The UNICEF Report Card 11, which is based partly on HBSC international data, was released on the 10th of April and positioned the UK halfway through a ranking of 29 rich countries for child well-being. The British press responded to the news in different ways (somewhat upbeat at BBC News; gloomier at the Guardian), but attention was mostly on the fact that the UK lag behind many other countries.
This is true – but while efforts need to be made to ensure that we improve the lives of young people in the UK further, it is also important not to lose sight of the positive changes that have already taken place.
First of all, although to be ranked 16th of 29 countries may well be disappointing, the UK has strengthened its position by 4 points since the early 2000s when it was placed second to last of 21 countries. Out of the countries investigated, only one (Portugal) improved by more (5 points) and one (Ireland) by the same number. This is not a cause for complacency, but it shows that significant improvements have been made during this time period.
There is also variability between the different markers used to obtain the overall ranking, and for housing & environment the UK ranks a more respectable 10th. Further, on the child Deprivation Index (used as part of the Material Well-being indicator) it’s in the top third. The risk behaviours of smoking, drinking, cannabis use, and physical fighting all show positive downward trends.
Teenage fertility (live births) is highlighted in the report as an area where the UK actually shows an increase over the last decade. Again, it is important to note the significant achievements made in this area. Report Card 11 groups all of the UK countries together, but we know from recent statistics that in England and Wales conceptions (which encompasses all pregnancies, including those that end in miscarriage or abortion) among women aged under 18 are the lowest since 1969. Recent moves to disband the Teenage Pregnancy Unit, and a continued reluctance to make sex education a compulsory part of the curriculum in schools in England, may well put such positive changes in jeopardy however.
It is not all good news, of course. UNICEF places the UK 24th on the education indicator, which includes both participation and achievement (based on PISA scores for reading, maths and science). We also know from HBSC international data that 15 year olds in England, Wales and Scotland rank in the top 10 (of 39 countries) for feeling pressured by school work, and discussions with our young co-researchers indicate that pressure over academic attainment is a source of much stress to young people. On the other hand, the HBSC study also shows that young people in England are more likely than their peers in many other countries to say that they like school.
We are optimistic that many aspects of young people’s lives are changing for the better, and we hope that a genuine concern for their well-being will result in future policy and practice that enhances it even further.