Experts from all disciplines line up to endorse the UN indictment

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The Independent Online


By Colette Marshall, UK director of Save the Children

It is shameful to see the UK languishing at the bottom of the table in Unicef's report.

The report shows clearly that, despite the UK's wealth, we are failing to give children the best possible start.

Most of the areas of concern highlighted by Unicef are strongly linked. And at their heart are the shockingly high levels of child poverty and inequality that exist in British society today.

Despite both the Prime Minister's and Chancellor's stated commitment to eradicating child poverty by 2020, they are currently way off course.

Put simply, the Government is not investing enough in the well-being of children, especially to combat poverty and deprivation.

Tackling those fundamental issues would reap rewards across our society.

It's only too obvious from the report how the greater social equality in the Nordic countries is connected to all other aspects of a child's well-being.

The evidence is clear that not only are children who are growing up in poverty far more likely to leave school without essential skills, but the quality of their health, family relationships and participation in wider society will also suffer.

Save the Children, as a member of the campaign to End Child Poverty, is demanding drastic action in the UK.

Without the necessary injection of £4.5bn to meet the target of halving child poverty by 2010, far too many of the UK's children will continue to live in poverty.

The impact on these children's life chances, and on the state of our society as a whole, will be devastating.


By Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor, The Independent

The plight of British youngsters revealed in the Unicef report is startling. It is the consistency of the low ranking across the categories that is shocking. Scoring low in one category helps focus minds on the need for action. But when failure occurs across the board the risk is that the findings will be greeted with scepticism - or despair.

A natural reaction is to question the quality of the data. Countries with good information systems may appear worse than they are, because they have collected figures that less efficient governments have ignored.

There will be arguments about definitions and about the comparability of a Latvian schoolgirl who reports feeling lonely with one from Leeds. But the research is robust and its author, Professor Jonathan Bradshaw, is a leading expert on social policy with an international reputation for his work on poverty. The findings demonstrate what visitors to Britain have long recognised - that, as a nation, we neglect our children.

On the continent, in the countries bordering the Mediterranean, children are celebrated. In Britain they are tolerated at best, hustled from school to home, out of sight and out of mind. Gordon Brown, prime minister-in-waiting, has made progress in reducing child poverty. This report shows how much there is still to do.


By Richard Garner, Education Editor, The Independent

The United Kingdom is well down the league table for educational well-being - languishing in 17th place out of 21 Western countries surveyed.

Its biggest problem is the percentage of students aged 15 to 19 dropping out of education or training. More than 25 per cent of British 15- to 19-year-olds drop out, compared with just 5 per cent in Belgium - the best-performing country. UK teenagers have low expectations of education, with more than 30 per cent anticipating a job with low skills.

The only bright spot on the horizon was achievement, where the United Kingdom came ninth in a two-hour test of 15-year-olds' abilities in reading, maths and science.

The report says: "High percentages of 15-year-olds expecting to be in low-skilled work would appear to be a cause for concern in labour markets where many low-skill jobs are under threat from either outsourcing or technological innovation or both.

"In countries like France, Germany and the United Kingdom, the proportion of young people not looking beyond low-skilled work is more than 30 per cent. In the United States, it is less than 15 per cent."

For several years ministers have railed at the "scandal" of the UK's staying-on rates. David Miliband described its record as a "shame" and "disgrace" when he became Schools minister in 2002.

The Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, is due to publish a Green Paper foreshadowing new legislation to introduce an education and training leaving age of 18 instead of allowing pupils to opt out at 16.


By Martin Barnes, Chief executive of the charity Drugscope

Looking at the research, the fact that we come so low down in the international league is depressing and alarming. We have seen a big increase in drug use during the past 20 years.

Although there have been encouraging signs that it has started to stabilise and fall, this clearly shows there is no room for complacency. Class A drug use among young people is still relatively uncommon but the risk factors do increase in the late teens in this country. And although it is rare, we have come across cases of children aged 11 or 12 who are exposed to such drugs.

Another big issue is the impact of parental drug and alcohol use. One factor leading young people to drugs is family and relationships. In terms of effective prevention, the Government last year emphasised family support and relationships in tackling the factors leading to drug abuse. In terms of addressing risk behaviour, it is important to recognise that tackling poverty, deprivation and exclusion is just as important for drug misuse.


By Richard House, Lecturer in psychotherapy and counselling

I think family life and relationships are central to children's sense of happiness and I have found any number of clients coming from rich families who have had every material advantage describe their childhood as unhappy and lonely.

It would be stupid to say wealth is not relevant at all to happiness but there are more important things for children's sense of well-being, such as human relationships, a sense of being loved, and family and community life has to be really important. In the UK, family life seems to have disintegrated and seems much more fragile than in other countries. All the research coming out of psychoanalysis and sociology concludes that if children don't live a reasonably stable family life, it can have major negative effects.

I also think the education system adds to children's unhappiness, in terms of testing. Children's love of learning gets compromised which can have a negative effect. Also, in the past 10 to 12 years, the school age has crept down to about four, and in countries higher up this research, children don't tend to start formal schooling until maybe around five or six.

Another factor is that we live in a society where parents are led to believe that there is so much to fear in letting their children play out that they don't grow up doing the things they want to do like building dens, exploring and climbing trees. Instead, they end up watching videos or sitting in front of their computers.


By Jonathan Bradshaw, Professor of Social Policy, University of York

Relationships with family and friends matter a great deal to children and are also important to long-term emotional and psychological development.

The United Kingdom compares poorly in that area with other countries.

That is partly because we have the second highest proportion of single-parent families of the countries examined and the second highest proportion of children living in step-families. Statistics suggest those factors can lead to a greater risk of dropping out of school, of leaving home early, of poorer health, of low skills and of low pay. We have relatively low proportions of children who report eating their main meal with parents several times a week, although we don't do too badly on parents talking regularly to their children.

Most distressingly, we have the lowest proportion reporting that their peers are kind and helpful - less than half say that is the case compared with more than 80 per cent in Switzerland.