Children’s commissioner’s stirring call for a new settlement for children

The children’s commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, has just published the results of the ‘Big Ask’, the biggest ever survey of children anywhere in the world, with over half a million responses. In her foreword she talks of a “heroic generation … determined to put the pandemic behind them, to recover well, to get back to school and make good lives for themselves.” One of the main focuses of the survey was wellbeing. The majority of children are, she says, happy, optimistic and outward-looking. They see mental and physical health as interlinked, and they regard good mental health as an important future aspiration for themselves, not just something for now. The children’s commissioner talks in grand, stirring terms of seizing the moment: “The report you are reading is a mandate for an intergenerational promise – a new settlement for England’s children – a grown‑up, cross‑party set of policy commitments that reward the nobility of their vision.”

The Big Ask survey was open to any child in England aged 4—17. It was conducted online, with participation anonymous and voluntary so that as many children could be reached as possible and they could feel comfortable speaking freely. Before taking part children were taught about the Big Ask in assemblies and in class.

Among the troubling findings in the area of mental health and wellbeing were the following:

  • 20% of children said they were unhappy with their mental health, making it the top issue they were concerned about
  • Girls were nearly twice as likely as boys to say that they were unhappy with their mental health
  • Older children and children in more deprived areas were also more likely to be unhappy with their mental health than those from less deprived areas
  • Children who said they were unhappy with their mental health were far more likely to say they were unhappy with their physical health than those who were happy with their mental health

Dame de Souza emphasises the importance of the NHS to children’s future wellbeing, as part of a comprehensive support package: “the NHS needs to be woven into the fabric of their lives, such that their care, education, and healthcare are working in partnership and striving for the same goals.” Her comments are carefully phrased but timely. As in many other sectors, children’s mental health services are under acute strain, partly due to the lockdown but also as a result of years of funding allocations that have failed to keep pace with the rapid increase in mental ill-health among young people.

A recent BBC investigation has found that children struggling with mental health problems during the pandemic are facing “agonisingly” long waits for treatment:

Data from half of England’s specialist child mental health services found one in five youngsters seen since Covid hit waited longer than 12 weeks for care. The numbers still waiting also appear to be rising sharply. Doctors said services were so stretched that under-18s were turning up at A&E because they could not get help.

from the BBC website, Children face ‘agonising’ waits for mental health care

We also posted recently about a report from the Children’s Society that provided additional evidence that young people’s mental health and wellbeing is in “an alarming state of decline”.

We agree with the children’s commissioner that, “in a truly English tradition of radical action”, it is time to offer children a new deal. We owe it to our children to equip them with the knowledge, skills and values to tackle the staggering challenges they will meet as adults. Life-Based Learning (LBL) is aimed at children aged 5 to 11 (or thereabouts) and offers a bold and imaginative vision for children’s learning.

We promote a life-based approach to learning to better prepare children — as they grow into adulthood — to manage the life-threatening challenges facing individuals, societies and environments across the planet. This is an urgent priority. Time is not on our side.

In the post referred to above, we said:

We need a curriculum strategy that properly addresses the issue of children’s mental health. Our blogs regularly highlight the benefits to children’s mental health and wellbeing of regular physical exercise, outdoor and nature-based experiences and participation in activities that involve them in positive change.

In addition, we need to empower children by giving them the knowledge and skills to understand and look after themselves. This is what Life-Based Learning aims to do. The Emotions is one of nine life themes, each with equal priority, that form the framework of an LBL curriculum. Children learn from a young age about their emotions and how to manage them, helping them to grow up happy and emotionally resilient, able to create and maintain long-lasting and fulfilling relationships with family, friends, work colleagues and others.

from our post “Alarming state of decline,” says new children’s wellbeing report

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