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Boris Johnson’s levelling up plan is ‘just a slogan’ unless children put at centre, warns outgoing commissioner

Boris Johnson’s pledge to “level up” the country is  “just a slogan” unless children are placed at the heart of plans, the outgoing children’s commissioner has warned.

The prime minister must show he is serious about vulnerable children by putting them at the centre of ‘build back better’ plans following the pandemic, Anne Longfield will say in her final speech in the role.

Mr Johnson has promised to level up by tackling regional inequalities and improving standards of living in disadvantaged areas around the country.

Ms Longfield will call on Mr Johnson to get “passionate” about making sure that we do not “define children by what’s happened during this year” but instead that we define ourselves by what we offer them.

“It will take political will and funding – an opportunity fund – measured in billions, but it would be worth every penny. It should be led by the prime minister,” she will say in a speech on Wednesday.

Ms Longfield will highlight uncertainty about the uplift in universal credit, saying “we still don’t know” if the £20-a-week increase to payments during the pandemic will expire from April.

“If the government is really focused on educational catch-up, it wouldn’t even countenance pushing 800,000 children into the type of devastating poverty which can have a much bigger impact on their life chances than the school they go to or the catch-up tuition they get,” she will say.

Ms Longfield, who will reflect on her six years as children’s commissioner, will also talk about her frustration with Whitehall officials failing to tackle many problems facing vulnerable children.

In her speech, she will say: “I have been shocked to discover how many officials have never met any of the children they are responsible for. So many seem to view them as remote concepts or data points on an annual return.

“This is how children fall through the gaps – because too often the people in charge of the systems they need simply don’t see them and try to understand their world.”

“I have to force officials and ministers to the table, to watch them sit through a presentation, maybe ask a question, and then vacantly walk away. I do not believe this truly reflects the extent of government and the public’s commitment to helping children succeed,” Ms Longfield will add.

She said her “parting plea” will be for the government to not “forget about vulnerable children”, as he leaves the post of children’s commissioner which she has held since 2015.

Dame Rachel de Souza, chief executive of a multi-academy trust, will take up the role from March.

Her appointment came despite the chair of theeducation select committee saying some MPs were not “wholly convinced” by her vision for the role.

A government spokesperson said: “Protecting vulnerable children has been at the heart of our response to the pandemic, driven by our commitment to level up opportunities and outcomes.

“That’s why we have enabled the most vulnerable children to continue attending school in person, while providing laptops, devices and data packages to those learning at home and ensuring the most disadvantaged children are fed and warm.

“We have also driven forward crucial reform in adoption, in the care system, in post-16 education and in mental health support – and our long-term catch up plans and investment of over £1bn will ensure we make up for lost time in education over the course of this parliament.”

They said Ms Longfield “has been a tireless advocate for children” and the government is “grateful for her dedication and her challenge on areas where we can continue raising the bar for the most vulnerable”.

Additional reporting by Press Association

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