The generation of children growing up during the coronavirus pandemic is not “lost” – and could become the strongest yet, the Children’s Commissioner has said.
Society must harness the “positive can-do spirit” of the Beveridge report produced during the Second World War to tackle “deep rooted problems” amplified by the Covid-19 crisis, Dame Rachel de Souza said.
Dame Rachel said society owes it to children to tackle these issues “for the huge sacrifices they’ve made for us, despite being the least at risk of becoming ill”.
The Children’s Commissioner was speaking at the Local Government Association (LGA)’s annual conference, where she revealed that more than half a million children in England have responded to a survey she launched in April.
She said it showed that more children are unhappy about their mental health than any other issue, such as, for example, exams, home life or the internet.
Also speaking was Tia Carmichael, a member of the youth parliament for Plymouth, who said young people have been written off as a “lost generation”.
She said: “How can we recover when we’ve already been labelled as a last cause? I think the first point of recovery is eradicating this term.
“Young people have been affected, but we are not the lost generation. We are a generation who has faced a challenge, and I have every confidence we will bounce back like the rest of society, but stronger than before.”
Dame Rachel said she would say “absolutely no” to the term and she wants younger people to reflect on how resilient they have become amid the pandemic’s “huge” challenges.
She said: “One of the reasons I talked about the Beveridge report was how… post Second World War, we could have been on our knees, and instead we did some of our most our best policy making.
“And that’s really, in terms of childhood now and young people now, it is not written that there needs to be a lost generation…this could be the strongest generation and we want them to have the most successful futures.
“So, I’m optimistic, but there sure is some work to do.”
Dame Rachel said society must be guided by the science on balancing safety and risk when deciding on whether to vaccinate children.
She said young secondary school pupils she spoke to almost universally want to get vaccinated because they want life to return to normal and are concerned about older family members.
She continued: “I think that generosity of spirit and that courage around this is really admirable, but again, we’ve got to be guided by the science.
“I was convinced, strongly, by the idea of vaccines being needed in poorer countries to support vaccine programmes and so that ought to be a priority, I thought there was some compelling and really positively global approach there.
“But at the same time I think we need to watch what’s happening with these variants, and keep an eye on the situation.”
Dame Rachel’s Big Ask survey, which ran for six weeks earlier this year, has been completed by 560,000 children across every age group, area and background.
This is the biggest response to a survey of children in England, the Children’s Commissioner said, and the findings will be published in early September.
Dame Rachel said the results clearly slow that mental health is the big issue facing this generation, and that she would like to see mental health teams rolled out in schools more quickly.
The current Government target is to have 35% of pupils reached by 2023.
She said: “Progress has been made on children’s mental health, and it’s now a higher priority than it was, but this needs to be accelerated because fewer than four in 10 children with a mental health condition currently benefit from treatment.
“We need to go further and faster, we need to think more imaginatively, we need to bring in more partners, improve working with schools and do more online.”
She also said she had been shocked by recent allegations of sexual harassment in schools, and that this is a societal issue which everyone must take responsibility for.
She added that she would like to hold social media companies to account to ensure there is proper age verification and protect young girls from being repeatedly asked to share naked photographs.
The LGA called for a much greater focus on children with special educational needs and disabilities (Send), whose lives have been particularly affected by repeated lockdowns and school disruption.
It said demand for Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans and statements has risen more than five-fold over the past five years, from 74,209 in 2016 to 430,697 in 2021.
It says these children’s needs will become “greater and more complex” the longer it takes for the Government to publish its review of the Send system.