Now in her second year as Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield OBE talks to Educate about the North South divide, the need for greater safety online and why there’s never been a ‘golden age’ of childhood.
by Christine Toner
As any parent will tell you, being responsible for the wellbeing of children is hard work. Having to constantly work out what’s best for them, keep them safe and push them to achieve their potential can be an overwhelming task. Spare a thought then for Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner whose role it is to promote and protect the rights of every child in England. Thankfully, it’s a role she seems to have been preparing for all her life.
After growing up in West Yorkshire and attending the University of Newcastle Anne moved to London to work for Save the Children, and spent the next 30 years working and campaigning on issues affecting children and families.
“During the early 1990s I led campaigns to introduce better childcare provision,” she said. “It’s hard to believe now, but in 1990 there were only 56,000 nursery places in the UK – now there are nearly two million.
I’ve a lifelong, passionate commitment to improving children’s lives, particularly the most vulnerable, so I was really proud to be appointed Children’s Commissioner in 2015.”
The post of the Children’s Commissioner was established under the Children’s Act 2004 with the aim of making life better for all children and young people by making sure “their rights are respected and realised and that their views are taken seriously”. And a key area in which that must happen is education where, she says, there are a number of challenges that need to be addressed.
“There are so many challenges ranging from doing more for children in care, to ensuring all children have the skills they need to thrive in today’s digital world, to child protection in schools,” she said. “It’s my job to be a champion for children – making sure that the adults who make decisions listen to what children and young people say about the things that affect their lives.”
One of the key issues Anne is focussing on this year is narrowing the North-South gap in opportunities and outcomes. In December she launched a year-long project Growing Up North to look at what makes somewhere a great place to grow up and to put the needs or northern children at the front of the Northern Powerhouse debate. The project comes at a time when the disparity in funding for education between the North and the South has become the topic of widespread debate.
“The main purpose of my Growing Up North project is to collect evidence and work with experts to find out why there are disparities in achievement when you compare some parts of the North with London and the South East,” she said. “There are areas in Northern England with the best primary schools in the country, but the lowest adult employment rates. We need to find out why a young person leaving school or college in London or the South East is more likely to go to a top university compared to a young person from the North.”
Of course, one of the biggest influences on a child’s future and prospects is their parents. Last year Anne was quoted in several mainstream media outlets after she spoke about parents down south being “pushier” and expressed a need for northern parents to follow suit.
She explains the ‘pushy’ element was taken out of context.
“I think children who grow up in the North deserve the same opportunities as children who grow up in London and the South East,” she says. “It’s not about being ‘pushy’ – it’s about Northern parents demanding more from the schools their children go to.”
It’s a view shared by former Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw, who has been very vocal on the north south divide in terms of quality of education. Anne says the fact the divide is sparking so much discussion can only be a good thing.
“It’s vital that these issues are discussed and are not just swept under the carpet,” she says. “The North of England has a once in a generation opportunity with new metro mayors and the Northern Powerhouse to begin to bridge the North-South divide. There are 3.6m children in the North – and I believe every single one of them deserves to have the best opportunities to help them live healthy, happy and prosperous lives.”
One way of ensuring schools in the north have as much to offer as those in the south is to retain the highest quality teaching staff, something which Anne says will naturally happen as the gap starts to close.
“All of us as parents want thriving schools which offer the best education for our children, regardless of whether that’s in the North or South,” she says. “I do think if we start to bridge the gap between North and South that will encourage graduates from the many fantastic northern universities, including good new teachers, to stay in the North and build lives and careers here. I’m a proud Northerner and I live close to where I went to school. The North has so much to offer and there is no reason why Northern schools shouldn’t be ambitious about attracting the best talent.”
The ambitions of the north are set to be realised on a wider scale, of course, as a result of the Northern Powerhouse initiative, and will see the region retain more power while improvements to infrastructure and transport will boost the economy.
“Many northern areas will now have regional governments headed by directly elected mayors,” says Anne. “These mayors will have much greater powers than existing local government to shape and define their areas. It’s a perfect opportunity to develop new strategies for regeneration and I want to put children at the heart of this agenda.”
But establishing a fairer education offering for northern children hasn’t been Anne’s only focus of late. Indeed, along with her Growing Up North report the Children’s Commissioner’s office has also recently published a report called Growing Up Digital, addressing one of the biggest challenges for children in today’s modern world – dealing with social media.
“Society is constantly changing, so there are always going to be new challenges,” says Anne. “One of the biggest is the digital world we live in now. The internet and social media has changed the nature of childhood, bringing amazing opportunities and some risks. I know parents and teachers worry about it and often feel a bit out of their depth. But it’s a fact of modern life – my five year old nephew has already been using his parents’ tablet for years. It’s why I set up an expert panel to look into how we can give kids the resilience, information and power they need to navigate their way through their online lives. We came up with a number of recommendations, from simplifying terms and conditions of the internet giants, to introducing a Digital Ombudsman who would act as a mediator between children and these social media platforms.”
With social media presenting problems, funding cuts to education and an ongoing disparity based on where you live I’m intrigued to know if Anne thinks it’s easier or harder to be a child in 2017 than in decades gone by?
“I don’t think there has ever been a golden age of childhood,” she says. “For many life is better than their grandparents or parents could have ever imagined, while for some life is much more complicated and in some cases worse. It is my job to use the office of Children’s Commissioner to improve the lives of all children and particularly the most vulnerable.
“I’m an optimist and I believe that is possible and I’ll use my time as Commissioner to continue to fight their corner.”