Good Morning ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you for inviting to me to speak at today’s launch of ‘Time for Me’ counselling initiative.

Time, of course is a precious resource. Sometimes it seems that our children’s lives are sliced into chunks of time – time for school, time for play, even the fabled quality time with parents.

What strikes me about the title of this initiative is that if focuses on children. Time for me. That really is quality time for the pupils - time that the children have a say in deciding what they need.

Children and young people today face many challenges and pressures; in school, at home and in their peer groups. It is essential that they have adequate support within the school setting to help them cope with these challenges and pressures. I am fully supportive of any service that seeks to promote and improve the emotional health and wellbeing of our children.

No matter what each child’s background may be, he or she has a right to grow up being accepted for who they are, a right to an education in a safe, tolerant environment. I have no doubt that the introduction of this counselling service will have a positive impact on the children in these primary schools.

Too often when we as adults talk about counselling we think about the negatives.

As Commissioner I do not like to dwell on negatives. I prefer to present solutions. Sometimes I have to tell Government and others where they are going wrong – or when they are just not doing enough!

The law which set up NICCY gives me powers – powers which set me apart from many organisations in that I can hold to account service providers.

It also, crucially, enables me to highlight good practice such as IDF.

As Commissioner for Children and young people it is my job to promote and safeguard the rights and best interests of children and young people. I believe that in doing this I am required to look at children and young people’s lives in the round, and for me this starts with promoting good emotional well-being and resilience in children and young people.

I must listen to what children and young people have to say about their lives. I must listen to what they say, what they want changed, what they need, and to listen to their calls for help.

What I must also do is listen and be aware that the majority of Northern Ireland’s children have little or no problems in finding and using that ability to ‘bounce back’.

Of the 500,000 children and young people I work on behalf of, most can call on family and friends when they need help bouncing back, or have diversionary support in terms of sports, the arts or other outlets.

However, there are children those who because of the difficulties in their lives are struggling to cope, the young people, who because of their challenging behaviour are not educated within mainstream schools, children who require therapy to help them deal with the trauma and other issues that affect them.

It is my job to ensure that the rights of these young people are met, in the same way that all children’s rights should be met. So what am I thinking about in particular? I’m thinking about the rights these children have to access support, education, counselling; their rights to protection, to feel safe and well cared for; their rights to being able to express their views and to have those views taken seriously

Rights that IDF (Independent Development Fund) addresses.

You may know that we at NICCY last year completed significant fieldwork with more than 2,000 children and young people on the state of children’s rights in Northern Ireland.

We spoke to children in nurseries, from the age of three, children in primary, post primary and alternative education settings, children in care, in Hydebank, children in youth clubs, and children marginalised through a range of support groups. The views of all those children and young people will be fed into a report, along with a review of research and policy, which we will use to set our new priorities and inform our next corporate plan.

In seven days time our consultation on our priorities ends with the results coming out later this year. But I’m sure I won’t be breaking confidences if I share with you, some of the issues, which children told us that relate to their emotional well-being.

Lots of children told us they have no-one to talk to, especially when they are feeling down; some have praised the presence of school counsellors whom they can access independently from their teachers; other children have told us of the pain of being bullied and the impact that has on them, and of course we have heard stories from children about self harm and suicide.

It is my view, that we need to start at the very beginning, by providing sound advice and support to parents, around child development, managing behaviour, building confidence and self esteem, protecting children, encouraging play and learning, and the list goes on.

We need to offer support to families as children grow and develop, so that they can provide stable, secure happy homes. We need to ensure that children have access to good quality early years education, where they can begin to explore their learning opportunities in safe, creative environments; we need to provide children with play opportunities.

As a child enters school, we need to be confident that the education provided meets the child’s needs. We need to make sure that the challenges of school are not insurmountable.

I am delighted that IDF is blazing a trail in meeting many of the challenges facing pupils.

My job – and my passion – is to make sure we as a society in Northern Ireland care for, protect, and support children.

We as a society are already short changing our children. In Northern Ireland we spend 14.1% of our personal social services budget on children.

To me that is clear discrimination against children. It is clear that in the past we have not regarded or thought of children as people too. The American Actress Kirsty Alley of Cheers fame put it well when she said:

“I don’t think that children are any more resilient than anyone else. They’re just people with little bodies.”

They’re just people.

And they are people we spend too little money, time and resources on. Put simply we all must work together to change that now.

IDF has identified ways we can do this.

IDF remembers that children are people with little bodies.

IDF remembers that children have rights – rights that are there in black and white for everyone to see.

They are rights almost all Governments in the world have signed up to. They are the rights laid out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

There are many articles of the convention that are being fulfilled by the project we are here to launch – not least Article 12; the right to have a say in decisions that affect their lives. If you’re not already familiar with the Convention I urge you to read it to help understand what the people with little bodies have a right to expect.

I was delighted to hear that this project will be determined by the needs of the children and therefore a range of counselling techniques from group work to one on one. This – as I mentioned - reflects the views of young people from our research that some prefer one method of counselling over the other. I applaud you for adopting this method as opposed the ‘one size fits all’ model.

The delivery of this service is rightly recognising that each child is unique and what works for one will not necessarily work for every other child in that class or school. It is putting the child at the centre of the service.

Making counselling services an integral part of school life and learning will not only have a positive effect on the emotional health and wellbeing of the pupils but on their educational outcomes also.

Conclusion

I wish you all well in the delivery of this service and I’m sure that it will make a real difference in the lives of the young people at these schools - giving them the tools and skills to cope with the challenges and difficulties they face now and in the future.

The author Robert Louis Stevenson said: “The cruellest lies are often told in silence.”

Through this project, what might have been a silence of withdrawn children will be broken.

IDF means that no pupil needs fear breaking the silence.

Instead children have a voice in helping decide what works best for them.

Children have a chance to beat back silence and simply say what they need to help.

I believe that the clamour of children is worth as much, if not more, than the chatter of adults.

Good luck and thank you again for inviting me.