Sunday, June 10, 2007

What happened to childhood? How we are failing the young

A major study of British children obtained by the 'IoS' before its submission to the UN, makes disturbing reading. They are materially wealthier than ever, but poorer in health and well-being, and demonised by Asbos.

The health and well-being of an entire generation of children are at risk because the Government is failing to uphold their rights to privacy, safety and equality.

A dossier of evidence from 380 campaign and welfare groups, the most extensive ever into children's rights, obtained by The Independent on Sunday reveals that more than 40 child-protection safeguards are being breached in the UK.

The Children's Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), which represents the groups, is to hand over the evidence to the United Nations and accuse the Government of "wilful neglect" over its repeated failure to implement the international treaty protecting under-18s, the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

CRAE, whose members include Save the Children and Barnado's, warns that the widespread use of CCTV in schools, the "naming and shaming" of Asbo teenagers and the fact that parents can still smack children at home are just some examples of how the rights of children are being undermined.

They say that the life chances of the young and vulnerable, including refugees, teenagers in prison and children living in poverty, are being severely jeopardised by the lack of protection they are given by the state.

A growing divide between poor children and their affluent peers is highlighted in the report. An investigation by The Independent on Sunday into the issues raised by the report and what life is like for children in Britain in the 21st century has revealed that the gulf between children from affluent families and those on the breadline is widening, despite the fact that life has improved in areas such as health and education.

The report highlights a series of issues the Government needs to address urgently if it wants to meet its obligations to children. Some 3.4 million children remain in poverty, despite living in the fifth richest country in the world. About 400,000 live in overcrowded conditions; the same number are on the Home Office's DNA database, and the UK incarcerates more children than any other country in Europe, about 9,000. More than 3,000 are in young offender institutions and 500 are in prison on remand, breaching international child-protection conventions.

Professor Jonathan Bradshaw, an expert on childhood, said that overall the evidence was that British children were not doing as well as those in other countries and that more effort was needed to reduce child poverty and deprivation.

"In many ways, children in this country are very lucky, compared to those in Third World countries, but there is a fierce challenge to make childhood a better experience than it is. I think we are moving in the right direction, just not quickly enough," said Professor Bradshaw of York University.

In other areas, the picture that emerges is more complex. In healthcare, for example, there have been massive advances with children in general physically healthier than ever before. Infant mortality rates have fallen from 17 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1971 to five per 1,000 today. The blanket introduction of child vaccination programmes against measles, diphtheria and tuberculosis is partly behind this dramatic drop in mortality rates.

Yet despite benefiting from scientific advancements, children and teenagers are victims of their own sedentary lifestyles and Britain's fast-food culture which has sent childhood obesity rates rocketing. The incidence of obesity has tripled since the 1970s and this has also triggered a rise in diabetes among young children. Research from the Medical Research Council compared the diets of children today and those in the 1950s and found that youngsters growing up in post-war Britain ate far more healthily, despite the limited variety of food.

There is also growing concern about the mental well-being of young people. The average age for depression to strike is now 14, down from 30 in the 1980s. Britain also has the highest self-harm rate in Europe.

A major anxiety among parents is the safety of their children, heightened by the recent abduction of four-year-old Madeleine McCann in Portugal. Yet despite society's obsession with threats from paedophiles, there is no evidence that children face any greater risks than they did a few decades ago. This is backed up by official statistics which show that the annual toll of child murders is 79, a figure almost identical to 30 years ago.

Britain also has one of the lowest child death rates from accidents of any rich country in the world. The number of under 15s killed in 2004 was 166, a drop from 668 in 1976. The chances of a child being run over on Britain's roads have also declined massively, although this country scores badly compared with elsewhere in Europe.

Parental paranoia over the safety of their children is undermining the confidence and emotional development of their offspring, according to some experts. A report from the Children's Society published last week revealed that the majority of 10-year-olds have never been allowed to go to the shops or park on their own because of safety fears from parents of "stranger danger". They found that 43 per cent of adults believe that children should not be allowed out with their friends until they are 14 or over, despite the fact those interviewed had themselves been allowed to play unsupervised from the age of 10.

Professor Robert Winston, one of Britain's most eminent child development experts, will highlight the issue this week in a speech to the Children's Safety Education Foundation (CSEF), a charity which helps to promote safety among young people. He said: "It is vital for a child's development that they know how to keep themselves safe. This sort of responsibility and independence will actually make them far safer in the outside world."

There is no doubt that materially Britain's youth have never had it so good. They have more disposable income and consumer luxuries than any other generation. This trend has been fuelled by advancements in technology which have in turn spawned the iPod generation where digital music players and mobile phones are must-have accessories. Nearly two-thirds of eight- to 15-year-olds also have access to the internet at home, while 65 per cent have their own mobile phone. Increases in pocket money have also allowed them to indulge their consumer appetites.

In their home lives, there is evidence that children are spending more time with their parents than they did in the past, despite the fact that mothers and fathers are working longer hours. Yet an increase in divorce rates over the past few decades has meant that the traditional family unit and the role of children within it have changed dramatically. The number of young people living in one-parent families has tripled from 8 per cent in 1971 to 24 per cent today. And new estimates released by the Government show that many children are unlikely to have a father around. As many as one in 10 of the entire adult male population is now an absentee father.

On the surface, educational prospects for Britons under 18 look promising. More than half of schoolchildren - 58 per cent - obtained five A*-C grade GCSEs in 2006, an increase of more than 13 per cent since 1997. The educational attainment levels of British children at the age of 11 and 15 put this country in the top third of developed countries. But the gulf in academic achievement between rich and poor is greater than ever before. Children from the richest 20 per cent of families are about five times more likely to acquire a degree by the age of 23 than those from the poorest 20 per cent. In the early 1980s, the figure was about three times more likely. It also found that a disproportionate number of exclusions continue to be given to pupils with special educational needs and those from black and minority ethnic groups.

A major concern of children's rights campaigners is the demonisation of the nation's youth. Anti-social behaviour has become a major preoccupation in society and the Government has responded with banning orders and Asbos to protect communities from feral youths. But this has led to accusations that children feel they cannot be free to enjoy childhood without fear of being arrested for kicking a ball in the street.

Bob Reitemeier, chief executive of the Children's Society, said that many children were being punished for merely hanging out on street corners. "There's no question that some children behave very badly but there are an awful lot who, by hanging out on street corners, are not actually causing any trouble," he said.

Professor Al Aynsley-Green, the children's commissioner for England and Wales, said that many young people still face "appalling" obstacles to their health, well-being and happiness and that their needs should be respected. "Children and young people should not be regarded as the cause of society's failures and it is high time we took responsibility for raising them in communities where they are loved, feel safe and their concerns are listened to and acted on."

For those who do end up in the criminal justice system, the outlook is bleak. More than 3,000 children have been sent to young offender institutions despite being classed as vulnerable.

Ministers argue there have been great advancements under their Every Child Matters initiative, introduced in 2004, in making Britain a healthy, safe and financially secure country for children to grow up in. One of Gordon Brown's major pledges was to halve child poverty by 2010, and figures show that the Government has partly managed to fulfil this promise. The risk of a child living in severe hardship and deprivation is now 28 per cent, but this is still double the rate it was in 1979.

CRAE says that Britain still does not have a government that takes the welfare of children seriously enough and is calling on Mr Brown, who takes over as Prime Minister this month, to take urgent action.

"If the public knew more about the treatment of some of our most vulnerable children, they would be horrified," said Carolynne Willow from CRAE.

Martin Narey, chief executive of Barnado's which helped to compile the CRAE report, said that Britain should be "ashamed" that nearly four million children are still living in desperate circumstances in a country which has the fifth richest economy in the world. "This is a wonderful opportunity for Gordon Brown to be known as the Prime Minister who halved child poverty and made the UK a fairer place."

Beverley Hughes, the children's minister, said that many provisions in the European Convention on the Rights of the Child are already part of UK law.

"What matters is a child's well-being," she said. "Rights play an important part in delivering this but we also need to concentrate on supporting children - and their parents - and making sure every child has a good childhood and good prospects for the future."

The key to achieving this is resources, say campaigners. Camila Batmanghelidjh, who founded Kids Company, said that there has to be sufficient funding to "put words into action".

"For the uncared-for child, their basic needs are often not being met and they also have a problem in terms of how they bring themselves to the attention of the people to meet their needs."

John O'Neill, 16, Salford

"I live with my mum, dad, sister and baby brother on a council estate. A lot of my mates who've left school and college can't find work. That's my biggest worry. If people say white working-class boys are underachieving at school, they've got it wrong. I know that in my school, there are more males than females that are aiming for higher grades. There are a lot of issues where I live: there's a lot of crime, young people on street corners, stolen cars."

Alicia Murray, 15, London

"On the whole I have found teachers to be helpful. There are other teachers that I have found to be not so helpful. The good teachers are always there for you and understand you, the teachers who don't want to care are just like 'So? It's not my duty'. I don't think there's that much of a poverty gap between children. You do see poor kids and rich kids hanging out together because we understand that not everyone has the latest stuff."

Hannah Erickson, 16, Cardiff

"I have money given to me - but not enough. As soon as I've paid for my bills, food and nappies, I have about £10 left over for myself for the week. I want to go to college and study hair and beauty at college in September. I didn't like my teachers at school. When I found out I was pregnant I was scared because I didn't know what I was going to do and how I was going to support my baby. I think there is a bigger gap between rich and poor kids these days."

Thomas Bielby, 16, Middlesbrough

"If you think of what kids have nowadays - PSPs, mobile phones, iPods - compared to a few years ago. I think children have really grown up with the times to be able to buy all this gear and still pay for other things too. I do worry about money. The cost of living is very expensive these days. So are university fees. I've found that often school just talks about the financial problems we'll face without offering any solutions - this puts me off uni."

Source: The Independent

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