Reading:
Expect with confidence

Expect with confidence

In this scenario, England is a country that listens to, hears and loves its children

Children playing

Extract from The President of the ADCS, inaugural speech, June 2035

Fifteen years ago we faced a crisis in this country. Academics and commentators point to 2020 as a crossroads in the history of children’s services in England.

At that time I remember taking up my first social work post in a Children and Families Team. I was 25. I remember thinking ‘God, I’m not sure we like children very much!‘

“God, I’m not sure we like children very much!”
Jackie Dent

Today in 2035, the world has moved on, and our profession has too, in so many ways. Perhaps it was the lack of money in the system back then, maybe it was because services were being cut to the bone, perhaps it was a point in time when tired and frustrated workers finally said enough is enough and spoke out with a righteous anger about the way our most vulnerable children were being treated. Perhaps it was all of those underlying issues, but by 2021 youth-led protests in towns and cities across England - dubbed the ‘summer of millennial discontent’ by the media - pierced the conscience of the establishment and something changed. From a place of near despair and crisis, there came defiance and strength of voice from our sector that I am so proud of, which changed our attitudes to children and young people, and the families we worked with.

From the top to the bottom of children’s services, we started really listening to children, young people and their families. We listened, and over a long and bumpy decade, we changed our practices and re-designed our systems to respond to their needs, to ensure every single thing professionals did showed each and every child that they were loved, that they were safe and they were being listened to.

That mantra changed everything. Not just in our profession, but in all areas of society. It has spread in all sorts of ways to all sorts of communities, both rich and poor. Over the last fifteen years you have been instrumental in supporting many adults to recognise that the way in which they exercise their role - to parent, support and nurture children and young people - is central. You have given them, and the wider community confidence, to act.

Colleagues, you have helped bring about profound change in a time of extreme turbulence and I genuinely believe that you have restored humanity to how children and young people are treated in this country. You should be incredibly proud of that.

Key characteristics of this world

prevention early years community-led rights-based community cohesion risky tribal caring self reliant respectful trusting responsive prevention inclusion less formal support humanity driven assets based

The ‘Expect with Confidence’ future world is based on the increased need for children and young people to feel safe, listened to and to be given opportunities to improve their lives. However, rather than be passive recipients of dwindling services, children, young people and their families are speaking out more, mobilising and creating change in spite of the system. Young people fight and protest for their environment, and they know their rights. Many families in deprived areas have stepped up, largely in protest, to do things for themselves, on their own terms. Widespread social movements are evident and the stigma around, for example, being care experienced or disadvantaged, is changing. A new normal is evident.

Over time, that has led to new rights-based community networks emerging, and new spaces offering community support are widespread. These community-led spaces offer somewhere to go to talk to people and share problems. Community activism and infrastructure have therefore filled the gap that a retracting state has left. Devolving power to the local level has provided more tools for community empowerment. Overstretched services seek to work with grassroots energy and coordinate professional activity to be more embedded within community efforts. Safeguarding thresholds are lowered as trust builds and communities become more vocal.

Over time, and with investment in workforce planning and workforce development, a new mindset has been adopted by the workforce who, no matter where they work in the system, are proud to work in the ‘single children and young people’s workforce’, similar to the pride felt by those who work in the NHS.

Over time, whilst austerity has had a lasting impact, the smaller amounts of money available is effectively targeted to support children and young people much earlier. Much of the acute spending on crisis has been redirected around ‘inclusion as prevention’ measures, which families wants to engage with. This is a virtuous cycle which leads to children and young people feeling increasingly safe, listened to and with high aspirations. In this scenario, in 2035, England is a country that listens to, hears and loves its children.

Today in 2035

Children grow up in an environment where they are respected and their voices are heard. Inspirational young leaders like Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai, Cori Gauff and the thousands of young people in Hong Kong spurred on more children and young people to demand change and have their voices heard, from the youth-driven protests of the Summer of 2021 to the present day. Children know their rights and responsibilities, and nowadays people talk about the liberating power of the 2020s in much the same way as they did about the revolutionary freedoms gained in the 1960s.

Today the “Covenant Generation,” as they have become known, are taught from the age of 3 at nursery what they can expect as they grow up. Their Covenant affirms, I will have an affordable, warm and safe house; I am helped by my local community, my family and my friends. They love me and keep me prepared; I am not in poverty; I am supported to grow and develop in education, building my confidence and preparing me for adulthood; I am supported early if I have any emotional, health and/or physical needs; I am able to contribute to any services and support I require with professionals; I am listened to, my voice is heard by people making decisions about my life, in my community and wider society. My contribution is both valued and recognised. I am responsible to myself, other human beings, and the planet and I will uphold the law and act with integrity.

The Children’s Covenant came about initially in response to the fatal stabbing of six fourteen year old boys in North London in the summer of 2024, but grew into a national campaign spearheaded by children and young people with care experience who wanted their voices to be heard. Eventually, nearly every teenager in the country got behind the campaign, which was supported by musicians, vloggers, video gamers and a range of sporting heroes. Interestingly, the campaign began to free up professionals who felt emboldened to act differently. Since the voting age was lowered to 16 in 2027 as part of the Covenant, politicians clambered over each other to support children’s rights and gain their electoral support.

Over the last ten years, there has been a marked change in the public perception of teenagers – recognising that this stage of development is exciting and creative and also needs nurturing rather than something to be vilified. The age of criminal responsibility is now 16. Whilst there is enduring structural poverty and inequality embedded across England, the money that is available for public services is targeted at providing invaluable early, prevention-focussed support to young people, to build their confidence as they prepare for adulthood.

Despite early fears that the Citizen's Income, introduced in 2025 might provide a disincentive to work, today evidence is emerging that the opposite is true. The universal payment, which gives all citizens a basic standard of living, has removed stigma, stress and mental health issues for many. Those who previously suffered from lack of confidence in the workplace prior to the introduction of the Citizens Income, have found new confidence, and a desire and willingness to work.

The Citizens Income is, however, changing working practices in England’s proactive urban areas. While economic activity is required to match lifestyle wants and needs, increasingly parents are choosing to work part-time. Current figures show that fathers and mothers are working an average three-and-a-half-day week. People are using the time they would have worked to provide care and support for their families and immediate communities or to gain a better life balance.

Changes in the workplace, driven partly by automation, has also helped rebalance the amount of time people spend at work. Most parents work fewer hours each week, with a four-day week now the norm. As a result, children grow up in households in which there is less stress, able to spend more time with parents who enjoy a healthier work-life balance than previous generations.

Nowadays parents have more time as a result of working less hours. Children benefit greatly from direct involvement with their parents’ non-work time and activities within the community. Children are learning from their parents a sense of community, of responsibility and of caring for others. They also learn the value of ‘giving back’ to the community that supports them. This in turn has visibly reduced the tendency towards children growing up feeling they are on their own.

The national children’s charity Kids First, reported last year that children feel less isolated and alone than they did a decade ago in 2025. The Chief Executive of Kids First said

“we know children need just one dependable adult who they can rely on in their formative years”. That makes all the difference and younger parents with more time to spend with their children are modeling sound parenting. She went on, “We’ve also noticed from the children we have spoken to each day that whilst they are very savvy about their rights as children, they are being brought up in a society where they are not the centre of their own universe. We think that is a good thing”

Community-run living centres have become the new social hubs. Operating from defunct or underused public sector buildings, for a peppercorn rent, these centres provide crèche facilities, homework clubs, sports and social activities and support groups for all ages. Staffed mainly by the recently retired and the “young” old, these places are so well used there is no need for any signs to direct people to relevant activities. As a volunteer pointed out in a living centre newsletter recently, “signs? why would we have signs? you don’t need a sign in your own house to find the living room, do you?”

The living centres have facilitated the creation of new community networks in affluent and deprived, rural and urban areas across England, where families can come together and share their knowledge about their social, economic and civil rights and gain access to public services. The centres also provide valuable support networks, where families facing similar problems can help each other navigate issues, through practical and emotional support.

Community centres and hubs also create a space for children to explore and discuss life, politics and their ambitions with other young people and adults in a supportive environment.

For older children and teenagers - with greater connections to their communities and a reduced sense of individualism - their better understanding of the inequalities in society has led to them being more politically engaged.

Young people are increasingly using their power to organise at the local and national level around issues that are important to them - climate change, social justice, and inequality.

In community hubs, they are more educated about the multiple channels by which to effect political change, and more and more young people aged 16+ stand for elections (at the local, regional and national levels), participate in protests, sign petitions and boycott companies who have been called out for exploitation or environmental degradation. The #dontdrive campaign from 2033 was a prominent example, which called on young people to pledge not to learn to drive but instead champion cleaner forms of public transportation.

Children and young people’s voices have been crucial in changing environmental policies, and they now grow up with cleaner air, less pollution, carbon-emission-free public transport, and more green spaces to enjoy.

Some older people complain about the state of the world today. They feel they are expected to do a lot for themselves, and in communities across the country they have to rely on each other. Older people are unhappy about the reduction in pensions, the increase in the state pension age to 75, and reduced NHS services. There is little by way of a state safety net for anyone struggling. However, older people have not mobilised along the same lines as young people, lacking the same vitality and time, as those under 75 have been forced into (continued) employment of some form.

Older people go to the living centres as they are the only place providing any substantive community-based services and people know that health professionals, social workers and employability staff spend much of their time there. They seem to have more time to talk and even those older people who complain about the day to day activities in the centre, they keep coming as it's a good way to network and learn coping strategies with all the new ways of doing things. You can even get money advice and there is always someone who has heard of companies who are recruiting older people.

The creation of the ‘National Children's Workforce’ (NCW) over a decade ago has revolutionised child services in England. Although it was originally thought to be a waste of taxpayers’ money, leaders within social care recognised that a rebranding would help all workers who work with children to feel bonded and better able to work together. It worked and today people who work for the NCW have the same pride to work there as people did working for the NHS in the early part of the century.

The children’s workforce is now more integrated and effective. Joined-up services mean that children and families are dealing with less fragmentation in the system, and have their needs met in a holistic fashion. The National Children’s Workforce has instilled an unprecedented level of dignity and self-respect among staff and volunteers, who each wear their ‘NCW’ lanyard with pride. Children’s social work has become a highly valued profession - in terms of salary levels, personal development and training, and flexible working - and staff morale is high.

A happier, valued workforce feeds into better, more positive relationships with children and families, who trust, respect and recognise the expertise of the NCW. Furthermore, social workers have more time to develop strong trust-based relationships with the families that they’re working with, and in turn, families and children appreciate the warmth and competence exhibited by NCW staff.

Staff surveys amongst Social Workers, year-on-year, report one of the key reasons for high staff morale is because they feel valued and are making a difference in the lives of clients in a less pressured way.

The growing trend of converting disused and abandoned properties into new homes, using freely-available smart-design templates from the Community House Builders Federation, gives young people and their families more housing options. The conversion of empty homes means that communities are safer and more attractive to live in, thereby strengthening the local economy. Cooperative housing projects have been particularly successful, which are jointly owned and run by their tenants. The government has provided special tax breaks for cooperative housing projects, and numerous blocks of flats (which had previously been ear-marked as unfit for purpose) have been taken over by local communities, who have jointly renovated the buildings and provided additional community support for elderly people and families with young children, through in-house creches and meeting rooms.

Cooperative housing follows a general trend of increasing community-owned and public spaces - both in urban centres and rural areas. Communities have worked together to reclaim derelict public spaces to create community gardens and green areas. Historic changes in land ownership and community empowerment legislation has enabled rural communities to purchase community-owned land, creating affordable housing, jobs and clean energy supplies. This type of community infrastructure is now perceived as a valuable resource that people can invest in when they are able to, and depend on when they need it.

Community-run living centres offer a range of leisure activities for children and young people to pursue at no-cost, such as sports clubs, chess clubs, arts and crafts, dance lessons, yoga, cinema nights and make-your-own-toy workshops. Children thus have more time to play, and to build friendships with neighbours and others in their communities. The centres also run toy, book and film libraries, where children can borrow and share video games, movies, books, board games and a host of other toys. This has led to a decrease in consumer spending on toys and games, which saves families money and contributes to environmental sustainability.

With more time freed up by a shorter average workweek, increasing numbers of people are pursuing a ‘side-hustle’ business venture. However, rather than the purely profit-seeking ‘side hustles’ of the late 2010s, today people are - with greater ethical purchase and awareness - pursuing cooperative, family-run and social-value business ventures.

In their spare time, many parents can be seen working together on community business projects - such as community cafes, organic farm cooperatives and re-wilding tree-planting projects. The ancient English sense of ‘making’, of work, and of everyone putting their shoulder to the wheel, has led to stronger communities not to mention better mental health, particularly amongst men.

Profit-driven business models are being replaced by non-profit, ethical and social-value business models, which seek to catalyse social and environmental change. Children and young people are encouraged to purchase from ethical sources, they learn about the circular social economy at school, and they get first-hand experience of how to run cooperative, social businesses from their parents and communities. The traditional three ‘rs’ in school have been replaced with ‘reduce’, ‘reuse’ and ‘recycle'.

Communities are keen to use facilities more effectively. Local learning hubs include the use of public buildings and business premises. These are open 24/7 to allow people to learn at a time and pace that suits them. Further and higher education institutions have sought to support local learning hubs, to embed the values of community-empowered, lifelong learning in society. People can also study at home: the hubs are underpinned by technology, known as ‘flipping the classroom’, with learners downloading lectures and communicating online with educators and other students. Young and old are able to combine study, work, family and community in a way that suits their individual circumstances and preferences, so that ongoing, flexible learning becomes part of life and not a precursor to life.

The new approach to continual, flexible learning is also reflected in changes to primary and secondary education. The educational system has become less competitive and more focussed on cooperation amongst educational and key welfare actors. There is less emphasis on testing and targets, and all exams are banned until the age of 15. There has been a general move away from summative assessment (evaluating student learning at the end of a course and comparing it against a benchmark) towards formative assessment (supporting student learning through ongoing feedback), resulting in a shift away from ‘achievement’ towards continual learning (which is then encouraged at the tertiary level).

Education - from primary school to lifelong learning - has become much more focussed on creating environments that encourage wellbeing, and - along with this emphasis - developing the kind of analytical and empathetic skills, and emotional intelligence, that are impossible to ‘automate away’. Pupil wellbeing - both physical and mental health - is prioritised above all else, and pupils are encouraged to pursue their own interests in creative ways, with less focus on rigid curriculums.

Children and young people with disabilities and special needs are fully supported and empowered to pursue their interests and make a full contribution to society. The Children’s Covenant - which secures the rights of all children, regardless of their ability - has led to a reduction in stigma, and an increase in educational and welfare support for children with different abilities and needs. This attitudinal shift has been accompanied by the practical realisation at the policy level that designing services with a disability lens benefits everyone in society. The more inclusive services are, the more accessible they are to all users. For instance, home automation systems and self-drive cars have improved access and support for people with disabilities, as well as elderly people and users in general. At a practice level, workers are listening, being clear with families about what they can and cannot do, and explaining what support they can expect.

There is still some way to go but much progress has been made with policies being increasingly designed with a disability- and environmental-lens, often revolutionising public and private transport systems and empowering people with disabilities and special needs by making technology accessible and simpler to use (for instance through voice commands).

Although there have been, at times, a failure of political leadership, as well as under-investment in public services, the move from central command-and-control policy-making to local democracy and community empowerment has revolutionised the way in which children and young people are being supported.

Parents, neighbourhoods and communities are taking more control over their lives, and the lives of their children, through community infrastructure, community networks, and cooperative models of service provision. Children and young people are at the heart of decision-making, and they grow up with a greater sense of confidence that their voices will be heard and that they can affect real change.

The reduced amount of money in the system is being spent in the right areas - affordable housing, accessible technology, joining-up educational and welfare services, workforce support - and therefore has a much bigger impact. For instance, the government report ‘Designing Against Demand’ of 2025 was influential in empowering the workforce to get alongside people to stop rising costs to the NHS and expensive residential care. This cooperative and community-led focus has often protected people from rising poverty and a retracting state, and is balancing off rights and responsibilities.

How we got here

  • Brexit 2019

    The United Kingdom leaves the European Union

  • General election 2019

    centre-right wins

  • Recession 2020

    Despite pre-election promises, government announces reductions to funding in child services, NHS and other public services amidst a tightening of budgets with post-Brexit recession.

  • Commission on the Future of Children 2021

    Youth-driven protests across England lead to a general strike, leading to the creation of a new Commission on the Future of Children

  • Rebranding 2022

    National rebranding of all professional workers with children ‘National Children's Workforce’

  • Communities take ownership 2023

    Community Empowerment legislation introduced to encourage communities to take ownership of community assets which are expensive for county councils to operate, including buildings and public spaces

  • Deal 2024

    Trade deal with USA negotiated, increasing privatisation of health services

  • Knife crime 2024

    Fatal stabbings of two fourteen boys, Elliot Wilding and Rico Kasieran, in North London

  • General election 2024

    Centre-left forces invited to form a Government on a platform to negotiate a new relationship with the EU and introduce a citizens’ income.

  • More rights 2024

    European Convention on Human Rights re-enshrined in UK law

  • New opportunities 2025

    Community Colleges open 24/7

  • Citizens’ Income 2025

    Introduction of a Citizens’ Income and Universal Credit is withdrawn

  • Devolution 2025

    Regional devolution referenda are held and passed by popular vote across England, ultimately turning England into a more federal country

  • Enough 2025

    Enough is enough campaign

  • New jobs 2025

    Creation of waves of new technical jobs with the growing impact of AI

  • Citizen participation increases 2026

    Regional assemblies created across England, with powers devolved to the local level, based strongly on the principle of subsidiarity. Regional elections held. Local activism and community-led citizen participation increases.

  • Children heard 2026

    Children’s Covenant emerges and shared across social media

  • Children empowered 2027

    Children’s Covenant Bill enacted

  • Lower age 2027

    As part of Covenant, the voting age for all elections is lowered to age 16

  • UK-EU negotiations 2028

    UK joins European Economic Area (EEA) (Norway-plus) after four years of intense UK-EU negotiations

  • General election 2029

    A breakthrough number of Independent MPs representing community interests - building on the strength of their local/regional devolution platforms and supported by the newly enfranchised youth - are elected, resulting in a rainbow parliament

  • National safeguarding enquiry 2030

    Off roll home educated children hits 150,000 leading to national safeguarding enquiry

  • Regional elections 2031

    Regional assembly elections held

  • General election 2034

divider graphic

Living in this world

I take a deep breath, trying to compose myself, but the words spill out by themselves.

“Mum, Dad … I’m gay.”

A pause, that seems to go on forever. The portable atomic clock on the mantelpiece ticks loudly. My heart quickens. Four eyes staring, unblinking. And then—

“Well of course you are, my love!”

Arms reach around my back, warm skin brushing my cheek. I can smell Mum’s coconut oil shampoo in my nostrils, her curly black hair tickling my neck.

“I’m so glad you told us!” Dad says, trying to engulf me in a bear-hug. “We’ll throw the best ‘coming-of-age’ party this place has ever seen. We love you so much.”

I feel the prickle of hot tears well up in my eyes, and slowly exhale.

I’d been carrying around this weight for ages, ever since I started the Children’s Covenant empowerment programme. Twelve months of figuring out what it means to be a citizen in this world, and how to lay the foundations for self-love – for mind, body, beliefs and identity.

“Now, did you get the support you needed in coming to this decision?” Mum leans back and stares deep into my eyes. I nod and smile at her expression – protective, full of love. Light streams through the solar window, catching the scar-line that runs from her eyebrow to her cheekbone, turning it translucent. A memory of our previous life, before we came to this country.

“They were great, Mum,” I say. “They taught us how to respect ourselves, and each other.”

I notice a tear swell at the corner of Mum’s eye, before she brushes it away.

“I wish your grandparents could see you now,” she says, reaching out to take Dad’s hand. “They loved their country, but they loved their family more. They would have been so proud of you.”

My eyes shift down to my knees. I’d never met my extended family – most of them were killed in the war, thousands of miles from here. But I’d been told that my grandparents had paid for our passage to England and risked their lives smuggling us to the coast. To the boats.

A loud chime makes me jump.

“Don’t worry,” says Dad, putting a gentle hand on my shoulder. I’ll get the door.”

Moments later, my friend Katie enters the living-room, a bustle of energy. “How’s it going, everyone? Sorry to break up the party, but Alex - you’re late for the committee meeting.”

She looks at my expectantly and I nod, smiling. She yelps with delight.

“Really?” she says. “You told them already?”

There is a boisterous exchange of hugs between Katie, my parents and myself, as my identity becomes more public, more solid before my eyes. Katie herself just came out to her parents as straight a few days ago; in fact, all our friends have been telling their truths to their families, as part of the Covenant empowerment programme.

“Mum, Dad, is it okay if we continue the celebrations later?” I say when there is a pause in the conversation. “My speech is in half an hour, and I’d better get going.”

My parents instantly shoo me and Jordan out of the door of the flat, with wishes of good luck. They know that I’d been working hard on this all week.

Katie skips down the steps of the communal staircase to the ground floor. When we reach the bottom, she whispers, “so how did it really go? They seemed pretty happy.”

We emerge into the afternoon sunlight. “Better than expected. It was almost as if they knew already.” I pause to close the brightly coloured door of the building. “Dad wants to throw a party.”

Katie laughs. “So do my parents. Hey, do you think we can have a joint party, to cut the energy and food costs? We could do it at the Living Centre.”

“Great idea,” I murmur, letting the sunshine soak into my skin as we walk down the tree-lined street. “I didn’t expect it to feel so good, so natural.”

“What do you mean?” she says, one eyebrow raised.

“Being accepted for who you are.”

“Ah...” says Katie. But then she is quiet, pondering her own place in the world, no doubt.

We walk past old derelict buildings that have been turned into community spaces and cooperative housing projects. The street is awash with colour – from the painted mosaics on the building walls, to the bright flowers in the community gardens outside. Children are everywhere - playing inside in the gardens, feeding the chickens in the coops, and hanging from the trees above.

“Hey, there’s Mr Davies… hello!” Katie waves at the person walking across the old school carpark on our right. Our teacher from first year, Mr Davies, beams and waves back, before helping one of his students – a girl in a wheelchair – get into a driverless car, along with her elderly grandfather.

“It’s funny to think we’ll be back there in a few months” I say. “School’s going to feel so different once we’ve finished this course.”

“Yeah, like maybe you’ll actually hand in your coursework on time?” Katie grins, nudging me in the arm. “Remember what we learnt last week - managing your time is managing your life?”

My cheeks turn hot. “Okay, okay… I’ll try a bit harder with deadlines from now on.”

We arrive at the Living Centre, a large square eco-building covered in foliage and flowers.

“After you, Mr Committee President” says Katie with a wink, as she ushers me inside.

We walk to the end of a long corridor, before entering a cavernous white room filled with people of all ages, sizes, colours and backgrounds. A tall, blonde-haired woman is talking at the lectern, and smiles when she notices us enter.

“And now,” she says, “the next item on the agenda concerns us all. Alex will make an important announcement about the future of our community.”

I walk up to the electronic lectern in the middle of the room, and I look out at the crowd. I don’t need to look at any of my prepared notes, which are stuffed in my pocket. I know this by heart.

“Today, I am proud to inform you that we have officially become a zero-carbon community. We have spent years caring for our environment, and our efforts are making a difference. We have planted trees, we have banned non-electric cars, and we recycle 100% of our waste. One step, one community at a time, we are saving the planet for future generations.”

I pause and look round the room. I spot an eight-year old child in the front row, a neighbour from below. He smiles a toothy grin at me. He sees that I am being heard.

He knows that he will be too.

“When we came to England five years ago,” I continue, looking directly at him, “we were told that 13 is an unlucky number. But I’m 13 years old now and, in sharing this news with you, in affirming the power of our community, I feel like the luckiest person in the world.”

divider graphic

Share this article:

divider graphic

Explore other future scenarios