Thursday, February 15, 2007
The Unicef report on child poverty in the twenty-one wealthiest countries was disturbing reading. Britain came bottom in the overall table, which measured forty different indicators. British children were most likely to feel left out, awkward and lonely. They were less likely to eat the main meal of the day with their parents. Only 40% of over-11s found their peers “kind and helpful”.
There were some fairly predictable knee-jerk reactions from the press; the ‘Daily Mail’ blamed one parent families and the breakdown of the family; ‘The Times’ used that time honoured tactic – shoot the messenger (Unicef). The best piece was by Steve Richards in ‘The Independent’, yes there were problems with the survey and it is possible to pick holes in it, but the Unicef report follows other critical investigations into the welfare of children in Britain.
Why are America (the world’s wealthiest country) and Britain (fourth wealthiest) at the bottom of the league table for child welfare? What do we have in common? In both countries the state has been absolved from responsibility for poverty, state providers have been replaced by cheaper voluntary organisations or charities, under pinning this was Thatcher’s infamous 1987 quote, “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Lastly there’s the enormous wealth gap - company executives earned five times the wage of a shop floor worker in the 1970s, now it’s eighty times or more.
The Labour Government’s response was that the figures were ‘out of date’ and that 700,000 children have been taken out of poverty. As welcome as those figures are they must share the blame for the way that young people have been marginalised and demonised. The New Labour reaction is to reach for the Asbo and the CCTV, yet where is the investment in the youth service?
Another interesting fact was the poor self-image of children in Britain. Maybe that’s something to do with the ‘celebrity culture’ where the only role models on offer for young girls are intellectually challenged, surgically enhanced, stick-thin models. The whole modus operandi of the advertising industry is to peddle the myth that money = happiness. This point is developed by Oliver James in his book ‘Affluenza’, why are there such high levels of depression in the wealthiest countries?
In schools we have the testing culture that children find extremely stressful. As the TES pointed out in some classes friendships are made or broken according to ‘the Level’ pupils are allocated in tests.
We don’t teach in hermitically sealed classrooms, the influence of society is apparent all the time, children are the products of their environment. All we can do is promote the values of friendship, community and solidarity. As the hippies used to say, “It’s not what’s in your pocket, it’s what’s in your head that counts.”
Year 6 Teacher