Editorial : The Bottom of the Class

The recent UNICEF report came as a shock to many, while others said, “Told you so.” It was certainly a powerful message. Of all the twenty-one advanced countries studied, the United Kingdom scored worst for children.

The report, Child Poverty in Perspective : An Overview of Child Wellbeing in Rich Countries, looked at six main areas – material wellbeing, health and safety, educational wellbeing, family and peer relationships, behaviours and risks, and the young people’s own perceptions of their wellbeing.

While nine of the countries have reduced child poverty to below 10%, in Britain it is 16.2%. Britain ranks bottom for the friendliness of peers with only 40% of children considering their peers kind and helpful. By a considerable distance, Britain is bottom for young smokers, drink and drug abuse, risky sex and early pregnancies. It is poor on education. And so on.

Inevitably the report was used as a stick to beat the Government, with the Shadow Chancellor saying, “This report tells the truth about Brown’s Britain”. And inevitably there were defensive reactions on the part of the Government, that the report was based on material published four or five years ago, whose sources dated back neatly to the Conservative Government. While these pieces of party politicking were understandable as knee-jerk responses, the Government certainly had cause for complaint, as they have invested more in children than any previous British Government, and the headline does not reflect their clear commitment to improve education and get children out of poverty.

To obtain a balanced and up-to-date picture is difficult. One can imagine, for example, that in a country where children do not question and are more conformist they might say they are happier when they are not. Poverty is treated as relative within the country, so that where there are large numbers of super-rich, those labelled as being in poverty may well be better off than in other countries. Considerations such as these, however, are tinkering with the problem. The overall picture is dire, and the key question is what we are going to do about it.

What sort of country do we want our children to grow up in? What sort of country do they want to inherit? If UNICEF’s picture is accurate, there are the risks that we will end up with an under-educated uncompetitive population so that Britain falls back in the world economy, while drinking, smoking and drug-taking damage health on a massive scale. There is a real danger of a downward spiral.

If the Government is right, they have already started to change some things. There certainly was massive underinvestment under earlier governments, but making change in issues such as child poverty or education is like turning round the proverbial oil-tanker. It is some time before it actually turns, and quite a long while before it gets back to the point where it first took corrective action.

We now need a commitment from all the main parties that they are going to take a united approach to get this right, rather than sniping for party advantage. It means that ending child poverty and improving education have to be priorities for the budget for a long long time ahead.

But it also means a long-term concerted effort to change people’s thinking about children, and this is everybody’s responsibility. How can children be encouraged to get on together better? How do we foster better adult/child relationships? Can we create a community where young people do not feel the need to binge, and find other leisure satisfactions?

Professor Jonathan Bradshaw of York University, one of the report’s authors, blamed Britain’s ‘dog-eat-dog’ culture, which sounds as if it harks back to Thatcher days when she said there was no such thing as community. This may give one of the clues to remedy the situation. Chris Durkin this month speaks of the importance of the community context in which children live. Maybe the investment needs to go into the rebuilding of local communities, so that they are owned by the people who live there, so that they want to contribute, so that they feel they have valued roles. In recent years, government in the UK has been increasingly centralist. Maybe it is time to devolve the power again.

We have an excellent framework in Every Child Matters (which is addressed by Zoe Renton, Chris Durkin and Valerie Jackson in this issue). The next stage is to see it implemented in local communities.

Presumably UNICEF will do a follow-up in another decade. It will be interesting to see whether the Labour Government’s investment will have paid off, and whether our children will be any happier then. Let’s hope we are not still bottom of the class.

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