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'The Home Office shouldn’t have anything to do with children': The Children's Commissioner interview

Rachel de Souza, Children's Commissioner (Credit: Karl Black / Alamy Stock Photo)

9 min read

Children’s commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza tells Sophie Church why Elon Musk needs to take his fatherhood more seriously and why she thinks the Home Office ‘shouldn’t have anything to do with children’

Children were least at risk from the immediate health effects of Covid, but suffer the most from the pandemic’s long tail. Some of the consequences are well known, with pupil absence in schools hitting record highs and rising close to the top of the political agenda.

Others remain largely hidden, and one of the more shocking, reveals children’s commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, is the dramatic increase in rates of sexually-transmitted diseases among the young, a consequence of the closure of STD clinics during the pandemic.

“Do you realise we’ve got the worst gonorrhoea rates since 1918, and the worst syphilis rates since 1945? And 400-plus – it is mainly 14 to early 20s – 400 teenagers getting infected every week,” she says. 

If Elon Musk’s going to run Twitter – this man’s a father – he really needs to do something about this

“Schools and parents have got a job to do; we don’t want our kids learning about sex off TikTok, do we? We do have a responsibility to help with boundaries, with education – and these are all long tails of Covid.”

Knowing what she knows now, de Souza is adamant schools should not be shut if there were another pandemic. “I would not close schools, I think it’s really important that we keep them open. The impact on children of closing schools has been immense.”

Her powers as children’s commissioner for England include the ability to demand data relating to children from any public body. Her first act in the role was to ask local authorities and schools how many pupils were turning up to school every day. Previously a head teacher, de Souza knew she’d be confronted with some uncomfortably high absentee figures. What she found was arguably worse – a void.

Dame Rachel de Souza (Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo)
Dame Rachel de Souza (Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

“There were many areas that couldn’t answer me properly,” she says. “That knowledge that you would think would be so clear was not at all.”

What data does exist shows that, over the past academic year, 22 per cent of pupils in England were persistently absent from school. That’s 1.8 million out of eight million pupils. The problem is particularly acute for those children eligible for free school meals and those with special educational needs.

While the initial challenge post-pandemic was to ensure children were exam-ready, now it is supporting those children with special educational needs and mental health problems who have “fallen off the radar”. Instead of harrying parents into sending sniffly children into school, she says government and local authorities must concentrate their efforts on this “small group, but a group that is really, really struggling”. 

Now, a new chief inspector of education, children’s services and skills, Sir Martyn Oliver, has been appointed  – and de Souza knows him well. “I’ve already pressed him, to say: ‘… we’ve got a postcode lottery of attendance services, I want to see a clear picture. I want an audit of this. I want this to be one of the first things you do’. And he’s committed to me that he will really work on this.”

And earlier this month Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, and her opposing number, Bridget Phillipson, tabled their battle plans to get children back to classrooms. For the government: the creation of 18 new attendance hubs – schools with a strong record of attendance who can share expertise with struggling schools – and attendance mentors, who will work directly with families struggling to send their child to school. For Labour: annual checks on absentee figures, more mental health counsellors and free breakfast clubs. 

De Souza is keen to stress her political independence as commissioner. But where she spies good policy, for instance on the government’s attendance hubs scheme, she will support it.

So, what does she make of the government’s provision for children with special needs?

“The implementation plan is good, but a lot of it is pathfinders,” she says. “There’s a [while] to go until 2025 – we need it now. So my thing was: there’s some great stuff there in that Send [special educational needs and disabilities] green paper, but it needs rocket boosting. It needs funding, rocket boosting and hurrying up.”

While de Souza is impatient with the government, her excitement about Phillipson’s speech is palpable. 

“I thought that Bridget gave a powerful speech, I was very pleased to see her reference our work on unique identifiers [an NHS number assigned to every child to improve data sharing across services]… and I thought she gave a very powerful speech… Bridget [also] talked about counsellors in every school – absolutely!”

Frankly... the Home Office shouldn’t have anything to do with children

Covid also emphasised the link between social media use and poor mental health outcomes among children. In response, the Online Safety Bill – beacon of hope for safer-internet campaigners but anathema to free-speech warriors – became law. But an eerie silence has followed. Is the legislation working as intended?

“It’s early days,” de Souza says. “Look, first thing I’d say is: it’s groundbreaking legislation. I fought jolly hard to get it through. Thank goodness we got it through. I think the adults of this country have finally stepped up to the plate and we’re saying ‘no more’ to the tech companies.”

However, young children are still able to access sites with unsuitable content. While government is reportedly considering whether to impose a ban on under-16s using social media, de Souza implores tech companies to shoulder responsibility.

“They know how old children are online. They should be getting them off,” she says. “When I ask children where they first saw porn – and I’ve done national representative work on this – it’s Twitter, then porn companies, then it’s Meta and Snap… It really has not been dealt with properly. If Elon Musk’s going to run Twitter – this man’s a father – he really needs to do something about this.”

The Online Safety Act could also do with a rocket boost, de Souza says. “I know Ofcom are doing their best – they’ve got consultations out – but we need to make sure it keeps moving on. We need Ofcom to have teeth, and we need them to hold the tech companies to account. I argued strongly that tech bosses should face prison if necessary if they don’t keep our children safe. We really do need to do that.”

De Souza has just reached the halfway mark – around 330,000 responses – in her Big Ambition survey, asking children across the country what matters to them. Where the last survey of its kind, launched in 2021, saw children concerned about mental health, getting back to school and the online world, she says, “it feels really different three years on”. 

“Pretty much everyone’s talking about safety – there’s a real concern about physical safety with knife crime,” she says. “And every single child I speak to I say: ‘are your parents worried about cost of food?’ Every single hand goes up.”

Both the Lords and Commons take my work incredibly seriously

De Souza, now 56, can relate. Born in Scunthorpe, her father was a steelworker and her mother an Austrian-Hungarian refugee. There wasn’t  much money to go around, and sometimes no food. She was the first in her family to go to university, where she gained a postgraduate degree. She went on to teach in various schools in the South, and co-founded a hugely successful multi-academy trust based in Norfolk. 

“I think there was a big focus from my mum’s family on education. I had that immigrant, pro-education thing,” she says. “When I was growing up, my dad was a steelworker who had gone on strike, and there were the coal miners’ strikes when I was a teenager. So I was right in the middle of all of that. I had all that around me, which I think really did shape my thinking about… poverty.”

Dame Rachel de Souza with school children (Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo)
Dame Rachel de Souza with school children (Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

However, back in the 70s, she says the only thing she really had to worry about was nuclear warfare – otherwise, she was free and happy. She compares that to the children of today: constantly connected, and therefore vulnerable, to the internet’s dark side. 

“I don’t think I ever thought about what my job would be until I left university, whereas I’ve got eight and nine-year-olds in my surveys telling me they’re worried about what job they’re going to get,” she says. “I wish that modern children had some of the freedom I had.”

Talk turns to the eye-watering profits children’s care homes have been enjoying. Last year, the income of the 20 largest independent care operators totalled £1.63bn, a 6.5 per cent increase on the year before; 19 per cent of that was profit.

With her own mother an orphan, de Souza says the thought of people making money in this way “just feels wrong”. She adds: “As an educationist, I would argue firmly against introducing profit-making and I wouldn’t allow it in education. We never have. So it seems to me that this has crept into the children’s social care area, and it’s deeply concerning.”

Equally, she has been extremely vocal over the treatment of refugee children coming to Britain, and has been “one of the few people” to actually visit minors seeking asylum who are staying unaccompanied in hotels. “Frankly, one of the things I always say is: the Home Office shouldn’t have anything to do with children. Anything to do with children and asylum should come here,” she says, pointing firmly to the surrounding Department for Education office. 

“I think that if I was the education minister, I’d want to be the minister for education and children. I don’t think you can separate those things,” she says.

As commissioner, does de Souza ever feel powerless?

“I think our Parliament – both the Lords and Commons – take my work incredibly seriously,” she says. “As children’s commissioner, when I call the tech companies in, they come in.”

However, with an election on the horizon, she wants to go one step further. 

“They’re going to get from me a manifesto of England’s children, and I want to see what the children want in their manifestos,” she says. “That’s what I want to see.” 

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