Ed Balls: We will make a happy childhood a reality for all

Tomorrow, the Secretary of State for Children receives the report detailing Britain's abuses of young people's human rights that led to our exclusive story. But, he says, with an iron fist for offenders inside a velvet glove of support, this can be the best place to grow up

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William Golding, an author famed for his bleak portrayal of youth, once said that childhood is "a disease you grow out of". In my view, he couldn't be more wrong. Childhood should be the most exciting and fulfilling period in a person's life – a time to feel safe, loved and encouraged to believe anything is possible.

And despite the rhetoric of doomed youth, the vast majority of young people do enjoy their childhood. A recent survey shows that 90 per cent of young people agreed that England is a good country to grow up in, compared to 74 per cent of parents and 71 per cent of the public.

But a "good childhood" still isn't a reality for every child – which is one of the reasons why the Prime Minister created a Department for Children. It's why we set out our vision in the Children's Plan, which encompasses the spirit of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Clearly, one of the most pressing issues of the day is to address the threat posed by gang and knife crime. Only a tiny minority are involved in this activity, but the impact they have on themselves and those around them is disproportionate and devastating. Tough enforcement is essential. I have no sympathy with the view that you should excuse bad behaviour on the grounds of other problems in a person's life. But an iron fist response to bad behaviour doesn't work in isolation.

We need a "triple track" approach, with tough enforcement accompanied by early intervention addressing the root causes of violent or anti-social behaviour, and support to help troubled youngsters to get their lives back on track. This is particularly important for young offenders. In the most serious cases – like knife crime – it's right that young people should face a custodial sentence. But when they are in custody, we must give these young people the education and support they need to get make a new start. Our forthcoming Youth Crime Action Plan will look at how we deliver this "triple track" approach, improving the youth justice system so that it delivers the right support to rehabilitate young offenders.

This reflects a much broader principle of the Children's Plan: it's always better to prevent a problem rather than deal with a crisis later. We must do a great deal more to intervene early to tackle the causes of disadvantage and vulnerability.

Child poverty, in particular, represents a scar on our national conscience, and an affront to good childhood. We set ourselves a bold target to end child poverty by 2020. I'm proud that we've lifted hundreds of thousands out of deprivation since 1997, when we had the worst record in Europe for child poverty. But it remains unacceptable that more than three million children still live below the poverty line, and I was disappointed that child poverty rose last year. This is a sign that we have to redouble our efforts, which is why the Chancellor committed a further £1bn in the last Budget.

While extra financial support for families is important, we must also address the long term causes of child poverty. Later this week, James Purnell, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and I will be outlining new plans to combine reforms to build a modern welfare system with a long-term approach to break intergenerational cycles of poverty and disadvantage.

That means ensuring every child has the right to a high quality education – and this week we will launch a new National Challenge to turn around the fortunes of lower-performing schools. Our new diplomas and other qualifications will expand choice, breaking down the boundaries between vocational and academic learning. And we're legislating to make sure all children stay in some form of learning to 18 – school, college or an apprenticeship. But schools know that they also have a vital role to play in addressing the broader "opportunity gap" and tackling all the barriers to learning in and out of school. From birth to the age of majority, we need to give young people the support they need to stay safe, and be healthy, happy and make the most of their talents.

I am clear that neither government nor schools can bring up children – that's what parents do. Families are by far the most important determiner of a child's prospects. But while parents are clear that it is their job to bring up their kids, they do want more help with the challenges of 21st-century family life.

So we're investing record amounts in childcare and nurseries, with nearly 3,000 Sure Start Children's Centres, a universal right to nursery education and twice as many childcare places than there were in 1997. And for the most fragile families, we're building better targeted programmes, using outreach workers to help excluded or vulnerable families get the specialist support they need.

I do think there is too much negativity surrounding young people. We mustn't let the small minority cast a shadow over all young people, and affect the way communities treat children as a whole. All of us need to challenge the prejudices that make us wary of youth, and reluctant to give our children the freedom and independence we enjoyed.

We are right to expect young people to keep on the right side of the law and respect our community – but young people also have a right to be listened to when they say there are not enough decent places for teenagers to go and things to do after school and at the weekend. The investment we're committing to build more playgrounds and sports facilities, and the money going into next generation youth clubs will create many more exciting, safe places for children in every community to go after school and at weekends. We need to give young people the opportunity to show us the amazing things they can do when we give them a chance.

The tradition of doom-mongering about the state of the nation's youth stretches back centuries. Shakespeare was expert at it, and we should remember that William Golding wrote Lord of the Flies in the 1950s – often held up as a halcyon era for childhood.

There is a lot more we must do – and many challenges ahead – but I think we can make this a golden age for our children. As Children's Secretary, I won't rest until we make this country the best place in the world to grow up.

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