Challenges for the new First Minister

2019 has started with a new First Minister.

In this blogpost, I’d like to underline what I think are the two main challenges Mark Drakeford and his Government faces when it comes to improving the lives of children in Wales.

Two issues in particular stand out: child poverty and mental health care.

Child Poverty

Report after report has underlined the scale of child poverty in Wales and the hardship that thousands of families face.

The new Universal Credit and other changes to the welfare system are having negative impact on the living conditions of children in Wales and across the UK and this is expected to get worse.

Welsh Government can do little to change those UK-wide measures, but I will continue to urge them to lobby the UK Government to ease the negative impact of these changes and to use all of their powers to alleviate the effect of poverty on our most vulnerable children and their families. 

I am pleased that Mark Drakeford has signalled that child poverty will be one of his priorities. Here are some of the steps he could take:

Child Poverty Delivery Plan

A child poverty delivery plan with clear targets and milestones, to drive the implementation of national strategy would help ensure that no child is disadvantaged in realising their rights under the UNCRC.

Having a plan like this is particularly important now that all government departments have been given responsibility for looking at how they can tackle poverty in Wales, to help make sure that the actions complement each other and resources are used effectively.

Investing in high quality early years provision

Childcare is not just a service for parents.

Research shows that high quality early years provision can really benefit children, in both the short and long-term, and particularly those from the poorest backgrounds.

The Welsh Government has committed to offering more free childcare to families across Wales but the current policy, will only give more free childcare to working families with 3 and 4 year olds. This will see the children of non-working families, who would benefit from the provision the most, missing out.

It could mean that children who grow up in poverty fall even further behind their more affluent peers.

You can read my thoughts on this in more detail.

Providing free school meals to more children

Many children who live in poverty in Wales currently miss out on free school meals. By raising the eligibility threshold for free school meals, Welsh Government can make sure that more of our most vulnerable children are well fed and able to learn.

It can also unlock other benefits such as support for other school costs like school uniform. Mark Drakeford signalled that this was an ambition in his leadership campaign. I hope to see this happen as a priority.

Expanding holiday hunger schemes

For many families, school is the only place where they can be confident that their child will get a healthy meal. During the school holidays, the pressure on families to feed their children throughout the day can be overwhelming.

Holiday Hunger schemes can not only help alleviate this stress but also give children opportunities to learn, play and socialise in safe and stimulating environments. I am pleased that funding for this has been expanded this year and would encourage the Government to explore a range of models, including those led by communities, to ensure that the schemes reach as many children as possible.

Limiting school costs for families

Paying for essential costs like school uniform and equipment, along with school trips and other activities can cause real stress for families.

Government should make sure that schools do all that they can to limit the burden of these costs on parents across Wales.

There is some help already available to families: the Pupil Development Grant access fund, which has recently been doubled, provides eligible families with money to help towards essential costs. This is a valuable resource that could go a lot further for families if costs of uniforms, equipment, activities and trips are kept low.

Mental health

The Children, Young People and Education committee’s recent Mind Over Matter report noted that ‘three children in every average size classroom will have a mental health issue’ and that, ‘by the age of 14, half of all mental health problems will have begun.’

At the moment, mental health care provision is not working for all children and young people in Wales. Services are delivered too rigidly, with many young people who need support missing out on the care they need because they don’t meet certain criteria. Help is often provided too late, when problems have escalated.

I want to see a significant shift in the way young people access the help they need in order to improve their mental health and wellbeing.

For children and young people with very challenging behavioural and emotional difficulties, there is currently very little suitable residential provision in Wales. In my annual report I called on the Welsh Government to take concrete steps towards commissioning new provision that can fully meet children and young people’s needs.

No wrong door

Children should be able to receive the help they need, when they need it. For this to happen, services need to work together, combining resources and expertise to provide flexible care that fits around children’s needs.

I am encouraging health boards and local authorities to ‘think outside the box’ rather than make small adjustments to existing services that are often outdated in their design. The Government has a role here in ensuring that services are of equally high standards across Wales.

Schools – sites of excellence

Schools are key sites for promoting wellbeing and providing early help on mental health. A whole school approach to emotional and mental health will ensure that children learn about mental health, learn skills to promote good mental health and are supported when they need it.

You can read our full policy position on improving mental health provision for children and young people here, and my position on the new curriculum here..

Conclusion

The new First Minister and his Government face many challenges over the coming year, not least the potential implications of Brexit.

But whatever happens, they must make sure that improving the lives of children and young people is at the forefront of their efforts.

In March, I’ll be publishing my own research into the experiences of children and families living in poverty in Wales, with clear actions that Welsh Government and local authorities can take to alleviate the impact of poverty on those children and families.

On mental health, services need to work together to provide an integrated service that really works for children and young people, wherever they are on their own mental health journey. The Welsh Government has recently invested in programmes to support this agenda, but I’ll be closely monitoring how this work develops.

As my first three-year plan comes to an end, my team and I are busy drafting our work for the remainder of my term as Children’s Commissioner for Wales. We’ve recently consulted with over 10,000 children and young people, plus over a thousand adults, to get their views on the issues that need to be addressed.

Poverty and mental health will once again be high on the agenda.