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Children's commissioner role 'should be beefed up'

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The government should merge the role of Children’s Commissioner for England with that of Ofsted’s children’s rights director to strengthen the power, remit and independence of the role, according to a new report.

Ministers have warned that current children’s commissioner Maggie Atkinson may have to reapply for her own job as part of the changes.

The news follows the publication of general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders John Dunford’s review of the post of Children’s Commissioner for England.

Dr Dunford called for the retention of the post but said “flaws in the present model” meant that while the office was comparatively inexpensive to run, it had not provided good value for money so far.

He said that a “new strengthened role” was required for the post, which was only possible if the children’s commissioner was legally responsible for promoting and protecting children’s rights and was given greater independence from government.

“The role I propose for the Children’s Commissioner will have an increased impact on children’s lives, thereby providing much better value for money,” he said.

“And whilst I am convinced that the Children’s Commissioner should act on behalf of all children, the office should focus most on vulnerable children.”

Dr Dunford’s recommendations also include proposals for the children’s commissioner to report to Parliament, rather than the government, and an understanding that new inquiries will not require permission from ministers.

Additionally, it is proposed that the commissioner should have an advisory role on government policies, including a requirement on ministers to issue a formal response to concerns the commissioner raises.

The Department for Education said that while current children’s commissioner Maggie Atkinson – former group director for learning and children at Gateshead Council – could stay in post pending law changes, the government may subsequently be required to re-advertise the job.

Children’s minister Sarah Tether said she felt strongly that children needed a champion.

“Dr Dunford’s report highlights there is clear justification for making changes to the role of children’s commissioner,” she said.

“We want to raise the profile and credibility of the role among children, young people and parents.

“There is an important message here for government, to take seriously the evidence and advice presented to us by the commissioner.

“I shall personally welcome any advice from the children’s commissioner that will help us to improve the lives of children and protect their rights.”

Children’s commissioner Dr Atkinson said she believed Dr Dunford’s report would increase the role’s impact on child protection and rights-promotion.

 “I feel sure that by building on our solid foundation and significant achievements, particularly for children and young people, who are vulnerable, that these recommendations will undoubtedly create a stronger, more independent advocate for children and young people in England,” she said.   

“I am heartened, therefore, in the light of our firm focus on youth justice, safeguarding and the asylum process, that a legislative mandate to promote and safeguard children’s rights will now be sought.”

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