The government today welcomed Dr John Dunford’s independent review of the Children’s Commissioner for England and his recommendations to change the role through legislation by strengthening its remit, powers and independence.
Dr Dunford concluded that there is a need for a Children’s Commissioner in today’s society but with a stronger role to promote children’s rights, in order for the government to meet its commitment to implement the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Ministers today accepted John Dunford’s recommendations in principle and will consult in due course on legislative changes.
The report finds that the current model is flawed and consequently the overall impact of the Children’s Commissioner has been disappointing. Dr Dunford attributes this mainly to the current limited remit of the Commissioner, which refers to children’s views and interests rather than their rights.
He recommends that the government changes the role as follows:
- a strengthened remit - a new rights-based Children’s Commissioner for England;
- greater independence from government - the Children’s Commissioner should report direct to Parliament, rather than just the Department for Education, and should not have to consult the Secretary of State before undertaking an inquiry;
- the Commissioner should be in post for a single 7-year term of office;
- increased powers - advising government on new policies and undertaking an assessment of the impact of new policies on children’s rights, and a duty on government and local services to issue a formal response to concerns raised by the Children’s Commissioner;
- a merger between the Office of the Children’s Commissioner and the Office of the Children’s Rights Director in Ofsted to create a new Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England.
In addition, Dr Dunford recommends that the Children’s Commissioner needs to improve the credibility of the role by always basing advice on evidence and not offering opinions on subjects relating to children without that evidence.
The current Children’s Commissioner will remain in post pending legislative changes, but new legislation is likely to change the role significantly and the government may therefore be required to readvertise the post once new legislation takes effect.
Speaking at a visit to a Rights Respecting School in London today with the Children’s Minister Sarah Teather and Schools Minister Nick Gibb, Dr Dunford said:
The days of children being seen and not heard are long gone. The new strengthened role I propose for the Children’s Commissioner should help to ensure that children play a positive role in society, as many do now, and are protected from harm. This can only happen if the Children’s Commissioner is legally responsible for promoting and protecting children’s rights, and is given greater independence from government.
In conducting my review I visited some Rights Respecting Schools and saw at first hand that when children are taught about their rights they learn a greater appreciation of the rights of others. The evidence is that this has a positive impact on behaviour and teacher-pupil relationships. Rights, respect and responsibility are the three Rs of learning to be a good citizen.
The role I propose for the Children’s Commissioner will have an increased impact on children’s lives, thereby providing much better value for money. And whilst I am convinced that the Children’s Commissioner should act on behalf of all children, the Office should focus most on vulnerable children.
Children’s Minister Sarah Teather said:
I thank Dr Dunford for carrying out his review and presenting us with some welcome changes to improve the role of the Children’s Commissioner. I feel very strongly that children need a champion who can speak on their behalf. Dr Dunford’s recommendations are very much in line with this Government’s commitment to promoting and protecting children’s rights.
As Children’s Minister I also have an important role to play in challenging government to take account of the UNCRC when making new policies. I shall be closely scrutinising new legislation and key policies that directly affect children and young people to ensure we act on this commitment.
Dr Dunford’s report highlights there is clear justification for making changes to the role of Children’s Commissioner. We want to raise the profile and credibility of the role among children, young people and parents. There is an important message here for government, to take seriously the evidence and advice presented to us by the Commissioner. I shall personally welcome any advice from the Children’s Commissioner that will help us to improve the lives of children and protect their rights.
One of the young people who submitted evidence to John Dunford’s review said:
It is a good idea as long as the government really does use a Children’s Commissioner properly and not just have this as a figurehead. Children should know who the decision-makers are and be able to raise views direct, and be consulted about matters which affect them. As long as the Children’s Commissioner is a worthwhile way of getting children and young people’s voices heard, then there should be lots of active promotion of the role of the Commissioner in all the places that children and young people would go, e.g. schools, colleges, universities, youth clubs, the internet, etc.
Today, ministers visited Trinity Saint Mary’s C of E Primary School in south London to hear about the benefits of teaching children about their rights and their responsibilities. John Dunford visited two Rights Respecting Schools while conducting his review and he recommends that more schools should adopt this ethos. He finds that when children have a better understanding of their rights they learn to respect the rights of others and will understand better how to act as young citizens.
Recent research published by UNICEF UK on the wellbeing and achievement of children in 31 Rights Respecting Schools shows that teaching children about their rights can reduce exclusions and bullying, improve teacher-pupil relationships, and will contribute to raising attainment.
Anita Tiessen, Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF UK said:
We are delighted that the government will be taking steps to ensure that the rights of England’s children and young people are promoted and protected by a strong and independent commissioner which is in line with international standards.
We are pleased that the recommendations refer to and are partly based on the work of UNICEF UK’s Rights Respecting Schools Award scheme which shows that helping children to understand their rights leads to respect for the rights of others.
Notes to editors
The Review of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England is published today on the Department for Education’s publications website.
The Government asked Dr Dunford to review the Children’s Commissioner to make sure that children and young people have a strong, independent advocate to champion their interests and views and promote their rights.
All the other devolved administrations in the UK and nearly all countries in the developed world have a Children’s Commissioner.
Dr Dunford recommends that the new role of an Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England (OCCE) should be strategic and involve broadly the following activities: promoting and protecting the rights of children under the UNCRC; reporting to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child; becoming the recognised authority and advising on children’s rights issues, based on the evidence collected through gathering children’s views, commissioning or undertaking research or conducting investigations; advising policymakers on the implications of their policies for children’s rights and, in particular, undertaking impact assessments of new legislation; ensuring that children have a say and are listened to on matters affecting their rights; acting as a central point of advice and referral for children who believe their rights are being violated; investigating and reporting on individual complaints, but only where they have wider implications; providing expert advice to legal proceedings relating to children’s rights, but only where they have wider significance; monitoring the accessibility and adequacy of complaints and advocacy services for children and recommending improvements; helping children to understand their rights and their responsibility to respect the rights of others; promoting public awareness and understanding of the importance of children’s rights and responsibilities; raising public awareness of children’s contributions to society (e.g. by continuing with the Takeover Day initiative).
UNICEF UK’s Rights Respecting School Award recognises schools that show a high commitment to promoting children’s rights and encourage children and young people to respect the rights of others. UNICEF UK developed the Rights Respecting Schools Award scheme in 2002 and piloted it in 2003. Following the pilot, the project was boosted by a grant in 2007 from the government to work with 5 specific local authorities across the UK: Hampshire, Dorset, Bracknell, Rochdale and Durham. The scheme is now running in more than a thousand schools in the UK and in over 50 local authorities. The RRSA is open to all schools: nursery, primary, middle, secondary, special schools and pupil referral units. To register your school or for more information please visit the UNICEF RRSA website.
UNICEF is the world’s leading organisation working for children and their rights in more than 190 countries. As champion of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF works to help every child realise its full potential. Together with partners, UNICEF delivers health care, nutrition, education and protection to children in urgent need, while working with governments to ensure they deliver on their promise to protect and promote the rights of every child. UNICEF relies entirely on voluntary donations from individuals, governments, institutions and corporations, and is not funded by the UN budget. For more information, please visit the UNICEF website.