Deborah Orr: These are the cold, hard facts: Britain is failing an entire generation of children

Stuff like knife and gun use didn't even make a showing in the report, which is probably a blessing
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The Independent Online

It's a disinterested human indeed who does not like to have her own prejudices confirmed, and since I've been convinced for some years now that Britain is serving its children particularly badly, I have to admit to a predisposition to believing every word of the contents of the Innocenti Research Centre's report on child well-being in rich countries.

In it, Britain emerges as simply one of the worst countries in the OECD to be a child, coming near the bottom on most of the measures used to gauge quality of early life, and right at the bottom on a significant number.

As already amply illustrated in the widespread denial that greeted the publication of a letter in the Telegraph last September, in which experts from different disciplines voiced similar concerns about "toxic childhood", there is a huge desire in this country to ignore or even ridicule any evidence that we are failing a generation of children. But the contents of this document make devastating reading for the UK, and it is time to start asking if all of its warnings can really be dismissed so airily.

While the authors of the report themselves admit that their overview "is best regarded as a work in progress, in need of improved definitions and better data", some of the indicators for child well-being that Britain does worst of all on are damning enough, and widely documented enough, to be irrefutable.

The report makes a good case, for example, for the most profound indicator of childhood misery being the rate of teenage pregnancy. "To a young person with little sense of current well-being - unhappy and perhaps mistreated at home, miserable and underachieving at school, and with only an unskilled and low-paid job to look forward to - having a baby to love and be loved by, with a small income from benefits and a home of her own, may seem like a more attractive option than the alternatives."

Britain, sure enough, has the third-highest rate of teenage fertility among 24 OECD countries, with only New Zealand and the US doing worse than us. Further, it scores badly on all of the factors mentioned by the authors that may prompt a girl to opt for early motherhood.

Children were asked to indicate their own current sense of subjective well-being, and Britain came out worst by some distance on this measure, behind Poland. The Netherlands came top. Britain comes bottom, too, in the section measuring family and peer relationships, behind the US and the Czech Republic. Italy comes top.

Britain does very badly on childhood expectation of decent work as well. Among pupils of 15 who were asked if they expected to find work requiring low skills, the British were fifth from the bottom, with the Czechs the Swiss, the French and the Japanese similarly unambitious. A whacking 30 per cent of children said they expected to be in unskilled work by the age of 30. The very idea that there can be that much unskilled work to go round is entirely moot in an economy that emphasises skills and looks to the global economy to provide unskilled labour.

We were fifth from bottom also on numbers of children aged 15-19 not in training, education or employment - the Neets about whom we worry so much. And we were fourth from bottom on the number of 15- to 19-year-olds in full- or part-time education.

Yet, perhaps surprisingly since we have been bellyaching for so long about our ghastly state education system, the UK did pretty well on educational attainment for 15-year-olds. We came ninth in an overview of reading, mathematical and scientific literacy, ahead of Sweden, France and Germany. Maybe it's time to start acknowledging that perhaps we expect too much from our education system, and that this filters through to damage children's ideas about their own abilities and possibilities.

Returning to the report's comments on motivations for teenage motherhood, it should be noted that the lure of "a small income from benefits and a home of her own" is mentioned. This pull-factor has dominated debate about teenage pregnancy for years now, when perhaps too little attention has been paid to maximising the pull factors that make young girls feel that they can do other things with their lives.

All those obsessed with the idea that it is benefit dependency that creates this grave social problem ought to bear in mind that the report also finds that no country devoting 10 per cent or more of GDP to social transfers has a child-poverty rate higher than 10 per cent, while no country devoting less than 5 per cent to social transfers has a poverty rate of less than 15 per cent. While US policies are often cited as proving the success of attempts to tackle welfare dependency, it is notable that the US is the only other country surveyed that performs just as miserably as us.

Britain is among just six countries that report a child poverty rate of more than 15 per cent, alongside Portugal, Spain, Italy, the US and Ireland. As is indicated by the prevalence of child poverty among these six countries, no obvious relationship between child well-being and GDP per capita was found. The Czech Republic does much better on an impressive number of measures than several much wealthier countries.

Among other refutations of perceived wisdom, the report found that single-parenthood was not necessarily a clear indicator of child poverty. The country most robustly refuting this seemingly sensible idea is Sweden, which comes second after the Netherlands overall, despite having a single-parenthood rate beaten only by the UK and the US. Likewise Italy, which has the smallest number of single-parent families, did more modestly overall than one might have imagined (though it's still fabulous compared to us).

Unsurprisingly, Britain did spectacularly badly in the section that looks at risky behaviour. We won by miles on rates of intercourse under 15, ahead of our nearest competitor, Sweden. We romped home on drunkenness, leaving a yawning gap between us and Finland. We had the third-highest incidence of under-16 dope smokers, and the fifth-highest of under-16 fag smokers. Stuff like gun and knife use, eating disorders, psychological disturbance or self-harm didn't even make a showing in the report, which is probably a blessing.

Some of our failures are real shockers. Can it really be true that our child-mortality rate is one of the highest in the OECD? Can this really be true of our low birth-weight rate and our immunisation rates as well? Or will someone show up to argue cogently that our great efforts to save premature babies skew our child-mortality rates, our preponderance of multiple IVF birth drags down our birth-weight rate, and our now-dying love affair with the idea that the MMR was connected to autism has thrown our immunisation rates out of kilter? I hope that some of these statistics really can be explained away. But so many of them cannot be, and must not be.