Child’s player

Peter Clarke takes up his post as Wales’ children’s commissioner
this month. Terry Philpot finds out why he was chosen to become the
UK’s first children’s commissioner and one of only a handful in the

It is given to few to create a new agency from scratch. Fewer
still have their job description written by an act of parliament
only to have another piece of legislation radically enlarge it two
days after they have been appointed. Hardly surprising, then, that
Peter Clarke, the new children’s commissioner for Wales, who took
up his post this month, should wax even more enthusiastically than
you might expect.

But it is self-assurance that you most notice about Peter
Clarke. The self-assurance that leads him to say, when asked if he
was surprised that he landed the job – the first in the UK and one
of the few in the world – that on two levels he wasn’t. When he was
interviewed by the young people who were part of the appointment
process, he felt that things started to gel.

But there was another reason why he wasn’t surprised: “Childline
fired me up and I am still fired up. Perhaps it has taken me a long
while to focus on my prime interest but I think I have matured
professionally to where I can take this job on.”

His biography, though, is a meandering tale without apparent
focus. Peter Clarke was born in north Wales in 1948, his father a
Welsh-speaking professional soldier. He prefers not to say more
than that there were “difficulties” in his childhood. However, when
asked by the interviewing panel of young people who his role model
was he named, without hesitation, a close family friend, also a
soldier, who took him under his wing and acted as benevolent uncle
when things were not easy in the family. He was also the first man
Clarke had ever seen cry. “Expressing emotion was not part of my
childhood,” he says.

Childhood was peripatetic: as his father went from one part of
the world to the next, young Peter attended 13 different schools;
only when his father retired to England, when Clarke was 15, did he
have three years consecutive schooling. And if the analogies
between such a childhood – those “difficulties” apart – and those
of many of the young people who will benefit from his move are not
obvious, then add the fact that he also lived in a kind of
institution at times.

But it was not a straight or, at times, an obvious path. He
withdrew from Sandhurst after six months when he realised that he
was only doing what was expected of him. Then, after a spell
working in London’s Liberty’s, he went to work in Stamford House
Remand Centre as a residential worker. Then came a social work
traineeship in Lambeth and running a boys’ hostel with his first
wife. He then veered off to read philosophy and politics at Sussex,
keeping himself by working nights in a home for old people. When he
embarked on an MA in philosophy at Sussex he took a year off before
writing his dissertation to work as a field worker in West Sussex
social services department.

If social work was tugging his sleeve (he had also managed to
pick up his Certificate of Qualification in Social Work at
Warwick), child care was not: he worked in mental illness, learning
difficulties and as a grants co-ordinator. Then it was eight years
with what was then the Spastics Society. He was the first director
of the National Schizophrenia Fellowship Wales before he reached
Childline as director in 1995.

Peter Clarke comes to his post with new powers under the
Children’s Commissioner for Wales Bill: he will take in schools and
NHS facilities, scrutinise the assembly and other public bodies
that involve children. He will do this with a £700,000 budget
and 20-25 staff.

The Care Standards Act allowed the commissioner to gather the
views of children and young people, as well as monitoring and
reviewing complaints. The role is also to oversee whistleblowing
and advocacy, work with the statutory and voluntary sectors and
advise the Welsh Assembly.

His priorities – advocacy, service evaluation, and participation
and communication – are those particularly pinpointed by the
Waterhouse report into the North Wales residential care abuse
scandals. But in Wales fewer resources are devoted to children than
in England and, on average, only 13 per cent of residential workers
are qualified.

“There are three aspects of the job. First, there’s the
opportunity to take a public stance, to be a champion of children
and to lead debate. Then, we have to investigate and evaluate
services and, if need be, take up individual cases. And then, in
the middle, so to speak, there’s the work with professionals.

“I hope in five years’ time to have participation by children
and young people developed to the extent that we will be able to go
to them in a very structured and ordered way. This means to some
extent building on what we have now, with things like schools
councils, but also we will need to create new ideas and new forms.
For example, I intend to have what I will call an ambassador in
every school, so we know what children and young people think and
what they want.”

Having two sons aged 16 and 14 helps, he says. “It stops you
sentimentalising children. We don’t do any good when we do that
because alongside that goes disempowerment.”

Asked to pinpoint a philosophy that has steered him in the
direction he has gone, he says: “It is to do with power imbalances,
I think. That is particularly so with children where there are
massive imbalances between adults and children. I see my job as
having a moral dimension to it, though I don’t want to sound
messianic about it.”

Karl Marx, whom Peter Clarke studied at Sussex, said that the
task of the philosopher is not to interpret the world but to change
it. Here is one philosopher who has been given the chance.

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