Britain’s youth well-being in the harsh light of Unicef

©UNICEF/HQ04-0604/Giacomo Pirozzi - AZERBAIJAN: Children’s hands are raised high in front of a portion of the UNICEF logo painted on the side of a shipping container in the Galagayin settlement for internally displaced persons (IDPs), in the district of Sabirabad, 180 km south of Baku, the capital.

Naming and shaming: Britain got a report card this week from Unicef on the well-being of its younger generation. The result? An award for improvement. And a beating, because Britain’s kids still don’t know nuffink (like not starting a sentence with a conjunction).

Unicef (the United Nations Children’s Fund) measured several factors related to well-being and scored 29 rich countries for their performance in each category. (Full report here).

So what’s the damage to dear old Blighty?

  • Children’s Material Well-Being (poverty) –> 14th
  • Health and Safety (chance of dying at birth, immunisation etc) –> 16
  • Educational Well-Being (numbers in further education etc) –> 24
  • Behaviour and Risk (violence, obesity, smoking, drinking, drugs etc) –> 15
  • Housing and Environment (murders, pollution, people to a room) –> 10

OVERALL GRADE: 16th place.

Sounds a bit weak, really, doesn’t it? Well…that’s because it is. But thankfully, the UK scored better this time than in the last report in 2007 where it came 21st. Out of 21.

It’s good news that kids aren’t smoking or getting high so much any more. But that’s probably because they can’t afford to. They’re having sex instead. I jest. Kind of. Unicef pointed out that Britain’s Department for Education budget for young people was cut by £300m (26 per cent) in the 2011-2012 tax year. The organisation says that 400,000 more children will be in poverty in 2015-2016, painting a “bleaker future” for young people.

Britain’s biggest problem is in education. It does fine with pre-school enrolment (8th) and achievement by age 15 (11th). But the percentage of 15 to 19 year-olds not in education training or employment is worrying (9.6 per cent / 24th place), as is participation in further education (73 per cent / last place) – that’s A-Levels to jargon-busters.

Why?

Unicef says the problem may be to do with an overemphasis on academic qualifications (A-Levels) and not enough support for vocational training (apprenticeships). The Wolf Report into education agrees,

What can we learn from those who got it right?

On pretty much everything, the Scandinavians wupped our butts. Sweden (5th), Norway (2nd) and Finland (4th) have clearly worked out something that Britain has not. They are consistently top of pretty much all the league tables. And they still function when it snows (ah hem).

The taxes may be higher and the state bigger. But public services are run very well (privately, in many cases), budget deficits are low and transparency is high. Somehow, a novel and brave mix of public and private has paid off for the Scandinavians, as the Economist explains in an excellent special report.

Britain still has a lot to learn, before it can teach. There is broad agreement that education needs improving. The education secretary, Michael Gove, is making an effort, but as always, facing difficulty. It’s never a textbook case.

Bottom line: better, but not good enough.

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