Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Children’s Commissioner: an interview with Sir Al Aynsley-Green

Published By: The Independent - 01 Nov 2007

The man who is the voice of England’s children works out of an office so bright and cheerful that its spanking new orange, green and purple décor could be a Saturday morning TV studio. But the news unrolling on the television screen in the reception area is bleak. Two tiny boys, aged six and seven, have been killed while pushing their scooters along a motorway in the dark. Then there is the breaking news that the Government has just decided not to abolish smacking.

It is clearly apparent that Sir Albert Aynsley-Green, the Children’s Commissioner for England, is a man in an impossible job. His task is make this country a place where children feel respected, listened to, loved, safe, happy and able to reach their full potential.

But our children are so far from this, the gulf seems unbridgeable. In February UNICEF declared British children the least fortunate in the developed world. It said they were unhappy, unhealthy, engaging in risky behaviour, had poor relationships with friends and peers, low expectations and no feeling of safety. The Government argued that the report had used outdated data and things were better now, but then came last month’s interim report from the Primary Review, a major Cambridge-based inquiry into primary schools, declaring that today’s children feel anxious, stressed, unsafe and pessimistic, while new figures from the Department of Health show that a quarter of 11- to 15-year-olds are now classed as obese.
The commercialism, individualism and social fragmentation of 21st century England are clearly making the world a perilous and miserable place for children, with three quarters of them saying they feel neither respected or heard. Not surprising, then, to learn that, two years into the job, beyond “the exhilaration and inspiration of meeting so many fantastic children”, Sir Al, as he likes to be known, is feeling anger and despair.

“Despair at seeing the awfulness of the lives of so many children, in this, one of the richest countries in the world. And deep anger that we have so many children under our noses who are very unhappy, and who are not succeeding, yet most people are quite oblivious to what’s under their noses in terms of the impact of society on children.”

The role of Children’s Commissioner for England was set up two years ago, under the 2004 Children’s Act, in response to growing calls for the improved care and protection of children

Sir Al, a leading paediatrician, was appointed from his twin jobs of Nuffield professor of child health at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children and the Institute of Child Health, University College, London, and the national clinical director for children at the Department of Health. He brought to the new post decades of dealing with sick children and their parents, as well as his Whitehall experience of lobbying, advocacy and alliance-building, but it is clear that travelling around England, talking to children on inner city estates, in traveller camps, in special schools and isolated rural villages, has given him much pause for thought. Although his tone is dry and doctorly, his message is savage.

“We are a remarkably child-unfriendly country, so much so that I have come to believe there is something endemic, something built into the English psyche, that makes us this way. Look at today’s issue of physical punishment, which is I think a barometer of how children are valued. Twenty-odd European countries and New Zealand have introduced legislation about how children should be respected in this area, but not us. We have a low age of criminal responsibility, we have ever-more children subject to ASBOs and punishment and control instruments, and we have one of the highest rates of incarceration of children in the civilised world, yet the popular sentiment is not to see children who are vulnerable and who need help, but to see them as a burden to society, needing to be locked away.”

There is also, he says, a total failure to realise children have rights. “Although as soon as you mention rights, and particularly children’s rights, you get a barrage of criticism.”

In fact his own post has been widely criticised by children’s charities and lobby groups as being ‘rights light’ and lacking full independence from government. It has no power of enforcement, and is limited to listening, recommending and trying to influence, although Sir Al stresses that powers such as his right to enter any premises where a child is looked after, that is not a private home, has helped bring about important changes in the areas of youth justice and young asylum seekers.
Yet the Government clearly wanted to avoid creating a post that could really shake things up for children. Sir Al’s appointment lagged behind similar appointments in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, and came with fewer powers. In addition he has only a budget of £3m and a staff of 30 with which to take on our child-unfriendly culture. Much of his time so far has been spent setting up the organisation and “rebranding” it, with the help children, into the snappily-labelled II Million, after the number of children in England. Marketing this new brand, including using extensive consultations with children and young people to help create a child-friendly website and resources, continues to be a major focus of work.

This reflects his aim of wanting to create a “respected, authoritative, competent and careful organisation that can speak for the needs of all children” by the time his five-year appointment comes to an end.

But when it comes to targeted interventions, he knows that limited resources mean he must do one or two things well rather than spread himself all over the place. And there have been successes. He has helped to stop children being placed on adult mental health wards, to shelve the use housing benefit sanctions to punish anti-social families, to improve access of young asylum seekers to benefits, and to obtain additional money for the education of autistic children.

But his central role, he says, is to consult children as widely and thoroughly as he can so he can accurately convey their concerns to those in power. “My whole legitimacy is based on what children and young people tell me.” He spends time on the road, going to all parts of the country, and goes out of his way to reach “the most unreachable children, such as gypsy and travelling children” and the Commission’s annual programme is designed to reflect what children say are their main concerns. This year half the budget is being spent on issues of health and happiness., asking children what makes them happy, and what they feel are the obstacles to that. “In terms of being happy, the two crucial factors, children tell me, are their families and their friends.” Next year it will be bullying, violence and abuse. “Many children are profoundly concerned about domestic violence in their homes, and about physical punishment. They don’t feel it is the best way to induce discipline and put in place moral boundaries. And they are very concerned about school life, and about bullying, and they want it stopped.” This month (subs: November) he is hoping to raise the profile of children by launching the II Million Takeover Day, when children will have the chance to take over from adults in hundreds of organisations.

And although his job is mired in frustration, he is keen to hang on to the positive, pointing point out just how far the Government has come in its development of child-centred policies such as Sure Start and Every Child Matters. “I would argue that more has been done in the last seven years than in the whole 30 years before.” -- although of course the challenge now is to see that the policies get carried out.”

As a student of the history of childhood, he also likes to point to how, at the end of the Nineteenth Century, revulsion at the squalor and destitution in which children were living tipped into action thanks to a mixture of intellectual outrage, explosive events and pressure from outstanding politicians. Today we have had several major childcare and protection scandals, voices are being raised against the state children are in, and the Government seems more willing to put children’s needs on the political agenda. Doesn’t it look, he asks, as if the same thing could be happening now?

It would be good to believe he is right. But the forces ranged against today’s children are not the exploitative mill and mine bosses of the past. They are The the forces ranged against children are deeply woven into the fabric of society. As Sir Al himself puts it, “there is the loss of time for children to be children, the incessant commercialisation of childhood by the advertising industry, and the relentless sexualisation of children at very young ages.” Then there is the media, “which consistently demonizes children, even though ten times more of them are giving back to society by volunteering than are causing trouble.”

Then there is ourselves. Significantly, if Sir Al could have just one wish for the nation’s children, it would not be for better legislation or improved services, or anything else to do with the country’s public institutions, but that parenting be recognised for the crucial thing that it is and be given the time and resources that it needs. And he would like to ask us all one simple question: do we value children enough?
The trouble is, he would need a much bigger budget, and a much stronger remit, and a far more commanding and authoritative voice for it to be shouted loud enough for us to hear.