Maggie Atkinson defends commissioner role against cuts

Rumours about the future of the office of England's children's commissioner abound. But Maggie Atkinson, who has led it for just three months, sees it differently, as she told Judy Cooper

Rumours about the future of the office of England’s children’s commissioner abound. But Maggie Atkinson (pictured), who has led it for just three months, sees it differently, as she told Judy Cooper

In the bonfire of the quangos that is set to continue until the autumn comprehensive spending review, many rumours are circulating about those most at risk in the children’s sector. Often at the top of the list is the office of England’s children’s commissioner. Maggie Atkinson, commissioner for nearly three months, is getting used to it.

“[Children’s minister] Tim Loughton is on record as saying he would instigate a review of the role and I would welcome that,” she says. “We would like a serious debate about the work we do and an open and transparent look at any changes that may be needed to adjust it.”

But she refuses to be drawn on what those changes might be. “I’m not going to second-guess what the new government will do or what any such review might conclude,” she says. “What I would say is that we think the role has grown since it was set up to become more focused and more proactive.”

Launched in 2004, the children’s commissioner post was supported by the three main political parties. Why? “Because it is universally acknowledged that children need someone in a position, created by law, to stand up for them – not by shouting, but by engaging in dialogue with people in power, backed by the knowledge of what children and young people think and feel,” Atkinson says.

She argues the small team of about 25 is good value, having maintained the same £3m annual funding since 2006.

“We’re not an ombudsman, we don’t focus on specific cases, but I would argue that the fact that one of the first announcements from the new government was about ending child detention in immigration centres is concrete proof that we have been listened to,” she says.

Unperturbed by new policies

Known as a tough operator, Atkinson is surprisingly unperturbed by some of the changes the new government has already brought in. She points out that, despite the name change, there has been no change to the Department for Education’s remit.

“They haven’t come in to dismantle partnership working or integration which they could have,” she says. “Yes, [education secretary] Michael Gove is passionate about schools, but I don’t think it necessarily means children’s services are on the back burner. In the short conversation I had with him he struck me as someone who wants to listen.”

For her personally, the role of children’s commissioner is a “dream job”.

“As one of the first-generation directors of children’s services I have seen how difficult it is to integrate services and what a difference it makes when you include the child’s voice in that process,” she says. “That’s my job – to make sure the child’s voice is always present in the decision making that we do.”

Her background, as an English and drama teacher, is obvious as she peppers her comments with literary references. Local authorities are, like Macbeth, “too steeped in blood”, “it were as bloody to go back as to go on” with children’s trusts. The necessity of saving preventative services while keeping up with rising statutory referrals in a climate of budget cuts is a “Gordian knot”.

Media perception

It is perhaps this background that makes her so keenly aware of the need to change the media perception of young people. She did not hesitate, just two weeks in to the job, to wade into the debate on the two boys convicted of torture in Edlington, South Yorkshire, calling for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised in the teeth of a tabloid frenzy.

“It’s very difficult, particularly in the national media, which have historically thrived on selling news that is not good news,” she says, sighing. But, with her trademark steely glint, she adds: “It is also up to everyone working in children’s services to set a high bar for young people. Bring them into adult discussions on how services are shaped and let them prove their worth.”

This article is published in the 10 June 2010 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Thriving in the Uncertainty 


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