Why are the Netherlands top and the UK bottom of the Unicef children’s well-being league table

The Netherlands ranked top in the Unicef league table of children’s well-being in better off countries. So, what are the Dutch doing better than the British, who propped up the table, asks Graham Hopkins

The recent Unicef overview report on the well-being of children in the most developed countries may have proved difficult reading for the seemingly socially impoverished UK. But for the top-ranking nation it proved as easy on the eye as the canals of Amsterdam. The Netherlands was ranked in the top 10 of all six dimensions (including material well-being, health and safety, educational well-being, family and peer relationships) while it proved best of all for subjective well-being.

So, why the profound sense of life satisfaction among its young people? It seems a big part of the answer lies in a commitment to social skills and culture. Indeed, for the Dutch, there is no development without culture.

A government sponsored website claims: “If culture is interpreted as the whole of beliefs, habits and customs of a society, culture is the foundation that supports every development. Economic development without roots in culture can never result in sustainable development. But culture is not  merely a means for material progress: it is a goal in itself.”

And it’s not just government spin. “I know that in Holland there are many opportunities for children to take part in cultural projects such as acting, rap, dance and so on,” says Rebecca Lobry of the International School for Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Amsterdam, who herself holds singing classes.

Dr Hilde van Schaeren, a lecturer and researcher in social studies at Zuyd University, Maastricht, agrees: “I think that special attention to social skills and other skills – such as dancing, acting and playing football – and not only attention to the development of cognitive skills is a key factor in the feeling of wellbeing of these kids.”

And social work’s role is integral to this, suggests Dr Willem Blok of NHL University, Leeuwarden: “Dutch social policy urges social work – which is mostly run by non-governmental organisations – to contribute to the social quality in society by stimulating participation and accessibility, preventing social exclusion and supporting local social policy.”

Such a feeling of cohesion surfs over into social inclusion and equality. “The Dutch prefer to think of their culture as open and tolerant towards diversity,” says van Schaeren.

“Historically, the Netherlands has always been an immigration country. Racism and discrimination are words that do not fit easily into the everyday vocabulary of a Dutch person.”

However, a wave of anti-Islam unrest erupted after of the murder in 2004 of the film-maker Theo van Gogh, whose TV film Submission portrayed violence against women in Islamic communities. The firebombing of mosques and Muslim schools challenged the Netherlands’ image as a country where tolerance is deep-rooted.

And to such a degree that concerns were raised about the effect of negative representation of ethnicity and multi-culturalism upon young people’s well-being.

However, research carried out by van Schaeren in a school with 37 per cent migrant students in Maastricht showed that, despite the media coverage, the young people considered cultural understanding and exchange to be important. “The students said they had their own evaluative procedures to decide whether something or someone is bad. ‘The media reports lies!’ they said.”

He continues: “As regards ethnicity, migrant students were proud of the fact they had a double identity. They considered themselves Moroccan, Bosnian, Iraqi and so on, and an inhabitant of Maastricht. This regional orientation was also mentioned by the Dutch pupils. First and foremost, they considered themselves inhabitants of Maastricht.”

And first and foremost is where the Dutch find themselves in providing a sense of well-being for its future adults. A sense of local and national belonging boosted by state investment (politically and financially) in their social welfare is what guides practice with young people. And judging from the Unicef rankings, it has more than paid for itself.

Lessons learned

● The primary motive for development is not economic expansion but with social and cultural enhancement.

● For example, in van Schaeren’s research a social worker attached to the school said that teachers “were emotionally involved with the wellbeing of their students”.

● The state also recognises the importance of parent-child relationships. “We understand,” says a government spokesperson, “that people between the ages of 30 and 50 have difficulty combining work and care as they would like to because of financial pressures and lack of time. We have tried to make it easier for people to combine work and care. We also aim to encourage more women to participate in employment and more men to participate in care.”

Contact the author
Graham Hopkins

This article appeared in the 8 March issue under the headline “Dutch masters”



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