Parents have had to become teachers, a footballer has helped expose the plight of deprived families, and local groups across the country have been on the frontline in providing emergency advice and supplies. As a result, the pandemic’s extraordinary impact has helped shift Britain’s attitude to a community’s role in bringing up children, the children’s commissioner for England has said.
Talking to the Observer before she leaves the role at the end of the month, Anne Longfield said that when she took up the job in 2015, the care of children was regarded as “a bit like pets – you wanted one, they’re yours”.
However, she said she had witnessed a gradual change in attitude underlined by the pandemic. “I think we are in a slightly more communal space than we were. That was happening before the pandemic, but I think the pandemic has heightened that more.
“That process has been a very good thing. After the last year, people feel more confident about offering help. Hopefully, they also feel more comfortable asking for help.”
She said that the crisis had brought home the importance of schools and other local institutions in a child’s life, as well as highlighting the impacts of deprivation and abuse that had remained invisible for years. However, she warned that the “glue around children’s lives” in the form of community support had faced a decade of erosion since the financial crash that now needed to be reversed. “During the pandemic, teachers were great,” she said. “They were delivering food boxes to people’s homes and the like, but they can’t do that and run classrooms. Council children’s services can’t do that and run their high cost interventions. So actually, the pandemic re-exposed those activities that can go on and should go on for families, but actually during normal times, don’t get done. That infrastructure around communities now needs to be rebuilt.”
Longfield, who has run hundreds of charitable community services, said radical reforms should include rebuilding a government department that looked more widely at children, schools and families.
A department under that name was rebranded by Michael Gove in 2010 as the Department for Education. “Government is not terribly well set up for dealing with people as people or children as children,” she said. “It deals with them as pupils or patients or prisoners.
“You can’t have a recovery programme without helping the kids that can’t learn. You can’t have a recovery programme without helping the families to help the kids. It’s now time to take a deep breath on that and actually put children and families back into the title. I think there should be a cabinet minister for children.”
The DfE has faced serious criticism over its response to the pandemic, with teaching unions complaining of late and unclear advice, and unrealistic demands – such as the exams fiasco, the threat of legal action to make schools reopen before Christmas and the order to draw up Covid testing with little notice.
While Longfield did not comment directly on the position of the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, she said the department “needs to have that loud, strong voice sticking up for kids, right at the centre”.
“I have deliberately left it to the prime minister to worry about who we put around this table, but [the department] needs to be a priority. It needs to become a big beast – and I don’t think it’s been a big beast for a government for some years now.”
She said the closure of schools had been “enormous” in bringing home their significance. “We will have had almost a billion school days lost by mid-April in this country, which is astounding – the place we all in some ways took for granted was whisked away. Over the pandemic, everyone has come to understand how important schools are, not just the education part, but friends, relationships with teachers, mental health. But also, for those kids where home is not a safe place, it’s schools that know that. We saw the drop in referrals [to social services] in the first few weeks and it’s still not back to where it should be.”
Longfield said her biggest shock on taking the job in 2015 was the number of children raising concerns about mental health and their access to help. She wants mental health counsellors installed in every secondary school as soon as possible.
Her second big drive was to focus more attention on the 1.6 million children who would need some kind of help from social services, but were not formally in care. She said their plight was better understood as a result of the pandemic. “It’s played out in front of everyone’s eyes,” she said.
“I think people generally come out a year later knowing what it means to not have resources to draw on. They know what it means where you don’t have access to tech, sharing a broken phone – and all those kinds of hidden harms, like domestic violence. People can see what that means. I’d say the response hasn’t been to the scale needed.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “Education has been at the heart of the government’s response to the pandemic. We are providing 1.3 million laptops and tablets for children who need them most.” The spokesperson added that the department will invest a further £300m for tutoring and to work with parents and schools to help children catch up.