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Ambitious plan for ambitious children

25 Mar 2024: Political leaders should listen to, and act on, what children have to say, says the Children’s Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, following the launch of her ambitious plan for ambitious children. Putting the wellbeing of children and families at the forefront of government policy shouldn’t only happen during a pandemic.

The Commissioner’s plea follows the launch of The Big Ambition, a major new survey of children’s views across England in which she sets out how a government can care for children. “I want this paper to serve as a call to action, for whoever forms the next government, to decide now that they will commit all their energy and effort to improving the lives of children,” Dame de Souza says.

The headline is that children are realistic as well as ambitious, and that their views are well worth listening to. Children value the adults in their lives too. They look to adults to make improvements that they can see are possible.

[Children] want, in short, to be children and be allowed to be children. They believe in the power of adults to transform their lives for the better. . . . The Big Ambition results show how grateful children are for those adults who support them every single day. . . . We can change children’s lives, if we make their ambitions our priorities. …

With a few clear ambitions, shared across government, both local and national, as well as everyone working with children, and underpinned by action that can be both radical and practical, the lives of children can be dramatically improved. This paper sets out a plan for making childhood not only safe and healthy, but joyful and ambitious.

Dame Rachel de Souza, Children’s Commissioner for England

The report details the aims and cross-cutting ways for a government to promote the wellbeing and care of the children. It’s an election year, so it’s especially aimed at politicians and policy-makers.

Family is top priority

In her report, the Children’s Commissioner gives great weight to children’s voices. And, naturally, children place their family at the top of their list of The Ambitions. So, the top priorities are that:

1. Every child grows up in a family who has what they need to support them and no child grows up in poverty;

2. Every child grows up in a loving and supportive family; and

3. Every child has access to high quality support in the early years.

Earlier, universal support for families

The report recognises the need for something of a paradigm shift towards earlier and more universal support:

“It is clear that a rebalancing is needed, with all families strengthened so they can face the challenges life throws at them, and given the universal help and support they need to enjoy family life, so that fewer problems develop. If problems do still emerge, they still need to be picked up much earlier, and addressed in a non-stigmatising way.”

As with many reports and programs aimed at the wellbeing of children and families, though, there is little, explicit reference to the sledgehammer that – for one third of all children in England – destroys such good intentions and ambitions like no other: family separation or divorce.

Ambition number 12 provides a hint: “All families get consistent, effective help to improve children’s welfare, and to stay together wherever it is in a child’s best interests.”

But, with family separation and divorce being one of the most widespread, yet least-recognised health risks to our children, implementing a fresh approach to this often-devastating event for children should surely be a clearer priority. It’s certainly one of the foremost ambitions of many children.

A child’s first wish

Wanting to grow up in a happy, healthy family is the first wish of many. Sadly, as we say at Two Wishes, “not all children get their first wish”. It’s essential, then, in any ambitious plan for the future of our children, to plan for the likelihood that their families may experience major change, upheaval or separation. We need to ensure that our ambitions include the early support we know is needed for the often-stressful time for children and all those involved when families break up.

The report’s recommendations include: a unique childhood identifier; a single “Child’s Plan” of support needed; accountability to service standards; and a children’s workforce strategy. The Department of Education is responsible for core services for children but, as ever, there is no department responsible to ensure and integrate such organisationally dispersed plans.

The Big Ambition sets out an ambitious framework of strategies and outcome measures – of children being happy, healthy, and engaged in the community. Every politician and decision-maker needs to listen.