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The Review: Young lives, big ambitions

Chief executive, Saffron Academy Trust

19 May 2024, 5:00

Young lives, big ambitions: Transforming life chances for vulnerable children and teens

By Anne Longfield CBE


Jessica Kingsley Publisher

Young Lives, Big Ambitions is a powerful manifesto calling for urgent change to the way our society treats its children and young people. Written by former Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield CBE, the book paints a bleak picture of the lives of those who fall through cracks in the system because our services are overstretched, lacking in ambition or insufficiently inclusive.

Take the cases of Jaden (14) and Jacob (16). Longfield argues that their premature deaths following criminal exploitation and drug abuse could have been avoided. Tragically, the agencies involved in supporting their families could not or did not intervene early enough, before the boys became isolated and prey to the criminal gangs who groomed and befriended them. She concludes that they “fell through gaps in the school, care and justice systems.”

What she describes is systemic failure, and failure that happens despite the best efforts of those delivering these services. Teenagers whose families are in crisis can end up on the streets because they wish to escape the chaos at home and do not recognise criminal exploitation when it is wrapped up as friendship and belonging.

Shockingly, 13,000 children in this country end up in gangs each year. Longfield asks, quite rightly, what could be done to avoid this sorry state of affairs and whether earlier intervention could not only save young lives but save the country a good deal of money in managing the consequences of social failure.

“Young people make up 20 per cent of our population and 100 per cent of our future”, she reminds us. Yet young people’s needs are far too low down society’s list of priorities. It is not a position any of us can dispute.

Before many were closed, the country used to spend £1.8 billion on Sure Start family centres. Spending on these services has now dropped by 48 per cent. Sure Start helped families access the help they needed in a timely way when issues arose. They remain one of the best-evidenced models of community support and intervention for families and children.

This book does not make for comfortable reading for any of us who work with children

Families no longer have obvious places to go when they need help and children suffer consequently. It is a convincing argument and compellingly made.

This book does not make for comfortable reading for any of us who work with children, but that is also why it is an important book for educators to read. Schools are central to the life of a child. When a child does not attend school or is permanently excluded, spending long periods away from formal education their connection to constant, trusted relationships and social norms are lost.

Rightly, Longfield calls for schools to be as inclusive as possible. News this week that the DfE and Ofsted are looking into schools that try to put off children with SEND or have fewer on roll than might be expected is proof enough that there are gains to be made here.

But Longfield goes further. She asks school leaders to think more deeply about the impact on the life chances of children when they permanently exclude. If possible, she would like us to avoid exclusion entirely.

Many teachers and school leaders would dispute this. School leaders can point to examples of young people who are already involved in criminal drug-related activity while at school, which offers them a market and puts others at risk. Others will argue that dysregulated behaviours undermine the learning and safety of the well-behaved majority.

I sympathise to an extent, and I would have wished for the book’s education-related solutions to be more developed. However, it is clear we could do more as a society to make positive provision for the children who find themselves excluded (or, even better, at risk of exclusion).

As a clarion call for more funding for joined-up services and more attention to be paid to meeting children’s needs, the argument could not be better made. Whether you agree or not with what it claims about the impact of permanent exclusion, you will no doubt share in Longfield’s evident  frustration – and that can only inspire us to be more ambitious for our young people.

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