The next year will be a high stakes one for Welsh children and young people. There are glimmers of hope as we seem to be emerging from the worst of the pandemic, but there is definitely tension in the air as many harbour an underlying anxiety about further waves.
The pandemic has had a profound impact on children and young people as our two large surveys have demonstrated, despite huge efforts by families and all of our public services to keep them safe, healthy and educated. The new government has a critical and urgent job on its hands to reassure our younger generation that it has their backs and will do everything it can to help them thrive in both the short and long-term. What better way to demonstrate this in a practical sense than maintain a minister dedicated to mental health and to establish a sub-cabinet children’s committee of Ministers, to ensure that children’s issues are front and centre of the new government’s programme and that decisions are reached in a joined-up way?
The first year of government will also mark the final year of my fixed seven-year term as Children’s Commissioner and this makes me doubly determined to see early changes that are needed to secure children and young people’s rights to grow up in an environment where they can be happy, healthy and safe.
Drawing on my own manifesto document published last autumn, here are 6 key tasks for the government’s first few months:
- Join up mental health and family support: Set high expectations that everywhere in Wales there will be a ‘no wrong door’ approach when children and their families need extra help with mental health, disability, neuro-diverse conditions or any other social challenges affecting their wellbeing. Instead of being sent from pillar to post or feeling like they have had doors slammed in their faces they should be provided with the joined-up support they need as early as possible. The new Government will need to ensure that our stretched health services and local authorities pool resources where needed without arguments over who funds what. There are some exciting new developments to achieve this in many areas of Wales, but the Government must make it clear that this will be children’s, young peoples’ and families’ experiences everywhere.
- Follow through education reforms: Properly support schools and colleges through ambitious and important new statutory expectations that are coming into force this year and next. This includes the new curriculum, additional learning needs legislation and the statutory guidance on the Whole School Approach to Emotional and Mental Well-being. The teaching profession has been stretched to their limits in the last 14 months and there will need to be considerable funding plus recognition of the strain that education settings have been under to make sure these important reforms are successfully pulled off.
- Concentrate on child poverty: It was shown during the pandemic that previously unheard of levels of financial support could be re-distributed to support people in financial need. The new government will need to tackle child poverty with bold ideas post-pandemic which boost the money in families’ pockets and improve access to existing support. I’d also like to see them making a strong case to the UK government to end the 2-child limit on Universal Credit, which clearly breaches children’s rights.
- Learn from the pandemic – the good as well as the bad. There is so much learning to be done from the pandemic, some of which will rightly be subject to a public inquiry. The pandemic highlighted the inequalities that children face every day in the form of poverty, racism and barriers for disabled children, young carers and those living in foster and residential care. We also found the surprising fact that some children were happier during lockdowns because they liked spending more time with parents, or because they find school scary and chaotic, or because they didn’t have to attend multiple structured activities and could self-direct their time more. We can learn from all of that. On a very practical level we now know that it’s very hard to succeed educationally without digital devices and sufficient data, and the government will need to take further concrete measures to address this. There has been fundamental questioning on how young people’s educational achievements are examined during the pandemic. This year there’s been a combination of mini-tests and other evidence-gathering. Whilst acknowledging the significant impact this has had on schools and colleges, attention must also be placed on learning from this year to develop a fairer system for the future, for all.
- Don’t forget the ‘smaller stuff’ – when governments come in they want to achieve big things. That means that important gaps affecting smaller numbers of children can keep getting shelved until it becomes too late to make the changes before the next election. My formal review of government showed how that has happened with regulations around home education and safeguarding in independent schools. These issues need to be tackled early on, along with stopping profit-making in children’s homes, developing alternatives to youth prisons within Wales and many other ideas in my manifesto published last autumn.
- Provide hope: Lastly, a great deal of hope and optimism is needed all round. This isn’t about downplaying the significant sacrifice, loss and stresses many have faced over the last twelve months, but shifting the focus to the future and delivering on promises. The new government must show young people that we have their backs post-pandemic. As well as the various job and training guarantees that have been proposed in manifestos, free bus travel would go a long way to showing that they are recognised and ensure more equal access to education, job and leisure opportunities. A big expansion of youth and play services would do so much to improve well-being. Listening to and involving young people to find answers to big issues like climate change would also provide hope of a better future. I’ve also called for a ‘Summer of Fun’ for extra play, sport and arts this year and the new government could boost funding for this as almost their first act of government. What a great start that would be!