Hilary Wilce: Children's welfare has to be the top priority

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The Independent Online

Unicef study says that the welfare of British children is among the lowest in the developed world. The Government, of course, replies that this is nonsense and that the figures are out of date. It says that great inroads have been made into child poverty and teenage pregnancy.

But most teachers would probably beg to differ. They are, increasingly, dealing with anxious, unhealthy and disaffected children, with infant-school teachers, in particular, saying that problems are getting worse.

Primary schools see young children whose language skills are negligible because no one has talked to them in their pre-school years, and older ones who are worried because they can't remember if they are supposed to go home to their mum's or their dad's that night. Secondary-school teachers commonly deal with children who are drunk, drugged, depressed, pregnant, aggressive or asleep in class. And the issues cut across all social classes. Disadvantaged children have many problems, but read the stories written by prep-school pupils and you quickly realise that behind the ritzy façadethere is often deep sadness about absent fathers or the failure to live up to their parents' demands.

Yet children's needs are not complicated. They need to feel safe, healthy, loved and valued. All else follows, including increased happiness, fewer mental, physical and social problems, and much better learning.

Sometimes, of course, these needs just can't be met. A child with cancer can't be healthy, and children in care often have to learn to live without love. But, by and large, an economically advantaged society of attentive adults should easily be able to make these things available to most children.

Yet we don't, and the reasons can be found in stressed parents, splintered communities, poor public spaces, unsafe roads, terrible food and all the rest. But there is no point pointing a finger. we are all caught up in society's whirlwind development; all part of the problem - and, potentially, part of the solution.

What matters now is what we do to put the welfare of children at the heart of things. So here are some modest proposals for how to start. First, we need to face up to the fact that we have these problems, and that they stem from the kind of society that we have allowed to develop. Second, we must get Government policies into line. At present we have a think-tank that wants to force single parents back to work as early as possible, and a children's minister who calls for jobs to be tailored to family demands. What we need is a policy that says, unequivocally, that caring for children is crucial for their health and well-being, but also a fabulous social investment - the best way possible of preventing expensive problems later.

Third, we must accept that parents are central to children's welfare, and make explicit that all parents must shoulder full responsibility for their children's health and behaviour; accept, too, that while family break-ups happen, they often affect children badly, and that any adults concerned must remember their children's welfare is paramount. Fourth, we must accept that looking after children in today's high-pressure world is a truly hard and stressful business, and that parents need all the support that society can give them in terms of housing, jobs, childcare, community links, education and social support.

Fifth, we must move much faster towards a family-friendly working world where jobs are flexible, the long-hours culture is abandoned, and bosses realise that giving parents time off to look after their children makes for willing and committed workers. Sixth, we must recognise that children need a good environment in which to grow up, and encourage the development of strong communities with quality housing, sensible traffic control, bike lanes, safe spaces to play, and places where teenagers can get together.

Seventh, we must demand that commercial lobbies take into account children's needs. This includes the roads lobby considering what busy roads cost children in pollution, accidents and not being able to walk safely to school; the food lobby accepting what fatty, sugary foods do to young minds and bodies; and the alcohol and tobacco industries facing up to the devastation their products wreak on teenagers.

What this all adds up to, of course, is a fundamental change from a society that fits children around its twin gods of material goods and adult fulfilment, to one that genuinely wants to nurture its youngest, most vulnerable members. If we were to do this, we would be doing ourselves a favour too. What is good for children - a healthy, connected, compassionate society - is what adults need too.

The writer is author of 'Help Your Child Succeed At School', published by Piatkus