Take me as I am

England’s first children’s commissioner, is a man on a mission:
to save childhood. Just as Al Aynsley-Green’s heroes – social
reformers Dr Barnardo’s, Joseph Rowntree and Charles Dickens –
fought to set children free from slave labour in Victorian times,
the newly appointed commissioner wants to rescue today’s children
from the turmoil of 21st century life.

Aynsley-Green, a paediatric clinician, will end a 12-year stint at
Great Ormond Street Hospital to take up his new role. He has
identified a possible three-pronged plan of attack to achieve his

His first strand is to raise debate around the standing of
children, childhood and parenting in modern day society. His second
thread is to tackle the real participation of children and young
people, and to encourage them to become advocates and to be seen to
have important views. And his third challenge will be to raise with
those responsible for delivering children’s services some more
specific – but yet-to-be-determined – key issues, possibly with the
assistance of research and inquiry.

“My challenge is we have huge turmoil in our current society for
different reasons,” Aynsley-Green says. “It is multicultural,
egocentric, consumerist. It has a collapsing birth rate, changing
family dynamics, an explosion of children not benefiting from
society – disadvantaged children, children in poverty, looked-after
children, young offenders.

“And my question is ‘who cares?’ And who is asking the questions
about what actually is shaping the lives of children and young
people today?”

Although Aynsley-Green refuses to be drawn at this stage on the
specific aims he will be setting himself as children’s
commissioner, he is clear about the changes he would like to see by
the end of the decade. These include a fair resource allocation for
children and young people, the mainstreaming of children in what
are often adult-centric organisations, children and young people
actively participating in making decisions, and a higher value
placed on children and young people in society.

In relation to the latter at least, Aynsley-Green is aware that
this will involve engaging with the media to redress the common
demonisation of children and young people, particularly in the
national press.

“I have kept very carefully a personal portfolio of newspaper
clippings over the last four years,” Aynsley-Green reveals. “And I
can tell you that 70 per cent of those clippings are negative –
negative stereotypes, lurid headlines about yobs committing

“Those are negative stereotypes which reinforce older people’s
views that it is only bad news when they see young people on street

He will not say whether the introduction of antisocial behaviour
orders and curfews have contributed to this climate of fear and
public demonisation. Instead, he stresses his desire to see, by
2010, policies that reflect the needs of children and young people
and a higher priority being given to children and young people by
all political parties.

One way he is likely to ensure this happens is by “child-proofing”
all legislation before it reaches the statute book. This would give
him the opportunity to consider and highlight the implications of
any new laws for children and young people in the hope of ironing
out any potential problems early on rather than having to deal with
the fallout of poor policies later.

It is fair to suggest that, had Aynsley-Green already had such a
role when the Children Act was going through Parliament last year,
discussions would almost certainly have taken place between himself
and the government about the decision to leave the National Asylum
Support Service and immigration services off the list of bodies
covered by the duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of
children. “I have been to an asylum seeker reception centre in
Hackney and listened to the stories of some of the mothers and
children, and seen how some of these children refuse to let go of
their mothers’ hands while I am talking with them,” he

“There are issues about how we, as a humane society, should be
regarding the most vulnerable who come to our shores.
“It is for politicians, for Parliament, to decide on the
legislation. But I would certainly want to remind people that we
are talking about human beings here.”

And the idea of “child-proofing” policies does not stop with
Parliament. It is a practice Aynsley-Green has been involved with
in the Department of Health since he was appointed as national
clinical director for children in July 2001 following the Royal
Bristol Infirmary Inquiry into high child mortality rates for heart

“Because [inquiry chair Sir Ian] Kennedy commented that children
were the Cinderella of the health service, I have been a full
corporate member of the top team, every month meeting with senior
[DoH] officials. And I have made it my business to stand up and
say, when an important issue is being debated, what does this mean
for children and young people who make up 25 per cent of the

“Now I want to see that replicated across the country on boards at
all levels – local authorities, health service trusts, education
establishments – somebody being charged with actually asking the
question what does this mean for children and young people?”

A key aspect of the children’s commissioner’s work will obviously
be about communicating with children and young people themselves.
But, as a paediatric endocrinologist – a children’s physician who
specialises in hormones – Aynsley-Green is not at all daunted by
this prospect.

“I am very well experienced in talking with, and sharing issues
with, children and young people,” he says. “For many years I have
helped countless boys and girls in adolescence who are too short or
too tall, those who are late in developing, those who are too soon
in developing… So I think I do have some credibility in trying to
understand their sensitivities, their embarrassments and to
understand the pressures of what it is like to be an adolescent
normally, let alone if you have one of these physical

Although Aynsley-Green already has a “ready-made set of
stakeholders” to test ideas out on at home – namely his four
grandchildren – he is acutely aware of the importance of developing
a brand and identity that children and young people will recognise
and respond to. He is also aware of the importance of being seen by
children and young people as someone who can be trusted.

“First of all, I have to be myself,” he says, promising to stick
with the philosophy of openness and transparency he had when
developing the National Service Framework for Children, Young
People and Maternity Services. “I can’t pretend to be somebody I’m
not. I can’t pretend to be a with-it, 25-year-old disco-dancing
freak on roller skates. That’s not me. I am who I am.”

Children and young people will have to wait until the first piece
of contentious legislation to find out whether this is going to be

  • For a full transcript of the interview go to

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