Watching the news recently, I was alarmed and depressed by an item which described the UK’s unenviable position at the very bottom of a league table of the 21 top industrial countries. You might be forgiven for thinking it was for something like house prices or debt, but the more shocking truth is that our dismal showing is for child well-being.
Yes, I know that sounds quite soft and fluffy, but what it actually reflects is a nation where child poverty has doubled since 1979, children report poor relationships with their peers, a third of children don’t eat with their family on a regular basis and more children drink too much compared to the other countries in the survey. Unfortunately this UNICEF commissioned report is not alone in identifying that something is going very badly wrong in terms of children’s experience of life in our country.
Another report published just before Christmas by the Institute for Public Policy Research found British teenagers were among the most badly behaved in Europe. As the report went on to say: “Commentators fear that British youth is on the verge of mental breakdown, at risk from anti-social behaviour, self-harm, drug and alcohol abuse.” It claims that the mental well-being of our adolescents is among the worst in Europe: one in 10 of our teenage girls has self-harmed. Childhood obesity is also increasing.
It also reports a critical difference: youngsters who go to a youth club are more likely to smoke in adulthood, more likely to be a single parent, more likely to be a victim of crime and less likely to have any qualifications. By contrast, those who go to structured sports or community centres are less likely to be depressed, less likely to be single, separated or divorced, less likely to be in social housing and less likely to have no qualifications.
Importantly, the report compares this to countries where teenagers could develop social and personal skills because systems were in place to provide activities with plenty of adult interaction and support. So the devil appears, as usual, to be in the detail. Just providing ‘something’ for teenagers does not solve the problem. It requires the provision of well-organised, adult-supported activities so that social skills and tolerance are modelled and also practised. How many affordable, well-advertised and accessible activities are you aware of in the Rayleigh area for adolescents, compared to those for adults? How many sets of bowling greens exist in Rayleigh? And how many swimming pools?
The experience for British teenagers is typically very different to that of their counterparts on the continent. We have all seen for ourselves the groups of teenagers on street corners or hanging around outside shops in all weathers. They seem to spend hours at a time together, with little or no interaction with adults. It’s hardly surprising if some display limited social skills with adults or other groups of adolescents.
As someone who has taught in the state education system for the last twelve years I have had to ask myself are we doing enough of the right kinds of things to make a difference to these dreadful findings. In my own school we have been aware of some these factors and have recently increased the number and range of out-of-school activities for our children. We have also introduced a programme called ‘R Time’ which attempts to teach by example what it means to respect other people and their views and encourages them to understand each other better. It does seem to be helping. However I know that one school cannot do this on its own.
The causes and solutions are many and complex. We can’t leave it up to just one type of organisation to solve. Yes, schools have their part to play but so do other bodies. At a national level it’s time that politicians stopped using reports of this kind as an opportunity for their favourite game of attacking the other parties for their failure. Their first reaction should be to ask what can be done, and a good place to start is to ask children themselves. From my experience they are amazingly candid and creative if you ask them for solutions to problems.
We can’t solve the nation’s problems; but we can try to deal with them in Rayleigh. This isn’t a wishy-washy issue – I understand that bodies such as the Rayleigh Chamber of Trade think that facilities for young people are one of the most important local concerns.
I want to see our local councils doing more. I want them to change the district council policy that says that sports pitch provision in Rayleigh can be below the recommended figure. I want to see local councils working more closely with local sports clubs and other organisations that could help. I want to see the District Council stop passing planning permission for blocks of flats without communal gardens. The council must try harder to survey young people on the services they want and involve them, perhaps through the local schools, in developing solutions together.
This is an issue none of us can afford to ignore. It affects us, our children and our grandchildren. Our children deserve better, and it’s up to us to give them something better.