Thursday, 22 September 2016

Is the UK an intolerant society for children?

Posted by Peter van der Graaf, AskFuse Manager, Teesside University

UNICEF statistics about child wellbeing among the 29 wealthiest countries in the world made for uncomfortable reading in 2007 with the UK bottom of the league table. Children and young people in Britain were among the unhappiest, unhealthiest, poorest and least educated in the developed world in the early years of the new millennium. Since then many initiatives and policies have been implemented to increase child wellbeing in the UK and when the league table was repeated by UNICEF in 2013 the UK moved up 15 places to a mid-table position of 16th.

However, we are still behind many European countries and with the ongoing austerity measures and continued disinvestment in health and social care services for children we could find ourselves back at the bottom league in the not too distant future. This begs the questions whether ‘simply’ improving health and other services for children is enough?

According to Sir Al Aynsley-Green, Professor Emeritus of Child Health at University College London and former President of the British Medical Association, the problem runs much deeper. He argued at the Fuse Knowledge Exchange Seminar yesterday in Newcastle, titled 'Think Adult - Think Child', that the real problem in the UK is that we are becoming an intolerant society for children. He pointed to the dire straits of politics for children in the UK: not only is the voice of children lacking from national policy making (an argument that he is well positioned to make as the first Children’s Commissioner for England), the policy making itself has often been poor.

The BMA published a damning report in 2013 in which it concluded that “the national focus on children has been short term, inconsistent and untrustworthy”. Specific policies to support children, such as Every Child Matters, have been systematically eroded by consecutive governments; the recent much watered-down Childhood Obesity Strategy is another example of this and Theresa May’s new enthusiasm for grammar schools strikes further fear into the hearts of child rights advocates.

Politicians are not the only ones to blame according to Sir Al: the media regularly publish headlines about children and young people being a nuisance and causing crimes, while shops put up signs in their windows stating that dogs are welcome but that kids can only enter two at a time and, only then, without a backpack and when closely supervised. Most shockingly, public places such as railway stations are increasingly being fitted with high pitched devices that adults can’t hear but which are very unpleasant for young people and deliberately intend to drive them away.

One area where the neglect of children’s needs is particularly visible is bereavement: every 22 minutes a child in the UK loses a parent. While no routine data are collected in the UK on this group, estimates suggest that the majority of young people face the death of a close relative or friend by the time they are 16 years old. In spite of the many services available to families to help them stop smoking, exercise more and eat healthier, there is very little available for children who experience bereavement.

Sir Al presenting at the Fuse Knowledge Exchange Seminar
Specialist service providers attending the Knowledge Exchange (KE) seminar expressed their concern about not being able to cope with the current demand, as school teachers and parents lack basic skills in being able to talk to children about emotional problems, such as bereavement. In spite of this, we know from research that bereavement can have a lasting impact on the life of children long into adulthood. Bereavement in childhood has been linked to educational underachievement, joblessness, fractured adult relationships, adverse psychological and psychiatric consequences, together with poor physical health.

Sir Al’s presentation was therefore more a call to arms. What can we do in and outside Fuse to improve child health and wellbeing in the North East? Firstly, we can act as an advocate organisation to draw more attention to the needs of children and their position in society. Are their voices heard within Fuse? Do we engage with them in our projects?

Secondly, we can bring partners together across public health and related sectors in the North East to focus attention on this topic and bring together evidence and best practice to inform new collaborations. The KE seminar provided a platform for this that could be followed up. We also have a dedicated Early Life and Adolescence Programme (ELAP) within Fuse but does our research link to education and events later in the life course? For example, in Finland shops can rent a grandparent to help them engage with children when they visit their shop.

Thirdly, we need to turn this dialogue into a research agenda for child wellbeing in the North East. How can we mobilise evidence to change the prevailing attitude among politicians and the wider society so that they instead see children as valuable assets and a key policy priority for any government? This also involves challenging popular concepts, such as school readiness, which focus on individual responsibility. As Sir Al suggested at the end of the seminar, we should turn this concept around: are schools ready for children and what do they need to be able to be ready? Are they able to support children’s emotional development and can they help them to cope with bereavement experiences?

Making the UK a better place to live for children requires more than service redesign, it needs political will and consistent pressure from a coalition of organisations to achieve this, supported by actionable research to change hearts and minds.

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