LONDON – Britain’s children are the unhappiest in the West, according to a Unicef study of 21 industrialized countries.
Not only do they drink the most, smoke more and have more sex than their peers, they rate their health as the poorest, dislike school more and are among the least satisfied with life. Their relative poverty, the lack of time spent eating meals with their parents and mistrust of classmates mean that Britain languishes at the bottom of the wellbeing league table. As a result, says Jonathan Bradshaw, one of the authors of Report Card 7: an Overview of Child Wellbeing in Rich Countries, Britain is a “picture of neglect”.
The report, which is the first of its kind by the international children’s organization, was designed to show how countries compare internationally, rather than to explain the differences. But Professor Bradshaw, a leading authority on child poverty, believes that it is also in part a reflection of past failings.
“Between 1979 and 1999, children were relatively neglected in Britain, child poverty rates rose rapidly, those living in workless households soared and the numbers not in education or training also rose,” he said. “Since then, there’s been a big increase in spending on health and childcare, which is making a difference, but we’re having to reverse two decades of neglect.”
Among the most worrying findings, he said, was British children’s own perception that they were among the worst-off. Asked to rate their health, almost a quarter of teenagers said that it was fair or poor, the worst in the countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. In addition, those aged 11 to 15 fell into the bottom six countries for enjoying school life and feeling satisfied with their lot.
The reason for this, according to Professor Bradshaw, lies in inequality. “The more unequal a society, the relatively deprived people will feel, and child poverty is still double the rate it was in 1979,” he said.
Forty indicators of child wellbeing – including relative poverty, child safety, educational achievement, relationships with parents and drug misuse – are brought together in the Unicef study’s overview to present a picture of the lives of children. Northern European countries dominate the top half of the table, with child wellbeing at its highest in the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. Britain and the U.S. find themselves in the bottom of most rankings.
The report shows that there is no strong relationship between per capita GDP and child wellbeing. The Czech Republic, for example, achieves a higher overall rank for child wellbeing than several more wealthy European countries.
Professor Bradshaw said that Britain could learn lessons, particularly in lowering teenage pregnancy rates. He cited the Netherlands, where sex education in schools is more open.
Children’s charities described the report as a wake-up call. Professor Sir Albert Aynsley-Green, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said he hoped that it would prompt Britain to look at the underlying causes of a failure to nurture happy, healthy children.
In 2004-05, the Government missed its target to reduce child poverty by a quarter from its 1998-99 levels. The aim is to halve child poverty figures by 2010 and abolish it by 2020.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said: “There are now 700,000 fewer children living in relative poverty than in 1998-99, and we have halved the number of children living in absolute poverty.”