Skip to content

Children in the UK

The UK has been accused of failing its children, as it comes bottom of a league table for child well-being across 21 industrialised countries.

The Unicef report looked at 40 indicators including poverty, peer and family relationships, and health.

One of the report’s authors told the BBC that under-investment and a “dog eat dog” attitude in society were to blame for Britain’s poor performance.

The government says its policies have helped to improve child welfare.

Unicef – the United Nations children’s organisation – says the report, titled Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries, is the first study of childhood across the world’s industrialised nations.

Not enough parental time is spent in bringing up our children

John Nicholls, Altrincham

Unicef UK executive director David Bull said all the countries had weaknesses that needed to be addressed.

“By comparing the performance of countries we see what is possible with a commitment to supporting every child to fulfil his or her full potential,” he said.

Most of the figures in the report come from 2000-2003, which the authors say was the most up to date information available.

‘Dog eat dog society’

Professor Jonathan Bradshaw from York University, one of the report’s authors, put the UK’s poor ratings down to long term underinvestment.

“It’s very difficult to answer the why question. But if you’re asking what is the main driver of these results, it’s the fact that for a long time children in Britain have been under-invested in; not enough has been spent on them.”

He said child poverty was twice as high as in 1979, while the government was “only just beginning” to put money into health and education.

The Unicef study found Britain had the lowest proportion of children who found their friends kind and helpful – 40%, compared to 80% in Switzerland, he went on.

Professor Bradshaw said that this was an indication of a “dog eat dog society”.

He added: “In a society which is very unequal, with high levels of poverty, it leads on to what children think about themselves and their lives. That’s really what’s at the heart of this.”

‘Out of date’

The UK was in the bottom third for five out of the six categories. It was placed in the middle third of the table for health and safety.

A spokesman for the UK government said its initiatives in areas such as poverty, pregnancy rates, teenage smoking, drinking and risky sexual behaviour had helped improve children’s welfare.

We simply cannot ignore these shocking findings

Bob Reitemeier
Children’s Society

Welfare Reform Minister Jim Murphy said the Unicef study was an “historic” report, which used some data which was now out of date.

“It looks at some information and analysis from perhaps six, seven, eight years ago,” he told the BBC’s Newsnight. “Some of the information really is out of date in that sense.

“If you look at the teenage pregnancies issue, for example, we’re now 20 years low on teenage pregnancy levels, and on homelessness as well there’s been real progress there as well – a 25-year low in terms of new homelessness, so there’s an awful lot we have achieved.”

1. Netherlands
2. Sweden
3. Denmark
4. Finland
5. Spain
6. Switzerland
7. Norway
8. Italy
9. Republic of Ireland
10. Belgium
11. Germany
12. Canada
13. Greece
14. Poland
15. Czech Republic
16. France
17. Portugal
18. Austria
19. Hungary
20. United States
21. United Kingdom

Source: Unicef

But he acknowledged the Unicef report was important. “Hopefully it leads to a wider conversation about what more we can do to eradicate poverty,” he said.

The Children’s Society has launched a website to coincide with the report,, which allows children to answer a series of surveys about their lives.

The society’s chief executive Bob Reitemeier said: “We simply cannot ignore these shocking findings.

“Unicef’s report is a wake-up call to the fact that, despite being a rich country, the UK is failing children and young people in a number of crucial ways.”

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green, said he was not surprised by the report’s findings.

“It’s very much in line with what children and young people are telling me about their lives today, and I think the shocking conclusion is that as a nation we have been failing our children and young people.”

‘Failed generation’

Colette Marshall, UK director of Save the Children, said it was “shameful” to see the UK at the bottom of the table.

Material well-being
Family and peer relationships
Health and safety
Behaviour and risks
Own sense of well-being [educational]
Own sense of well-being [subjective]

Most computers will open PDF documents automatically, but you may need to download Adobe Acrobat Reader.

“This report shows clearly that despite the UK’s wealth, we are failing to give children the best possible start in life,” she said.

“The UK government is not investing enough in the well-being of children, especially to combat poverty and deprivation.”

Shadow Chancellor George Osborne accused Chancellor Gordon Brown of having “failed this generation of children”.

“After 10 years of his welfare and education policies, our children today have the lowest well-being in the developed world,” said Mr Osborne.

UK child poverty has doubled since 1979
Children living in homes earning less than half national average wage – 16%
Children rating their peers as “kind and helpful” – 43%
Families eating a meal together “several times” a week – 66%
Children who admit being drunk on two or more occasions – 31%

He also said government could encourage parents to have greater involvement with their children through “a framework of more flexible working”.

But he added: “I don’t actually think government has the answer to all these problems.

“This is not all about politicians in Westminster passing laws, it’s about social responsibility, it’s about parents taking greater responsibility for their children, it’s about trusting teachers in classrooms, it’s about us as neighbours in a society playing our part as well.”

A spokeswoman for the government said it regarded the improvement of the life of British children as a matter of particular importance.

“Nobody can dispute that improving children’s well-being is a real priority for this government,” she said.

Leave a Reply