Dr. Maggie Atkinson: Themes and Biography

Keynote speaker: See below for notes of the conference speech.

Dr. Maggie Atkinson, The Children’s Commissioner for England.

 “The Right To Be Well: Tackling Children’s Emotional and Mental Health”

Academic research evidence indicates one in ten children (that’s three in an average class) have a mental health difficulty, many of them being anxious or depressed.  Help should be, but too frequently is not, on hand. What should children expect of us? How do we respond? And what would we think was good enough for our own child? Dr. Atkinson will examine these issues, and the challenges we must address if children are to enjoy their right to be well.


Dr Maggie Atkinson has been Children’s Commissioner for England since March 2010. She is the second post holder in this vital role, which enables her to promote and protect the rights of the child, and to encourage children and young people, families, opinion shapers, policy makers and practitioners to join her.

After a 35-year career working with and for children and young people, she is a fearless defender of their entitlement to be valued and heard as young citizens making positive contributions to the society in which they will, in their turn, become adults.  Maggie has led the Office of the Children’s Commissioner in a period when its influence has continued to increase, leading to positive changes in the life chances of England’s children and young people, especially the most vulnerable and marginalised among them.

Her office’s small team has helped to prompt policy and practice changes for asylum seeking and refugee children, children in contact with social care, the family courts and other vital services, those excluded from school, in conflict with the law, or struggling with mental and emotional health difficulties.  She is now leading the Office of the Children’s Commissioner through the strengthening of its role and remit that will follow from legislative change being made during 2013-14.  She is a member of the Department of Health’s Children and Young People’s Health Outcomes Forum, with a particular focus on challenging England’s any social inequalities and their negative effects on children’s health.

Maggie is a Cambridge graduate. Training at Sheffield University, she was a secondary school teacher of English and drama, including leading a high school department, before working on a National Curriculum English Language initiative and then in training, inspection, school and service improvement in local government.  She was the first Director of Children’s Services for Gateshead during radical changes following the Children Act 2004.  During her six years there she was the first solo President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) in 2008-09. Maggie graduated as a Doctor in Education (EdD) at Keele University in 2008 and is now an Honorary Professor there.  She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Civil Letters (DCL Hon Causa) from Northumbria University in 2010.

Conference Speech:

The Right To Be Well: Tackling Children’s Emotional and Mental Health

‘Fragility is not just about being little.  Early intervention happens whenever a child hits crisis point’

Two questions to begin with: Firstly, what would I want for my child if there were signs of trouble in their lives, if suddenly something was emotionally or mentally not right? The second question is the ‘No man is an island’ issue. Who are your partners in coping with these problems? Nobody can do this on their own – it is not possible to help children who are troubled and are facing difficulty as a solo act.

A time of change ahead My current remit is to represent the views and interests of the child but a change in the law next year will make my primary function the promotion and protection of the rights of the child. We signed an international treaty: The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991 but it is not incorporated into English law. However, it is a serious treaty and it is binding. It speaks volumes about children and young people’s entitlements. Of particular relevance is Article 24 on health, which states that every child has the right to access appropriate health services. It is important that Government and other organisations put in place the services that can be easily accessed by children and young people.

The importance of schools in identifying children in difficulties • Children are in school most of the time and it is often the first place where an adult spots the signs that a child is not well. Early help is vital and mental and emotional health and well-being is as important as physical health • Childhood is complex and adolescence particularly challenging with the added complications of hormonal change, pack behaviour and peer pressure. Fragility is not just about being little. Early intervention happens whenever a child hits crisis point • School is not just about the subjects of the national curriculum, it’s about deeper and bigger things than that • Many schools struggle to deal with children who don’t fit the mould • We have to understand that what’s going on in children’s lives is complex

Stress factors Seven out of 10 of England’s 12 million under 18-year-olds experience huge pressures causing them to be ‘rocky’ in their emotional health and well-being. Stress factors range from coping with bereavement, illness or disability in the home, poverty, domestic violence, family breakdown, abuse and neglect.

What have I and my team achieved? We work with children and young people to give them a voice and publish that voice in a series of reports backed by research, evidence and academic literature. See website: www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk

We have to get it right There is no such thing as a kid being born bad and that includes children who have committed the most heinous crimes. You’re not born good or bad; it is what happens after you’re born that shapes who you are. As a society, we stigmatise mental and emotional health and well-being issues. Most children in this country are absolutely fine, even with difficulties and challenges in their lives. They are well parented, well brought up, loved and nurtured and looked after. It’s the ones for whom that does not apply – it is for those children in our communities who will be the next generation of Samaritan clients, young offenders, incarcerated mental health patients that we have to get it right.