Why Unicef children’s well-being league table misleads

When the Unicef report into children’s well-being ranked the UK bottom of the league of 21 industrialised countries there were, understandably, expressions of concern about the future from many children’s charities.

On the face of it, the indictment is stark and the case proven: measured by the international children’s rights charity across the six themes of material well-being, health and safety, education, peer and family relationships, behaviour and risks, and young people’s sense of their own well-being, the UK ranks in the bottom third for everything but education.

But, as the dust settles and memories of the more lurid press headlines fade, questions are emerging about the relevance of the data on which the report’s conclusions are based. Many of the figures are at least six years old and, as a result, the report fails to take into account major investment in health and education during Labour’s second and third terms in office. In addition, some key measures of a child’s well-being have been omitted altogether.

For Barry Sheerman MP, chair of the influential House of Commons select committee on education, the Unicef findings reflect “the back end of the Thatcher years”. He likens the process of Unicef’s inquiry to the navigation of a supertanker. “What they have done is measure the wake of the supertanker, rather than measure after it has changed direction and where it is now,” he explains. In doing so, he adds, they have not taken account of “the enormous investment that has gone into things like Sure Start and the development of the Every Child Matters agenda”.

Unicef does recognise that its report has shortcomings. It has not included figures on domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, or children’s mental health, for example, because of a lack of statistics and comparative data. The 40 individual indicators that were used reflect data availability, and all have been given equal weighting and therefore equal significance.

The charity describes the absence in particular of data on early years education and child care as “a glaring omission”. It is also an area in which the government has invested heavily in recent years, reaching in advance its 2005 target of increasing its stock of registered child care places by 10 per cent. Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) show that child care places rose from 1,103,000 in March 2004 to 1,250,000 in March 2006 – an increase of 13 per cent over two years.

The level of participation by three- and four-year-olds in early childhood education is not measured in the Unicef report due to a lack of comparable international data. But this is another area where the UK government could have expected to do well as free nursery education for three- and four-year-olds is a major plank of its early years’ agenda. Recently, it has increased free weekly sessions from 12.5 hours a week over 33 weeks to 15 hours over 38 weeks.

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) argues that measures introduced under the Children Act 2004 to integrate education and care, coupled with new inspection arrangements for local authorities, have provided evidence of impressive improvements not reflected in the Unicef report’s findings.

It also points to a fall in teenage pregnancies and year-on-year improvements in school education up to 16. Official figures show that the number of teenage pregnancies fell by more than 11 per cent between 1998 and 2004, including a 15.2 per cent fall in pregnancy rates among under-16s.

Underpinning work in all these areas is the government’s target to halve child poverty by 2010 and eradicate it by 2020. Unicef ranks UK as 23 out of 24 developed countries in terms of the proportion of its children living in relative child poverty, beating only the US. However, Unicef admits that such an international comparison, based on a poverty line drawn at 50 per cent of the median national income, tells only half the story because it makes no allowance for differences in national wealth. It tells us “much about inequality and exclusion, but little about absolute material deprivation”, the report says.

By contrast the government’s own figures reveal real progress in tackling child poverty in the UK, with 700,000 children having been lifted out of poverty since 1997 (or 800,000 before housing costs). However, there are concerns looking forward, following the public admission by welfare reform minister Jim Murphy that the government is not going to hit the 2010 target.

Barnardo’s principal policy officer Neera Sharma explains: “The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has said that an extra £4bn is needed to meet the 2010 target, and [Murphy’s] comments would indicate that the government is not going to invest that money.” Her concerns are shared by Hilary Fisher, director of the End Child Poverty campaign, who fears the required money will not be forthcoming from the comprehensive spending review due later this year.

Bob Reitemeier, chief executive of the Children’s Society, which launched the report with Unicef, says the government deserves praise for its Every Child Matters agenda and its pledge to eradicate child poverty, and should be “shouting from the rooftops more about all the investment that it has made over the last decade”.

However, he insists the Unicef report is still valid given that all 21 countries were subject to the same process, and insists it’s a question of keeping a suitably high level of concern, interest and resources to ensure children are at the top of the agenda.

“We would all like more specific data in some areas,” he says, “but the fact is that this is what exists. The challenge is to take this forward. It’s a huge wake-up call.”

An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries

Good childhood?
Last summer, the Children’s Society set up an 18-month inquiry looking at children’s well-being because it believes that too many children in the UK have poor childhoods.

The Good Childhood Inquiry aims to change public attitudes towards childhood. Professor Judith Dunn, of the Institute of Psychiatry and a member of the inquiry panel, says the first full session of its deliberations will be devoted to relationships “because bullying is a major issue for children”.

Leaps and bounds
The Old Moat children’s centre in Manchester is an example of the sort of progress in the UK that the Unicef report does not reflect

Co-locating a multi-agency team in the Old Moat children’s centre in one of the most deprived areas of Manchester has helped to reach vulnerable families and children, says centre head Gerri Ross.

She welcomes the way the Unicef report has highlighted family poverty, but insists that, since the data on which the report is based came out, “we have come on by leaps and bounds”.

“The most important thing has been to join up services so families have one port of call,” she says.

While the Unicef report deals with indicators such as health and education, she says it is vital that poverty is tackled holistically, including dealing with issues such as housing and street crime.

A ward co-ordination support officer based in the centre’s family support team acts as its eyes and ears on the street, ensuring that the local community is informed about services and how to use them.

Creative thinking is key to finding ways to reach those most in need but least likely to walk into the centre and ask for help, Ross adds, flagging up plans to run fitness sessions for young mums as a way of enticing them into the centre. “Once we get them in here they will join in. You have got to be creative to make connections.”

This article appeared in the 1 March issue of the magazine under the heading “Rock bottom”

This weeks other feature articles

‘Blame the UK’s culture of care’

Single parents facing benefit cut if Hutton’s plan goes ahead


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