is something I would whoever the government of the day is to look at.

We know, for instance, in some other countries like Norway, like New Zealand, the PM held press conferences really early on in the pandemic, for children alone. They were taking questions from children, and reassuring children that they were important citizens, their voice was being heard, and their experience was important. I’ve always wanted to do that in this country. And I still think there’s time to do it.

What other ways do you feel we could be better at listening to young people. What ways can do that in practice?

Well, I think it needs to be something [in] which we set up mechanisms for, and that can be in school, it can be in local areas. There are some great examples of youth mayors, for instance, in some areas that have been established over time with modest budgets.

But nonetheless, they can work with schools, they can have forums of young people, and look at how you can make an area better for young people. But the kind of nub of all this, I think is that, yes, of course, children, we want children to have their voice. 

But all of the decisions that affect children’s lives and the services for children are so much better if you involve children. Because they’re the experts in living their lives, which is why we really want to ensure that they’re actually built in in terms of their views and experiences from the start. 

The Court of Appeal ruled the government acting unlawful by not consulting you in suspending safeguards for children in care amid the pandemic. What is your reaction?

Well, I was very pleased that the judgement from the court was that the government should have consulted with both the Children’s Commissioner and other organisations representing children about changes to the requirements to support children in care.

My argument has always been that these were really important changes that would potentially have a huge impact on children’s lives at a time where they needed more reassurance and support from government. 

So, for instance, some of the changes were around reducing the requirement to visit children in care. If there’s a pandemic, I think children need more reassurance, more visits, rather than less. 

And I think this comes back to the point that a lot of those decisions were made, because they were looking at how the organisations, the institutions, the system, could cope during that period. 

And they consulted those individuals, the council’s the schools organisation and the like. But no one asked those that represented children’s views. 

And the court, of course, found that that was wrong. So it’s an important judgement, it has strengthened the rights of children. Now government needs to look at how it’s going to make sure that doesn’t happen again. 

So that on all the crucial things affecting children’s lives, they know that you think about children, but actually ask those who are in touch with children and represent their views.

___________

Excluded: EachOther’s forthcoming documentary

On 10 December 2020, Human Rights Day, EachOther will release ‘Excluded’, a documentary with a difference focussing exclusively on young people’s perspectives on school exclusions. Watch the trailer below.