When Theresa May returns to the cut and thrust of question time and conferences she should take decisive action to make children and young people a priority during her time as PM.
Here are four things that can’t be ignored…
#1. Let’s talk about sex…in all schools.
Support for compulsory sex and relationships education (SRE) in all schools is so widespread that many people think it is already a guaranteed part of the curriculum. Sadly, it isn’t.
Currently, only some biological facts about reproduction, puberty and the spread of viruses must be taught in science classes in maintained schools. For free schools and academies there is even greater leeway, and too many fail to provide an age-appropriate programme of learning.
We know that young people who have received high-quality sex and relationships education, delivered by well-trained teaching staff, are more likely to delay first having sex, and to use contraception when they do.
But the benefits don’t stop there. SRE is also important to help young people understand consent, and the difference between abusive and respectful behaviour.
It’s no wonder then that parents, teachers, MPs, leading medical professionals and young people themselves want SRE introduced in all primary schools, building year-on-year as pupils mature. Just last week, Vera Baird QC, chair of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, added her voice to the ground-swell of support for statutory sex and relationships education (SRE) in her first public statement since being elected chair of the Association. Baird says sex abuse cases are putting a strain on police resources and as a result of this, she has launched a campaign to pressure the government to make sex education compulsory in all schools, at both primary and secondary levels, stating: “It is imperative that there should be more action through health and education to prevent these crimes taking place in the first place and to arm potential victims to resist them”.
We urge the government to acknowledge the vast swathe of support for SRE, and to ensure that all children have access to an education that prepares them for adulthood, and helps them develop safe, healthy and happy relationships.
#2. With so many children at risk we need to involve the whole workforce in child protection.
The number of children with child protection orders has risen by 88% since 2002 and it has been estimated that for every child with a protection plan there are another eight who have suffered abuse or neglect.
On top of this, the government has said that the children’s workforce need to have a better understanding of risks faced by children in the UK in the form of radicalization, sexual exploitation and FGM. Practitioners must be supported to work directly with communities to tackle these issues, and to take a planned, joined-up, early intervention approach, rather than merely fire-fighting, when in many cases this is already too late.
To meet these challenges the Government’s drive to improve the quality of social work is good news.
But hold on….
If there are 27,000 locally employed child and family social workers in the country but nearly 2.8 million people working with children in total, it is common sense that the totality of the workforce are supported to identify safeguarding issues and step in where they can. (For more on this, see our report: Rethinking Children’s Services: Fit for the Future?).
We need a national body to champion the whole children’s workforce, joining up initiatives to improve how staff identify and respond to children in need, and raising standards in training and practice.
And joined up working is especially needed in the early years….
#3. Get education and health teams working together to improve children’s early years
The years before a child starts school are a crucial time of development. Research shows that if a child reaches the expected standards of literacy and numeracy at age 5, they have a better chance of going on to do well in school and work.
The government’s investment in free early education is welcome and Ofsted inspections show that early education is of a higher quality than ever before.
But poor children are less likely to benefit from the high quality childcare that can make such a difference in their lives. In the most prosperous areas, only 8% of children are in early years provision that is less than good; for children living in the most deprived areas, this figure more than doubles, to 18%.
But tackling disadvantage isn’t just about improving access to early education, it can be about improving the overall health of the child, creating a better home environment or building parenting skills.
That is why it is vital that the local authority, early years providers and health teams work closely together to share information to inform their assessments of each child.
Unfortunately, Ofsted recently found that few local authorities take this joined-up approach.
Theresa May’s government must take action to combat this fragmented way of working and build cooperation across different children's services, to ensure that children are not suffering as a direct consequence of poor cross-agency working.
She must also ensure that children and young people in care, and those with special educational needs and/or disabilities, get the same high quality early education that many others enjoy. Additionally, it is vital that we continue to monitor early childhood development - and the gap between children in different circumstances - by retaining the statutory status of the Early Years Foundation Stage profile.
#4. Review the care of disabled children living in residential schools.
When Sir Martin Narey published his review of residential care for children he did a lot to raise the status of children’s homes, praising the work they do with children and helping ensure they are not seen as a place of last resort after foster care placements have broken down.
But the review was unable to consider the care given to one particularly vulnerable group of young people: disabled children and those with special educational needs living away from home in residential special schools.
It is unacceptable that there are serious gaps in the data about this group, particularly about their outcomes in health, development and education.
The Government must act swiftly to set up an independent review of how disabled children and young people and those with special educational needs are cared for by residential schools.
Welcome back from your summer holidays
Now the summer recess is over, Theresa May has got serious work ahead of her if she is to guarantee children and young people the best start in life. We hope she listens to our ideas – children rely on her support.