Dame Rachel de Souza will become the next children’s commissioner for England from next year after MPs narrowly approved her appointment.
Gavin Williamson has confirmed the academy trust boss will take up the role next year after the Parliamentary education committee found she was “appointable”.
However, the committee said this was “not a unanimous view” among its members, following a gruelling pre-appointment hearing on Tuesday that saw de Souza questioned over exclusions and SEND support at the Inspiration Trust, where she is currently CEO.
The committee’s report shows it was split down party lines, with five Conservative MPs voting in favour of her appointment, and four Labour MPs voting against. However, Conservative chair Robert Halfon and member Dr Caroline Johnson did not vote.
In a letter to Williamson, Halfon warned that not every member was “wholly convinced in her vision and grasp of several of the major issues that she will need to champion” as commissioner.
He added that while the majority was satisfied she is a “competent candidate”, her evidence “highlighted several deficits in her knowledge and experience and she will need to address these as soon as possible”.
“In particular, we were concerned at the candidate’s apparent lack of knowledge of some areas relevant to her new role. Key among these were in the fields of children’s social care and fostering and adoption, youth services, the youth justice system, child and adolescent mental health and the wider immigration system.”
The committee recommended that “as a priority” de Souza engaged “with a range of organisations across the areas where she has less direct experience”.
They added she was “unable to outline a position” on key issues for children’s rights, and they were concerned she did not “explain fully how she intends to use evidence to challenge and inform the work of government”.
The committee has also raised questions about the recruitment process, asking Williamson to supply them with any extra information on how the advisory assessment panel was selected and on the extent to which the views of children and young people were reflected in the recommendation of a candidate.
“Championing the rights of all children in England, both inside and outside of education is likely to require Dame Rachel to take a different approach to that she has adopted in her career in schools,” Halfon said.
“We are concerned that Dame Rachel faces a steep learning curve in taking on this complex role that serves all children in England.”
They add they will hold regular accountability with her and will “particularly monitor how she address the above concerns in the early stages of her new role”.
de Souza will replace Anne Longfield, who has held the post since 2015, in March.