Young people must be front and centre ahead of a general election after taking a “massive hit” in the pandemic, the Children’s Commissioner said, as she launched a major survey in a bid to ensure their voices are heard.
The opinions of people from as young as six up to those 18-year-olds who will be able to vote for the first time are being sought for The Big Ambition campaign, as Dame Rachel de Souza said too often these voices are “overlooked”.
The Children’s Commissioner for England said she wants whoever ends up in the next government to be “as ambitious for children as they (children) are for themselves”, with many concerned about issues including poverty, education, and mental health support.
The latest survey – a follow-up to The Big Ask which reached 500,000 young people in 2021 – has been sent to 22,500 schools across England and is also being sent to children and young people in care homes, hospitals, young offender institutes and hostels.
Dame Rachel, who will travel across the country in the coming months to hear young people’s views, launched the campaign at Harris Westminster Sixth Form in central London, a school where priority places go to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Issues raised with her by pupils who took part in focus groups included student loans, knife crime, and the need for better mental health support.
Dame Rachel told the PA news agency: “With an election coming up I want to make sure that children’s voices, young people’s voices, are absolutely heard by Government and by Parliament and by policymakers as we come to this key moment. So often they’re not, so it’s really important for me that we get their voices out there.”
Parents of children up to the age of 18 are also able to take part in the survey.
Dame Rachel said: “Only two years ago we were in the pandemic. Children took a massive hit for us, they were isolated from their friends, they didn’t see their family, now they really are calling, I think, to be put at the centre of thinking as we recover.”
She said politicians must support a generation who are still feeling the after-effects of the pandemic.
“Let’s be as ambitious for children as they are for themselves and that would by my big message to Government,” she said.
“And that means putting the support around children that they need to achieve these goals, whether that’s education, whether that’s healthcare, whether that’s mental health support, special educational needs support.
“Let’s get that support in, particularly to this generation that did so much for us and really still are suffering. Some are quite vulnerable following the pandemic.”
Deprivation, child poverty and better access to good education should be among the top priorities for the Prime Minister to tackle, some of the Harris Westminster students said as the campaign was launched.
Sixteen year-old Salma Amin said: “I think students in deprived areas should be prioritised because the funding in schools sets a precedent for a person’s life. I think education is inextricably linked to social mobility.”
Fellow pupil Awele Benokwu, 17, described poverty as “the root to many of our issues”, saying it leads to the belief that some people “can’t do certain things, they can’t have certain aspirations or goals”.
The campaign is being supported by former Love Island contestant and the Government’s Youth Mental Health Ambassador Dr Alex George.
He said: “I want every child and young person to feel supported and listened to by the people who make decisions that affect them. That’s why The Big Ambition is such a fantastic opportunity to hear the voices of young people on issues that they really care about – like climate change, mental health and education.”
The survey is available here and findings are expected at some point next year, when the commissioner will lobby all the political parties for changes to be adopted across manifestos.