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Leading article: Childhood in Britain still leaves much to be desired

Almost exactly two years ago, a Unicef report placed Britain last among 21 developed countries for the well-being and happiness of its children. It was a report that resonated loudly both in the streets of our cities, where there was already widespread concern about under-age drinking and gangs, and in the corridors of power, where Gordon Brown, then still Chancellor, had prided himself on progress in reducing child poverty. The report seemed to confirm that the problems did not exist just in the minds of fearful British adults, but that there was something serious to worry about.

A report published today by the Church of England Children's Society looks in more detail about what might be going wrong, and what to do about it. The Good Childhood Inquiry cannot be accused of shirking its responsibility. It took submissions from more than 35,000 people. And broadly speaking it picks up where the Unicef report ended, accepting that British children are in many ways worse off than their contemporaries elsewhere in Europe.

Children in Britain, it says, are undoubtedly healthier and more tolerant than in the past, but they are in trouble on a multitude of other indicators. What is more, its findings apply across the social spectrum. The authors stress that, unlike many studies, theirs has not focused exclusively on children living in material deprivation. They find that many causes of anxiety and unhappiness cut across wealth and class divisions and are not rooted only, or even primarily, in lack of money.

They also concur, based on the testimony of children themselves, that the quality of childhood in Britain has deteriorated over 30 years. Among 15 and 16-year-olds, for instance, the number with emotional difficulties rose from 1974 to peak in 1999 and has stubbornly refused to fall. And they note, without holding either of these factors directly responsible, that the change coincides with the two big social shifts of our time: the great rise in the proportion of women in paid work and the increased incidence of family breakdown.

With so much solid material behind this study, its main conclusions and recommendations might come as something of a disappointment. They are, first, that children are ideally brought up by two committed people, and that where the parents break up, every effort should be made to ensure that the child maintains contact with the father and the rest of the family. A second is that working parents should be guaranteed job security – even unpaid – for three years after the child is born, as elsewhere in Europe, and better access to early professional help if needed. And a third – one which ministers have essentially signed up to already – is that parenting classes should be provided free, both for schoolchildren and for expectant parents, to instil the need for unconditional love, tempered with discipline and control.

All of which seems as obvious as it is elusive, given that such recommendations are still being made and trumpeted as though for the very first time. Between the lines can be gleaned the uncomfortable truth that many children today are deprived, not of money, but of parental time and love. And the pressures crowding in on parents and children alike – on working hours, job security, education, money and personal success – are not conducive to the primacy of the family that the Children's Society and others would like to see. In essence, this report is another call for a better work-life balance in this country – and proof of how far we still have to go.