In the headteacher’s office of Mulberry School for Girls, a comprehensive in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets, a 15-year-old schoolgirl called Mariam wiped her eyes. “I don’t know why I’m crying,” she said, sitting forward nervously. She wasn’t in trouble. She and three fellow pupils were telling Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner, what it’s like to be a child today.
“It’s OK to cry,” said De Souza, who has had hundreds of conversations like this in schools, children’s homes, prisons, hospitals and refugee centres across England. “I’ll cry, too.”
To nods from her friends, Mariam had just listed all the ways social media was telling her to look. “Looking at influencers, Kylie Jenner, the Kardashian family, Hailey Bieber, Selena Gomez, their body images – girls are supposed to be tall, skinny, have certain bodies. Sometimes it can be a lot,” she said.
Mariam has been building her confidence through public speaking. Her favourite subject is biology. The four teenagers, who have ambitions to be doctors and actors, were candid about their struggles. One of them, Irtifa, who is 16, had been bullied. “I kept it in for five years and then had this huge panic attack,” she said.
The Covid lockdown had been especially difficult for them. Isha, a Year 10 student, said it had changed her. “I used to be very extroverted, but I became so isolated that I didn’t like being with people any more. I was only 11 when I [got] depressed. I shouldn’t have been thinking about all the things I did at that age.”
Mulberry School sits on an A road opposite a 24-hour McDonald’s, where De Souza and her three-woman entourage had prepared beforehand. The school’s most recent Ofsted report, in 2013, rated it outstanding. Framed photographs of a 2015 visit by Michelle Obama decorated the head’s office, the door of which was propped open by a figure of Frida Kahlo.
Dressed in a black suit, low stilettos and a ruffled white blouse, De Souza, 55, looked more like a chief executive than a former teacher who spent three decades on the front line of tough schools. Yet her rapport with the children – sophisticated, a little goofy when it suited – reflected that experience. (When Isha said she loved ancient history, De Souza pretended to be an Athenian warrior, raising a hand to her brow and instructing her troops: “Look out on to the Persian fleet!”)
As a teacher, head and multi-academy trust founder, De Souza built a reputation for turning around failing schools in deprived parts of Luton and Norfolk. Her first London school was close to Mulberry: she joined it as head of religious studies in 1993, aged 24. Tower Hamlets has the UK’s highest child poverty rate, and De Souza recalled pupils living in overcrowded housing, BNP aggression, and teaching English to Bangladeshi and Somali children who had joined the then majority-white East End population.
“I remember thinking: ‘How am I going to do this?’ But the whole community valued education so much. We saw that school go from bottom of the league tables to one of the most-improved in the country.”
In 2021, soon after becoming commissioner, De Souza ran a survey of half a million children in England – the world’s biggest survey of children after the US census – and discovered that two in five 16- to 17-year-old girls were unhappy. “You might ask: ‘Wasn’t it always like that?’ But having worked for 30 years with teenagers, it’s a step-change. It’s different.”
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One of Tony Blair’s first principals under the New Labour academy programme in 2006, De Souza was later described by Michael Gove as someone he wished he could “clone… 23,000 times”. Bold measures that she implemented in her schools – such as school uniforms designed by Savile Row tailors, etiquette lessons, and time for pupils to read the morning papers – had her caricatured as a Goveian purist in the education culture war. While “proud to have been at the forefront of the education reform movement”, she now feels, as she puts it, “a bit frustrated if there’s a sense that: ‘She’s a traditionalist.’ If anything, I would describe myself as very progressive.”
In Norwich she would send a minibus around town to collect truant children. Today, 110,000 state-school pupils (almost double pre-pandemic levels) in England miss more than half their lessons, leading them to be dubbed “ghost children” – a phrase De Souza rejects. “They are real children.” She has spoken to these absent pupils; they told her that they do want to return to school, but other circumstances – such as poor mental health – hold them back. One girl recently told De Souza’s team: “I physically could not get out of bed to get myself into school and it sucked because I love learning.”
As a teacher, De Souza had what she describes as a “get an early night!” attitude to children’s well-being. Now she feels differently. “If you’d asked me ten years ago, when I was a turnaround head, I would have said education – or getting great grades – is everything. But the children’s commissioner role, and the experience of children during lockdown, made me reflect on the services we need around school: groups, mentors, youth clubs. I feel more strongly that the ability for children to be able to form relationships, play, have fun, is really important.”
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When I asked what it was like growing up online, the teenagers at Mulberry replied in unison: “Scary.” Rinnad, 15, who has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, had her first phone at the age of nine. “I was exposed to a lot of stuff on social media at a young age. I wouldn’t want my children seeing what I did. In my parents’ childhood, they would play outside, but we’re on our phones constantly.” Research carried out by De Souza has revealed that one in ten children has seen pornography by the age of nine. Nearly half (47 per cent) of 18- to 21-year-olds have experienced a violent sex act, and the same percentage told the commissioner that girls “expect” sex to include physical aggression such as choking.
“Bullying and unpleasant material not stopping at the school gate but going on 24/7 is difficult,” De Souza told me. “Children have taken their own lives after seeing pro-suicide, gore, sexual harassment material.” A few years ago, she experienced her own case in one of her schools. “One student had a relationship with a boy, and he put it all over the internet. She left a note and killed herself. I’d never seen that in my previous 20 years or so in teaching.”
When De Souza became commissioner in March 2021, she organised meetings with porn companies such as Pornhub, and suggested that they be policed under the Online Safety Bill, the flagship legislation against internet harms that is muddling its way through parliament. “Their take was: as long as [all porn platforms are] brought under the scope of the bill, fine, in terms of age verification.”
Yet De Souza’s greatest challenge was – and remains – the tech giants: “It was a far harder job.” After all, porn appears on websites not intended to host explicit content; young people told the commissioner they had seen it on social media platforms such as Twitter (41 per cent) and Instagram (33 per cent). “It’s not that the parent hasn’t put parental controls on: kids are seeing porn anyway,” she said.
Until late last year, De Souza had been talking to companies such as TikTok, Snapchat, Google, Apple, Twitter and Meta (which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp) every six months. In meetings with their public relations teams (one even sent a King’s Counsel barrister), she asked how many children under the recommended age of 13 used their platforms, what they were doing to remove underage accounts, and how they might ensure users only see age-appropriate material.
For De Souza, the answers proved platforms were not going to regulate themselves. “The tech companies are aware of the negative impact on children. They should be stepping up now to get children who they know are too young off their sites. I would hope to see more responsibility and more seriousness.” If they don’t, “criminal responsibility” would be “absolutely proportionate to the level of risk children are being put under”, she said.
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Rachel de Souza lives in north London with her husband and has a 27-year-old son. Brought up in Scunthorpe with three brothers, she was taught by nuns at a local Catholic comprehensive. She remembers relying on free school meals when her father, an Irish Catholic steelworker, went on strike. She grew up surrounded by Labour union politics. But her Austrian-Hungarian mother’s family – eastern Europeans who had emigrated after the Second World War – broadened her view. At the encouragement of her Ukrainian step-grandfather, she learned the language. Her first political memory is of writing to Margaret Thatcher in Ukrainian, aged ten, urging her to help free the dissident writer Valentyn Moroz.
Her mother came to Britain as a refugee, aged seven, from a Bavarian orphanage. Today De Souza fears for refugee children travelling to Britain; the Illegal Migration Bill would remove asylum rights from people who arrive by crossing the Channel. “My worry is it will make traffickers even bolder, because they won’t have to worry about social-worker interference, or the child being supported elsewhere. I am seriously concerned about it. You’re almost certainly going to be walking into the hands of criminal gangs because there is nowhere for you to go.”
Having visited the Home Office’s controversial asylum hotels, De Souza warned that they are “not a place for children, particularly traumatised children”. In her second letter to the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, (which De Souza showed the New Statesman exclusively) since the legislation was proposed, De Souza used her statutory right under the Children Act to request details of who exactly the children arriving on small boats were and what happens to them; Braverman has not yet replied. “As a compassionate, modern society, with a proud tradition of welcoming and supporting refugees, we should be looking after these children,” she said.
A third of the way through her six-year term, with a general election expected next year, De Souza is working on a children’s manifesto. While “fairly agnostic” about bringing the voting age down to 16, she said that “often political parties are thinking about adult voters” and children miss out.
What of Labour saying Rishi Sunak doesn’t believe in jailing paedophiles? “I won’t comment on that ad. But what I would say is looking at the upcoming election campaign, what children need to see from political parties and adults is a robust and fair and serious debate about the issues that affect their lives. I think we must none of us forget that we’re all role models to children and we should act as such.”
Saying goodbye to the Mulberry schoolgirls, Rachel De Souza asked what advice they would give the ministers she meets. “If they could show us not to minimise our struggles, and that therapy is something we can have, we will reach out for help more,” said Isha. With new figures from NHS England mental health trusts revealing that a third of children’s referrals are rejected, ministers will not be granting this wish any time soon.
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This article appears in the 19 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Axis of Autocrats