The room is packed with children and young people and there is a buzz of anticipation as Tony Bell, chief executive of the renowned Alder Hey children’s hospital, opens the debate with the self-deprecating remark that the only reason he is there is because he “probably falls into the broad category of understanding what children and young people want”.
He introduces his co-chair, 13-year-old Matthew Rooney and the questions kick off. The children appear relaxed and unfazed by the occasion. This is partly accounted for by the fact they have already met the commissioners at a special tea before the debate.
There are 13 questions to get through in just one hour, and by the time all four commissioners have chipped in their views on the first question, 15 minutes have already passed. Bell turns to Rooney to ask how many questions there are. Quick as a flash, with true Liverpudlian humour Rooney replies: “By the end of tonight, two.”
Unfortunately, the commissioners take until question seven to decide that just one should answer each question. But there are rustlings of discontent from the young people who haven’t had their questions answered yet as they will have less time than the others.
At the end I caught up with the commissioners to see what they thought of criticism that some of their answers weren’t targeted at children.
Aynsley-Green agrees, saying: “I’m used to talking to 1,000 scientists in a ballroom about policy. It’s a huge challenge to convey messages simply so I’m working on it.”
Williams says: “We have to take that on the chin, it’s always a danger and we need to learn that.”
Then they all went off for dinner, no doubt to discuss how they were going to make their mark on children’s issues.
Q: How will the commissioners ensure that all teachers are trained and aware of special educational needs and disability? How will you make sure that all teachers provide the right support in school?
Asked by the Liverpool Dyslexia project.
Williams: “This is the biggest area of individual complaints from parents and children with special educational needs, that teachers aren’t meeting or even responding to these needs. There is no excuse. Sometimes it is a money issue and that is wrong. It’s a big issue to challenge schools, individual teachers if necessary, governing bodies and principals. We need to look at the training of teachers to make sure that they understand disability.”
Matthew Rooney co-chair of the event, uses the Liverpool Dyslexia Project. “The commis–sioners made some good points and answered the questions well. I would like to see more focus on youth organisations to help people with difficulties. It is hard to cope when they are doing things like reading or a spelling quiz. If the commissioners don’t address these issues, young people might get turned off by school and go into crime. A lot of people in prisons have dyslexia.”
Q: Being a young carer can sometimes be hard and it’s hard to talk about our problems. What can the commissioners do to listen to and help children and young people who are young carers?
(Barnardo’s Action with Young Carers)
Battle: “We have targeted different groups of young people to talk to and for the last three months it has been young carers. We have done workshops on their rights, listened to their problems and are taking on individual cases.”
Aynsley-Green: “My dad died when I was 10 and my auntie told me I had to be a man to look after my sister so I am passionately committed to making sure this is on the agenda.”
Sue Troake, 24; Lynsey Templeman, 28; Sam McGrath, 20; and Louisa Harrison, 21, are all involved with Barnardo’s Action with Young Carers.
Lynsey: “The answer was nice because it was empathic. They need to work on being creative and learn from projects that listen to children – it has been there for years, it’s not new.”
Lousia: “Part of the question was saying that it’s hard for us to talk about our problems and if someone comes to us and says ‘let’s talk’ we won’t necessarily want to. I don’t feel he really answered that part. Some of the time they were just agreeing with the question and not saying anything concrete like ‘we are going to do this and this’. In general I’m sure they will do the job well, it’s just taking the feedback that young people have given them and putting it into practice.”
Sue: “It was a young people’s debate, but some of the answers were for adult professionals. It doesn’t send a very good message – it’s about how you talk to children.”
Sam: “It was meant to be about us and not about them and they weren’t working as a team to answer questions, it was about what they had done in one country.”
Q: Have any of the commissioners toured their local city or area and looked at it from a child’s or young person’s point of view?
Battle: “I live in Tenby and had my house broken into while I was away and they held a party there for two days. I found out who the children were and asked them to come round and tell me why. They said there was nowhere to go. We sat for hours and they told me about the area from their point of view. I didn’t go to the police but went to youth services and now we have a youth club one night a week.”
Zoe Durkee: 12, uses a project for siblings of disabled children run by PSS, a Merseyside care charity: “It was the answer we were looking for. They came across as down to earth, you felt you could talk to them easily. On the whole, it came across that they listened to children, but they need to find more things for us to do.”
Q: Young people feel that bullying and racism in schools is not taken seriously enough. What can the commissioners do to address this?
(Kensington Junior Youth Inclusion Project)
Williams: “For all of us, bullying is one of the biggest concerns that young people bring to us. We have trained a group of young people to go to schools across Northern Ireland and find out from students what’s working and what isn’t. Ask any adult and they will say bullying is bad and then you ask what they are doing about it and a lot of it isn’t working, so we have to do what young people says works.”
Marshall: “We are doing a review of this, asking every child whether their school has a bullying policy. The majority of cases of bullying that come to us are by teachers, not by other children.”
Anthony Tonnesen, 11, and Callum McGee, 10, use Kensington Junior Youth Inclusion Project, which targets provision at potentially vulnerable young people and aims to reduce the risk of them becoming involved in crime in the future.
Anthony: “I have had racist comments because my mum is mixed race. Racism is a form of bullying. Bullies should have a week not playing and a week of doing lines. The commissioners should do something about bullying. There should be more after-school clubs because then people wouldn’t hang about on the streets getting into trouble.”
Callum: “There should me more punishment for children who bully. They just go to the headmaster who says ‘don’t do that again’.”
Q: How are the commissioners improving the NHS for young people, such as helping young people who binge drink, smoke or take drugs?
(Liverpool Schools Parliament)
Aynsley-Green: “I’m absolutely appalled by the poor service for adolescents. There is only one doctor in the UK who is trained to understand the special health needs of adolescents. We must tackle this, there’s no excuse for not doing so.”
Liam Sutherland, 18, is a member of Liverpool Schools Parliament. It meets once a term at the Town Hall to discuss health and transport issues for all children in the authority.
Liam: the parliament’s prime minister for special schools (there is another one for mainstream schools): “There wasn’t enough detail, it was very rushed. It was a good opportunity but a bit of a wasted one. We didn’t learn a lot about what they are doing.”
The children’s commissioners
Al Aynsley-Green, England: “The fundamental issue in this country is that children and young people aren’t seen as citizens. We have this extraordinary attitude that they are owned by their parents.”
Kathleen Marshall, Scotland: “It’s cheaper [for adults] to buy a bottle of wine than it is for children to go swimming or to the cinema – that struck home.”
Maria Battle, deputy for Wales: “Old people in Wales have free travel and cheap concessions but children don’t. There’s no reason, it’s purely political.”
Nigel Williams, Northern Ireland: “One of the reasons why children aren’t involved in decision making is because adults have this strange view that young people don’t understand the issues, which is really stupid.”