Failure to help England's most vulnerable children achieve basic qualifications is 'national scandal', says commissioner

Video report by ITV News Correspondent Rachel Younger

The failure to help the most vulnerable children achieve basic qualifications has been described as “a national scandal” by England's outgoing children’s commissioner.

After six years in her post, Anne Longfield has warned the government that without urgent action its promise to “build back better” will be nothing more than “just a catchphrase”. 

Ahead of her final speech, the commissioner for England told ITV News the government still has not grasped the scale of the number of children being left behind. 

Despite 14 years of compulsory education and training in the UK, one in five youngsters still leave school without basic qualifications.

“It should bring shame to us that there are a fifth of children who don’t share in progress that the rest of children do,” Ms Longfield said.

“It is a national scandal and it’s one we shouldn’t tolerate.”

Anne Longfield is warning 800,000 children could fall into poverty if the £20 per week Universal Credit uplift is not extended beyond April. Credit: PA

Describing Ms Longfield as a “tireless advocate for children”, a  government spokesperson insisted that “protecting vulnerable children has been at the heart of its response to the pandemic”.

But the commissioner believes that although Covid has highlighted many challenges faced by the country’s most vulnerable children, it has also laid bare problems that already existed.

Now she wants the prime minister to show he is serious about children by putting them at the heart of his post-Covid plans. 

With the number of children living in poverty approaching record levels, she has warned of dire consequences if the government fails to extend the £20 per week Universal Credit uplift beyond the end of April. 

“The predictions are that 800,000 children will fall into poverty, which is an awful prospect for every one of those children,“ she said.  

“If the prime minister is serious about ‘Building Back Better’ and about offering children better life chances he wouldn’t even countenance taking away the Universal Credit because it would have a such a detrimental impact on the poorest children.”  

Ms Longfield also told ITV News that when she has provided statistics about children to the government, the information about their lives can sometimes just be seen as "data rather than children’s lives so often," she said.

"I get a sense there’s interest, but then there is a feeling that people drift away, sometimes with a quite vacant expressions.

"My feeling is the government should be biting my hand off for this kind of data.

"I haven’t got that, I haven’t got that in individual departments and I haven’t got that from government as a whole."

ITV News Correspondent Rachel Younger on why Downing Street may be breathing a sigh of relief as Ms Longfield departs from her role:

Anne Longfield has spent decades serving on the frontline of children’s services and it’s clear she looks back on the past six years as an enormous privilege.

But what’s also transparent is her concern that the government still doesn’t quite get it.

Ask her if she thinks Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson really have what it takes to help the most vulnerable children and she tries to be tactful.

But she’s pretty direct about the consequences of years of austerity followed by a devastating pandemic on their life chances.

“It should bring shame us is that there are a fifth of children who don’t share in the progress the rest of children do” she tells me, describing the failure to make sure that every youngster leaves education with basic qualifications as “a national scandal”.

Despite praising Anne Longfield as a “tireless advocate” for children there may be a sigh of relief in Downing Street that a woman who’s demanded no child be left behind will no longer be holding them to account in Whitehall.

But she leaves with a passing shot over their bows, comparing inaction on child poverty here to the swift measures already taken in the US by Joe Biden.

It may have taken a footballer to draw public attention to the destitution faced by some children here.

But her suggestion that no prime minister serious about Building Back Better would even countenance removing the extra £20 on Universal Credit is a firm warning that she intends to remain on the government’s case.

Ms Longfield spoke to ITV News ahead of her final speech as children's commissioner on Wednesday, where she will suggest a year of opportunity should be launched once Covid-19 is suppressed where schools, sports halls and swimming pools are used at evenings, weekends and holidays to help pupils “catch up with confidence”.

Ms Longfield will call on Mr Johnson to get “passionate” about making sure that we do not “define children by what’s happened during this year” but instead that we define ourselves by what we offer them.

“It will take political will and funding – an opportunity fund – measured in billions, but it would be worth every penny. It should be led by the prime minister,” she will say.

A year of opportunity should be launched once the virus is suppressed to help pupils “catch up with confidence”, Ms Longfield says. Credit: PA

The children’s commissioner will accuse the Treasury of “institutional bias against children” as only around £1 billion has been committed to pupil catch-up support despite warnings from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) that school closures could lead to a loss in earnings of £350 billion in the long run.

The children’s commissioner will add: “It’s impossible to overstate how damaging the last year has been for many children – particularly those who were already disadvantaged.

“‘Building back better’ must mean rethinking our priorities and the way we care for children.

"We must be honest about the scale of the challenge and face the tough questions about the gaps that we know exist.

“For example, how many children are in families that are struggling to support them; how many are starting school so far behind they’ll never catch up; how many children with mental health needs or special education needs aren’t getting the help they should be?”

Claimants can apply for Universal Credit online Credit: ITV News

Ms Longfield will also talk about her frustration with Whitehall officials failing to tackle many problems facing vulnerable children.

In her speech, she will say: “I have been shocked to discover how many officials have never met any of the children they are responsible for.

"So many seem to view them as remote concepts or data points on an annual return.

“This is how children fall through the gaps – because too often the people in charge of the systems they need simply don’t see them and try to understand their world.”

The children’s commissioner says “It’s impossible to overstate how damaging the last year has been for many children." Credit: PA

“I have to force officials and ministers to the table, to watch them sit through a presentation, maybe ask a question, and then vacantly walk away.

"I do not believe this truly reflects the extent of government and the public’s commitment to helping children succeed,” Ms Longfield will add.

She will conclude: “My parting plea to you is this: please don’t forget about vulnerable children (…) these are your children now.

"You have a chance to put them centre stage.

"When you do build back better, make sure you do it around them.”

A government spokesperson said: “Protecting vulnerable children has been at the heart of our response to the pandemic, driven by our commitment to level up opportunities and outcomes. “That’s why we have enabled the most vulnerable children to continue attending school in person, while providing laptops, devices and data packages to those learning at home and ensuring the most disadvantaged children are fed and warm. “We have also driven forward crucial reform in adoption, in the care system, in post-16 education and in mental health support – and our long-term catch up plans and investment of over £1 billion will ensure we make up for lost time in education over the course of this Parliament. “Anne Longfield has been a tireless advocate for children, and we’re grateful for her dedication and her challenge on areas where we can continue raising the bar for the most vulnerable.”

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