Unicef report on children’s well-being: special report

UK children have the lowest levels of well-being in the developed world, a report published today by Unicef has found.

Children living in the Netherlands have the highest well-being, followed by Swedes, Danes and Finns, analysis of data from 21 wealthy countries revealed.

It measures and compares overall child well-being across six themes:
• material well-being
• health and safety
• education
• peer and family relationships
• behaviours and risks
• young people’s subjective sense of their own well-being

40 indicators – from relative poverty and child safety, to educational achievement to drug abuse – are used to give an overview of children’s lives.

Child abuse and neglect and mental health are not included, due to a “lack of common definitions and comparable data,” says Unicef.

The UK ranks in the bottom third of the country rankings for five of the six themes – only education ranks higher. It lags behind in terms of relative poverty and deprivation, quality of children’s relationships with their parents and peers, child health and safety, behaviour and risk-taking and subjective well-being.

The UK came bottom in the family and peer relationships, and behaviour and risks sections.

A UK government spokesperson said some of Unicef’s data is old and does not reflect recent improvements in tackling teenage pregnancy, and in cutting numbers of children living with unemployed parents. The government has also invested extensively in reducing child poverty and in Sure Start, he added.

The report shows no strong or consistent relationship between a country’s wealth and the well-being of its children. The Czech Republic is ranked higher overall than several much wealthier European countries.

Scores for different aspects of well-being vary widely within countries.

“All countries have weaknesses that need to be addressed and no country features in the top third of the rankings for all six dimensions,” said David Bull, Unicef UK’s executive director.

More findings
• 80% of children are living with both parents. But the range is considerable – from more than 90% in Greece and Italy to less than 70% in the United Kingdom and 60% in the United States

• Almost two-thirds of children still regularly eat the main meal of the day with their families, with France and Italy maintaining the tradition more tenaciously.

• The percentage of children whose parents spend time “just talking to them” several times a week ranges from approximately 90% in Hungary and Italy to less than 50% in Canada and Germany.

• The percentage of children who report that their peers are “kind and helpful” varies from a high of 80% or more in Switzerland and Portugal to less than 50% in the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom.

• Fewer than 15% of young people report being drunk on two or more occasions. In the Netherlands, the figure rises to over a quarter and in the UK to almost a third.

• The percentage of young people aged 15 who report having used cannabis varies from less than 5% in Greece and Sweden to more than 35% in the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Canada

• The percentage of young people (aged 11, 13 and 15) who report “liking school a lot” varies from over 35% in Austria and Norway to less than 15% in Finland, the Czech Republic, and Italy.

Reaction to the Unicef report

A government spokesperson said:

“Nobody can dispute that improving children’s well-being is a real priority for this government. We recognise that Unicef does vital work in this area. But in many cases the data used is several years old and does not reflect more recent improvements in the UK such as the continuing fall in the teenage pregnancy rate or in the proportion of children living in workless households.

We are working hard to improve all children’s life chances and the report confirms that children’s educational attainment at 15 in the UK compares well with many other EU countries.

By 2010 there will be a Sure Start children’s centre in every community and all schools will be offering wrap-around care from 8am to 6pm each weekday throughout the year.

There are now 700,000 fewer children living in relative poverty than in 1998-99, and we have halved the number of children living in absolute poverty.

Our reforms – being introduced through Every Child Matters – are designed to improve life for all children and young people and we are working hard to tackle issues such as teenage smoking, drinking, and risky sexual behaviour.

Across the country, interventions are delivering improvements that are making real differences to children’s lives.

Our teenage pregnancy strategy is working. The under-18 conception rate has fallen by 11.1% and the under-16 rate has fallen by 15.2% since 1998 – both rates are now at their lowest level for 20 years.

The latest figures from the survey of smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England show that cannabis use amongst 15 year olds has decreased and that the number of pupils who have ever had an alcoholic drink has fallen.

We have already met and exceeded a challenging target to reduce smoking among children aged 11-15 years to 11% in 2005 and 9% in 2010. The World Health Organisation said in 2002 that the UK would see the second greatest decline in tobacco use in the world from 1998-2008. The latest survey of 30 European countries put the UK second only to Ireland on the implementation of effective tobacco control strategies.

Great progress has been made because of the crucial importance this government places on putting children’s well-being right at the heart of policy-making. But we know there is more to do to make sure that every child has the best start in life and has an equal opportunity to fulfil their potential.”

Martin Narey, Barnardo’s chief executive said:

“While 700,000 children (700,000 after housing costs and 800,000 before housing costs) have been lifted out of poverty, child poverty is still acute in the UK, lying behind so many of the factors which place the UK at the bottom of the Unicef report.

Barnardo’s has some sympathy with the government because there has been unprecedented investment in family tax credits and benefits and in the Sure Start programme. These have begun to make real improvements in the lives of children.

We need to see a financial commitment immediately of £4 billion between now and 2010, which will lead to the government succeeding in its aim to halve child poverty in the UK. The fourth richest economy in the UK will spend more than this on hosting the Olympics.

The report makes for depressing reading, but it does not come as a surprise. The evidence shows that children who grow up in poverty are more vulnerable: they are more likely to have poor health; to have learning and behavioural difficulties, to underachieve at school, to become pregnant at an early age and to have lower skills and aspirations and to be low paid or unemployed.

The government still needs to develop a UK strategy to demonstrate how it is going to tackle child poverty.

The comprehensive spending review is imminent and is an opportunity to invest in reaching its target.

But it’s not just the government – as a society we need to listen to and value children and get away from some of the negative images of hoodies and ‘feral youth’.”

Elaine Peace, NCH’s director of children’s services, said:

“The report does not come as a surprise because NCH works every day with disadvantaged children, so understands what they face.

“The government needs to translate rhetoric into resources to improve services,” she added. 

Al Aynsley-Green, children’s commissioner for England, said:

“The findings of the UNICEF report card are disheartening but not surprising as they echo what children and young people tell me on a daily basis. As children’s commissioner I am working with children and young people to further explore the issues raised and find solutions.

In recent years, the government has made a significant investment in improving the lives of children and young people in England. It will take time for the results to become evident but I welcome the commitment and energy demonstrated by Every Child Matters and other initiatives.

However, we must acknowledge that these problems can not be solved by policy and funding alone. There is a crisis at the heart of our society and we must not continue to ignore the impact of our attitudes towards children and young people and the effect that this has on their well-being.

I hope this report will prompt us all to look beyond the statistics and to the underlying causes of our failure to nurture happy and healthy children in the UK. These children represent the future of our country and from the findings of this report they are in poor health, unable to maintain loving and successful relationships, feel unsafe and insecure, have low aspirations and put themselves at risk.

It is time to stop demonising children and young people for what goes wrong and start supporting them to make positive choices. To bring an end to the confusing messages we give to young people about their role, responsibility and position in society and ensure that every child feels valued and has their rights respected.”

Elisabeth Hoodless, executive director of Community Service Volunteers said:

“What is needed is direct action by communities to tackle poverty of experience and skills that can transform the life of a child. Volunteers improve the reading age of a child in a school; support the families of children on the ‘at risk’ register and help families to run more fuel-efficient homes.

Our experience is that volunteers’ practical help inspires parents to prepare nutritious meals on a budget and claim their rights and benefits. Citizen volunteers can provide a homework tutor, a shoulder to cry on and support for the whole family.”

Shelter chief executive Adam Sampson said:

“With one in seven children in Britain growing up homeless or badly housed, today’s report showing we are failing a generation of children comes as no surprise.

If the government is really committed to improving the lives of children and reaching its 2020 child poverty target, it must provide every child in Britain with a safe, affordable, permanent home.

Shelter is calling on the government to build 20,000 extra social homes each year to help give these children the chance of a brighter future.”  

Bob Reitemeier, The Children’s Society’s chief executive said:

“It is clear that, despite the fact that we are a rich country, we are failing children and young people in a number of crucial ways,”

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