What children have told us about their lives, and how we should respond

File image of children in school

More than half a million children responded to the report - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In March 2021 the new Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel De Souza, launched a survey called ‘The Big Ask’. The survey was designed to ask the nation’s children about their experiences of life in pandemic England and their hopes and dreams for the future.  

We encouraged all of the children in our schools to reply and helped them to do that where we could.  This was their chance to have their say and the Children’s Commissioner made it clear that she wanted to listen.  

Last month we heard that, in total, over half a million children had responded - the largest response of its kind ever - and the results were published in a report that you can read on the Children’s Commissioner’s website or if you google ‘The Big Answer’.  

A whole generation of England’s children have spoken with striking agreement about their priorities. 80% of children say they are happy with their family life.  

They believe in families, not necessarily nuclear families, they simply want happy homes. 84% are happy (or ok) with life at school or college, they like school and they see education as important and as a pathway to opportunity.  80% are happy (or ok) with their mental health, they want to emerge from their isolation and embrace opportunity again.  Importantly they say that they want to get outdoors, take part in more activities and they want to be safe.  

In her foreword to the report, Dame Rachel De Souza describes them as ‘A generation of children who are veterans of a global crisis’.

She goes on to say that, ‘They have seen how colossally frightening life can be, far too young, and have made a lot of sacrifices. But they have endured, and are emerging stronger and prematurely wise. Bruised, yes, and in many cases seriously vulnerable, but for the most part, happy, optimistic, and determined.  They are a survivor generation – a sleeves-up, pragmatic generation, with civic-minded aspirations.’

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It is now time for us adults to show that we have listened and will act. The report compares this moment in history with post-war Britain and the beginning of the NHS, reminding us that we probably can’t imagine life without the NHS now, although some thought it was unaffordable and unachievable at the time.  

We need investment on a similar scale if we are going to live up to the expectations of our young people, provide for their needs and create the sort of society that they deserve.  This is a pivotal moment for our country and this report is just the start.  

We need our politicians to be as concerned as we are in schools about the 20% of children who are not happy at home or in school and don’t think they have good mental health.  The report’s recommendations are specific and achievable if we have the political will, and funding, to make them happen. 

In his budget speech last week, Rishi Sunak pledged billions for ‘levelling up’ and talked about the power of opportunity being ‘the birth right of every child’.  

Responding to a review led by Andrea Leadsom in March he talked about the importance of the first 1,001 days of a child’s life and announced funding for a network of family hubs across the country, high quality parenting courses and training for the early years workforce.

There is no doubt that children and families were disadvantaged by the closure of many of our Children’s Centres so this change in policy is welcomed but we need an ambition that matches the ambition of our young people and doesn’t simply replace what we had before.  

The commitment to restore per pupil funding to 2010 levels in real terms which, according to the Chancellor is equivalent to a cash increase for every pupil of more than £1,500, demonstrates just how far behind we are - and now we have the impact of a pandemic, an economic crisis and climate change to face.  

The report talks about this generation of young people being a ‘sleeves-up’ heroic generation.  They want a better world and we owe it to them to respond with that 1940’s spirit and determination to roll our sleeves up too and prioritise them. 

- Clare Flintoff is the CEO of ASSET Education, which runs a number of schools across Suffolk.

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