News Views

A mixture of news items, events, comments and whimsies, including young fathers, first-born children, substance abuse and new mores, primary education, gangs, social workers, bureaucracy and UNISON, residential care and the voluntary sector, zerotothree, the 9th TICICC conference, travelling, snow, schools and sledging.

Young Fathers

The recent story of a twelve-year-old father triggered a flurry of articles in the press about the adequacy of sex education, and the fact that Britain is next to top of the league among developed countries for its numbers of young parents. Amazingly, in the last decade there have been forty fathers aged under fourteen and four aged under eleven.

As this edition of the Webmag is focusing on parenting, we cannot let this pass without comment. First, we are clear that it helps no one if children of this age become parents. Although they may be physically capable of creating babies, they are not mature enough to fulfil the role of parenting, and they risk losing out on their own childhood and adolescence if they take their parental duties seriously.

Secondly, there are suggestions that sex education in schools is not good enough. According to a survey four out of ten children had had none. In any case, there is always the question of the focus of such teaching – whether it is only on the physical and not on the emotional aspects, for example.

Thirdly – and this links with issues raised in A Good Childhood – there is the question of the norms of the wider society. In Britain in the past, pregnancy outside marriage was a matter of great shame. One outcome was discrimination against single mothers, but the general impact was one of avoiding predicaments which might result in pregnancy. Today the stigma has gone, and with it the inhibitors. We have lost the “Victorian values”, and, while not wishing simply to turn the clock back, the wider British society has not yet adopted a set of accepted social values for the twenty-first century to replace them.

If it were generally acknowledged that getting pregnant at school is a bad thing, it would become part of everyone’s consciousness. It would not just be dependent on sex education classes. Parents, peers and everyone else would simply know it, as part of everyday conversation, reflected in the media.

Establishing New Mores

Elsewhere in this issue we are carrying an article about a consultation being undertaken by the Department of Children, Schools and Families into the way that guidance concerning young people’s use of alcohol should be promulgated. Sir Liam Donaldson has laid down fairly stern guidelines that drink is bad for young people.

In parallel there is a campaign to discourage the use of cannabis, as its impact on children’s mental health is now appreciated more fully. Having been seen for a long time as one of the less serious drugs, it is now causing real alarm as the numbers of young adults with mental health problems such as schizophrenia increase.

We back both campaigns. As with the casual approach to sexual relations, a culture of self-indulgence has developed in which for a substantial percentage of young people the pleasures of substance abuse have outweighed any awareness of possible long-term consequences. What is more, once consumption becomes addiction, the hold which drugs and alcohol can get is hard, expensive and time-consuming to shake off.

The only answer, in the face of the short-term rewards of these habits, is that social values have to be strong enough to deter potential abusers. Although we regret having to say it because of the connotations, the answer may be a new age of puritanism to counter these threats. The abuse will only stop when the consumers want to stop because they accept that there are bigger pay-offs in not abusing.

First Born

Research by David Lawson and Professor Ruth Mace of University College, London, has shown that wealthier families discriminate in favour of their first-born, with an impact on IQs and health. In poorer families, resources are spread more evenly.

It is interesting to compare research findings with accepted wisdom. Among the gentry it used to be said that the eldest inherited the estate (and the title), the next went in the army, the third in the navy and the youngest in the Church of England. If so, were vicars dimmer and less healthy than land owners?

Our impression is that parents invest a lot in their eldest children, but they also have to experiment and learn how to be parents in caring for them. The older children often have expectations laid on them to succeed and achieve what the parents had wanted for themselves. By contrast, parents are more skilled and experienced in handling the younger children, and may be less demanding. The youngest end up as the “baby of the family” and may be spoilt or cared for in part by older siblings.

It will be interesting to see University College’s findings in future decades. Will first-born children still succeed more than their siblings when they are in their 50s? – earn more, be healthier, be happier, live longer? Or will the younger children prove to be more normal, balanced and stress-free, with fewer expectations placed on them to succeed? And will the youngest always play a “baby” role, looking up to others?

Primary Education

The Cambridge Review of Primary Education under Professor Robin Alexander has issued a preliminary report. The undertaking has been massive, with 820 pieces of evidence, 200 meetings and 3,000 publications taken into account. From the limited information to date it sounds as if the Review is on the right track, reappraising the point of primary education fundamentally. They have identified a dozen areas of importance which primary education should cover such as well-being and celebrating culture, and have rejected undue emphasis on reading, arithmetic and tests such as SATS to assess progress, in favour of a more rounded approach.

The Government’s response has been to stall, as it is awaiting its own review being undertaken by Sir Jim Rose. We look forward to the outcome of all this debate. If Sir Jim Rose backs the Cambridge approach, it could be a real shot in the arm for primary schooling. The head of steam built up for change will need to be used constructively to push things forward, or there will be problems.

Child Poverty

We have not yet read the Government consultation paper Ending Child Poverty: Making it Happen. Its target is to do away with child poverty by 2020, which is very laudable, and if the paper contains concrete measures to achieve this, we back it. A strong economy in which families with children have the disposable wealth to bring up their children solves a lot of child care problems which would otherwise need social work and/or social care intervention.

The Government are reported to have included a new target for tackling absolute poverty, and this makes sense. We may be simple, but the relative poverty criterion of 60% of median earnings seems to us as achievable as a dog running round in circles trying to catch its own tail. The more the people at the top end of the earning market award themselves increases above inflation (plus bonuses of course), the more impossible it becomes for those at the bottom to catch up.

If we are right, then by corollary the harder the Government taxes those on high incomes, the higher the percentage of median earnings for those at the bottom of the scale, even if they are not better off in absolute terms. We can still remember when millionaires were taxed 19s 6d in the £1 – or 97.5%. What we want to know is whether the Government’s paper envisages re-introducing this in 2019 to get the relativities right by the target date?


The word gang carries negative, and indeed threatening, connotations in daily usage. If a group of youths are hanging around as a gang, a wide swathe of the public will assume that they are up to no good and take steps to avoid them.

Yet what the young people are doing is creating networks of relationships with people of a similar mind which they find rewarding and supportive. In these terms what they are doing is no different from a group of professionals who meet at their Lodge or young mothers coming together to share talk about babies and shopping. The difference is that what the gangs get up to is at times anti-social, violent and criminal. In short, what people find threatening is what the gang does, rather than the existence of the gang itself as a social grouping. A similar group of teenagers who form friendships at a church youth club is not called a gang because they do not behave antisocially.

If, then, gangs provide support, friendship, respect and status for their members, we suggest that action should be directed at changing gangs’ antisocial behaviour rather than disbanding the gangs and destroying their positive qualities. How about setting up football matches between gangs, to replace fights? How about setting up arts events so that they have other ways of expressing themselves? How about asking them how their home areas could be improved? How about giving them grants to improve the neighbourhoods which they “control”? Get them working on these things and maybe they won’t have the time – or perhaps the inclination – to be antisocial.

When he was Prime Minister, Tony Blair must have got sick of having his soundbites thrown back at him, but it is true that the Labour Government has spent enormous sums on tackling crime, but substantially less on addressing its causes. If gangs could be turned into positive social agencies, they could save millions in diverting their membership from wasted years in prison.

The Price of Vacancies

UNISON has undertaken a survey of social workers which indicated – among other things – that 60% of their respondents were working in teams where more than 20% of the posts were empty. They said that they spent 80% of their time on paperwork.

We are not surprised. The current critical climate must be putting off a proportion of potential candidates for social work training. When the Secretary of State makes an example of a Chief Officer as he did in Haringay, it gives a message not only to the whole workforce but also to anyone aspiring to be a social worker. Social work can be thankless, but it will not help recruitment if the rewards are hard stick with no carrot.

Perhaps more important, the rate of staff turnover must indicate a significant wastage of experienced staff. Our estimate is that social workers carry accountability for child care cases for about two years on average. Sometimes it is longer, but often it is shorter. The reasons presumably include positive reasons such as promotion or maternity leave, but presumably also include dismissals, early retirements through stress or movements to more congenial work.

The time of those that are there is not well used if so much is spent on paperwork. The current standard forms are very wordy. Certainly it is in children’s interests for these processes to be thorough and to view their needs holistically, but a lot of the boxes to be ticked are irrelevant to the issues needing decision at any one time. Better use of modern technology could no doubt help.

The sad fact is that the outcome of all these problems is a poorer service for the clientele. They pay the price in the end. If a child has a new social worker every two years, how easy is it for them to build up trust and confide? If social workers and their managers are encouraged to spend their time watching their backs, how can they ensure that the children get the priority they need? If social workers have to spend their time ticking boxes in standard forms, how can they bring out the individuality of children in these records, or more to the point, find time to get to know them?

UNISON’s answer is a 10-point plan, which seems to say all the right things. See .

Residential Care

We are interested to note that Martin Narey, the head of Barnardo’s, is arguing for the increased use of residential care. For many years Dr Barnardo’s ran some excellent children’s homes, but decided that residential care was old hat and closed them down, wanting to be at the cutting edge of developments.

Certainly there were funding problems, as local authorities tended to use the voluntary sector as a sort of overspill if their own places were all full. But the quality of Barnardo’s homes was generally good, and their closure was a real loss. There would have been a significant ongoing role for the voluntary sector in providing residential services – not necessarily innovative, but steady, reliable and based on good professional practice and values. The gap which opened up when the voluntary providers moved out has now been filled by the private sector, who would not have moved in if there had not been a margin of profit to be made.


We have had an American website drawn to our attention on As it says on the label, it is all about young children. Among other things it gives lots of information about what to expect of babies, toddlers and children, month by month, with the problems parents may encounter and practical ways of addressing them.

The website is run by Zero to Three, a non-profit organisation set up to promote the health and well-being of toddlers and infants, which appears to be based at the National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families. It was established by a financier who reckoned that investing in the early years of children’s lives is vital, as it is then that their brains develop most and their prospects in life are shaped. Zero to Three has a journal, which appears to have started about 1980 and which is published six times a year.

Global Warning

This is the title of the Ninth Triennial International Child and Youth Care Conference on Child, Youth and Family Matters at Fort Lauderdale in Florida from 26-29 May 2009. Soon it will be possible to register on www: The Conference is planned to cover almost every current topic concerning the social welfare, behaviour, schooling and health care of children and young people.

Global Wandering

In the course of a generation, the number of countries visited by under-16s has doubled, according to research carried out among parents by

While a child today will have visited an average of 14 different countries by the age of 16, their parents had visited an average of seven countries by the same age – a 100% increase in travel in just a generation. According to the research, less than 1% of under-16s today have never left the UK, while almost 10% of their parents had never been abroad by the same age.

The research showed that over a third (34%) have been to North America, one in five children (18%) have travelled to Asia, whilst one in six (16%) have been to destinations in Africa, and one in seven (13%) to Australasia before their sixteenth birthday. According to research, almost every child in Britain (98%) has made a trip across the Channel visiting European destinations before they reach 16. Parents justified the travel partly on the grounds of exposing children to other cultures and, to a lesser extent, to learn other languages.

It will be interesting to see whether this pattern is sustained. From an ecological viewpoint this pattern of travel leaves a huge carbon footprint, and we predict that long-distance travel is going to be rationed before long. From a post-credit-crunch angle (especially with the falling value of the over-priced pound), it may well be that parents will afford fewer holidays abroad in the next few years, which will of course all affect the nation’s balance of payments. Children, you never had it so good.

A Parent’s Gut Reaction

In putting together this issue on parenting, we thought it might be a good idea to ask a parent to write an article.

One emailed back, “I’d love to if I had the time – it would be why are schools so stupid to stop kids playing in the snow and then whinge about the bad behaviour when they are cooped up all day inside or told to go out in the snow and banned from even picking it up and or throwing snowballs. We used to create skid runs, making it more icy! Surely, they can get the kids creating something with snow – educational even. Worse still, why are we 1 of 2 families out sledging in the snow on Saturday on what is normally a sledging hotspot. Notably, most of the people out were elderly folk enjoying a walk and dog walkers. But very few children/families. Perhaps they were getting fit on a Wii. They should be banned.”

Now you know. Why have an article when an email says it all?

Snow and Stuff

The email above reminded us of the weather of the last few weeks. Why did people recently make such a fuss about a few inches of snow? Is it that we are nowadays reliant on having weather which fits within a narrower band of possibilities? Is it because we are commuting further, for example, or are more reliant on power systems for central heating. Or is it just that people are not as tough and long-suffering, and whinge more?

From the Case Files

I rang her mother’s horse, but there was no answer.

Nay, surely not!

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