From a farming childhood to the corridors of Westminster, how Anne Longfield became the Children's Commissioner for England

WHILE GROWING up on her family’s farm on Otley Chevin, Anne Longfield often longed for the hustle and bustle of city life.

The Children's Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, pictured at her home in Ilkley. She will step down this weekend from the role which she has held for the past six years. (Picture: James Hardisty).

Her childhood may have been spent in the idyllic countryside of West Yorkshire, but Ms Longfield admits that the often isolated nature of her teenage years left her wanting to leave her rural upbringing behind.

“I was one of those kids who often didn’t see other children, and had to amuse myself,” she says. “I had a wonderful upbringing, and I loved the time on the farm. But I made the decision that I wanted to experience life a little more when I was older.”

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That decision saw the former student of Prince Henry’s Grammar School in Otley embark on a career that was intertwined with helping the nation’s younger generations, culminating in her role as the Children’s Commission for England.

The position was established under the Children Act of 2004 and is responsible for promoting and protecting the rights of children, especially the most vulnerable.

There can be no denying that during her tenure, the role of the Children’s Commissioner has emerged as a far more strident voice for young people.

But after six years in the post, she will officially step down tomorrow to make way for the new commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza.

“It has been a real honour to be the Children’s Commissioner, it has been challenging, but it is also a position that I believe can make a real difference,” says Ms Longfield.

“My time in the role has come to an end when children perhaps need a voice more than ever.

“Covid-19 has had such a profound impact on the whole of society, but especially children and teenagers – their routines, their school life and the chance to meet up with friends has been turned upside down.”

After studying for a history degree at the University of Newcastle, Ms Longfield decided to move to London to pursue her career, with time spent as the chief executive of the Kids Clubs Network and the 4Children charity.

She was also a policy adviser on families and childcare for the Cabinet Office during Tony Blair’s stint as Prime Minister.

However, after 20 years in the capital, Ms Longfield and her husband, Richard Reeve, a graphic designer, decided to head back to the North of England.

Ms Longfield, whose father, Vincent, was a engineer who worked on Concorde, while her mother, Jean, was from a farming family in West Yorkshire, admits that the move back to the North 18 years ago was driven by a desire to let her son, Oliver, grow up outside of the confines of the capital.

Oliver, who is married to Annabel, has embarked on a career as a chef in Leeds.

Ms Longfield told The Yorkshire Post: “The reason we came back up North was that I wanted him to experience what life is like away from London.

“I wanted him to get a taste of what living in the North is like, and the real sense of community that is here.”

Ms Longfield, 60, who lives in Ilkley, has been a vocal campaigner for the rights of children in the North of England throughout her time as the Children’s Commissioner.

In an exclusive interview with The Yorkshire Post published earlier this month, Ms Longfield warned that the region’s education system risks being left in turmoil for years to come in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic unless the Government commits to its pledge to level up the nation.

She made an impassioned plea to Ministers to ensure that millions of pounds in funding are poured into the North’s schooling to ensure huge regional disparities in attainment are tackled.

Ms Longfield says: “The pandemic has highlighted the difficulties which many children are facing across the country, but especially here in the North. We need to make sure that opportunities and life chances are available to all children, no matter where they have grown up.”

While her successor will take on the role of Children’s Commissioner from Monday, Ms Longfield will still remain involved in the sector.

She is planning to work with charities to help support children with some of the most complex needs, although the exact details of her future role is due to be announced later this year.

When asked if she had considered standing for election in May as the new metro mayor for West Yorkshire, Ms Longfield gives a wry smile and stresses her role as Children’s Commissioner has had to remain independent of any political affiliation.

She adds: “The deadlines have passed for nominations, so there was no chance that I could consider standing while I have been the Children’s Commissioner.

“But that is not to say things might not change in the future, as the term for the mayor is for three years, and there will be another election then.

“Metro mayors have been in post elsewhere in the country for some time now, and they are beginning to get more and more influence.

“The Government needs to look towards giving more power and decision-making to the regions across the country, as this will be vital in helping us all emerge from the past year.

“While I do not know exactly what the future may well hold for me, I do know that I am here in the North of England, which is somewhere which will always hold such a special place in my heart.”

Since its creation nearly two decades ago, the role of the Children’s Commissioner for England has always been centred on Westminster with the need to petition Ministers to shape the Government’s policies.

But Anne Longfield has made a concerted effort to bring a far more inclusive approach for the whole nation during her time as the commissioner, with a specific focus on the North of England.

One of her most significant pieces of work resulted in a 2018 report, Growing Up North, following a year-long study looking at the issues and challenges facing children in the North. In the report, she called for young people to be at the heart of the vision for the so-called Northern Powerhouse.