Does every child really matter?

16th March 2007 at 00:00
Henry Maitles is head of curricular studies in Strathclyde University's education faculty

The recent Unicef report, Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-Being in Rich Countries, is a damning verdict on 10 years of New Labour in Britain. Using well-respected international surveys, it shamed Britain into 21st and last place in a league table of the well-being of children in the world's richest countries.

It identified them as poorer, at greater risk and more insecure than in other wealthy nations. This was despite significant omissions from the statistics, such as no comparison of the levels of violence in the home.

This would, on the basis of other research, have shown Britain to be even worse.

The report corroborates evidence which suggests that the more a government spends on family and social benefits, the lower child poverty rates are.

For example, every country that spends more than 10 per cent of gross domestic product on social welfare has a child poverty rate of less than 10 per cent.

The British government spends just over 2 per cent of GDP on benefits for families with children. So there is no surprise that 17 per cent (more than two million under the age of 16) officially live in poverty, while millions more live frighteningly close to the breadline. Even children coming out of poverty are in this fringe economy, where any minor adjustment or crisis throws people back into poverty.

Despite government claims about offering job opportunities as a way out, Unicef found little relationship between levels of employment and levels of child poverty; income is the main factor. This is glaringly obvious when one considers that developing countries with the highest levels of child labour also have the highest levels of poverty. Unsurprisingly, we find that Britain has the lowest wage levels in western Europe.

While poverty influences every element of a child's life, it is not the only indicator of well-being. The report also asks whether our children perceive themselves as loved, cherished, special and supported. Despite the fact that the Government's policy is called Every Child Matters, the evidence starkly suggests they don't.

Education obviously has a part to play in dealing with this. To paraphrase Tony Blair's oft-repeated comment on crime, we must deal not only with the symptoms but the causes. It must be forced on to the agenda for the May election to the Scottish Parliament.

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