A new deal for British children

Why are our young people so unhappy? Because we have become a society that fears, demonises and sile

"We are the world. We are the children. We are the ones who make a brighter day," sang that well-known lover of children, Michael Jackson. Children making a brighter day? Not in this country, it seems. Where are these magical children who come with a promise, not a threat? They certainly haven't featured in the headlines of the past few years, unless they have gone missing. Nor in the endless discussion that tells us both that our children are awful and that to be a child in Britain is to be in a pretty bad place.

"We have the unhappiest children in the world," chirruped David Cameron in his recent speech on social revival. Makes you feel proud, doesn't it? Are we a nation of actual child-haters? Or are we so frightened of our children these days that, like mice which have been disturbed, we may eat them? Certainly, if one ploughs through the "expert overviews" from everyone from the UN to Ofsted, it becomes clear we are failing our children. Yet somehow this monumental failure cannot be admitted politically, or policy radically altered. By nearly all the criteria by which we measure the well-being of our kids, we come very low in the league of industrialised countries. We lag behind in terms of relative poverty: the number of children living in poverty has risen by 100,000 since 2005, despite the government's efforts. We rate low in the quality of children's relationships with their parents and with their peers, in basic child health and safety. Our kids rate highly only for "risk-taking" (sex, drugs and alcohol) and, unsurprisingly, low for subjective well-being. The kids ain't all right and they are saying it themselves.

The Children's Society claimed in 2006 that up to a fifth of our kids have mental health problems, and one in 12 is self-harming. The latest UN report compiled by the children's commissioners of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland adds to this bleak impression. We incarcerate more children than any other country in western Europe, locking up nearly 3,000 under-18s last year. Thirty children have died in custody since 1990 but there has never been a public inquiry into conditions in youth detention centres. We are actually breaching the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in several areas.

Depressed? I am. I need a break, so I wander down my local street, where mothers stop to give their toddlers baby cappuccinos or whatever those things are called. There is yet another newly opened expensive children's clothes shop with designer high-chairs and special baby jewellery. I was here a few days ago - my youngest was drumming in a parade as her school had some Brazilians in to do a carnival workshop.

How does this bubble of cosiness fit with these horrendous statistics? Are some children just doing fine while those close by suffer? Well, yes. But we turn a blind eye. In the fifth-richest country in the world, nearly four million children are growing up in "relative poverty". We mostly don't care: half of the respondents to a recent survey didn't accept the concept of "relative poverty". We don't even agree on what counts as a child. If I say we lock up too many children, many would agree. If I say we lock up too many 16-year-old "hoodies", many wouldn't. If the British are generally rubbish at parenting, we are spectacularly bad with our teenagers. Our moral panic about feral youth is surely a panic about adolescence. Small children may be badly behaved and socially deprived, but we don't actually start to fear them until they start becoming the same size as us. Isn't this how we remain grossly sentimental about some aspects of childhood while being completely negligent of others?

What preoccupies us about other people's children is their antisocial tendencies; what preoccupies us about our own is their school. The national conversation about education has been dumbed down. The question about education is no longer even multiple-choice. The answer is private good, public bad, even though most can't afford that choice. What makes a school good, apart from results? What is learning for? I have mused for the 17 years since I encountered the school system as a parent. These airy-fairy questions have been batted away as my kids have been subjected to regime changes entailing relentless waffle about standards and non-stop testing. I have often felt it's a shame that no one has properly devised a system where you can revise something for an exam before you have actually learned and understood it, as that appears to be what is required.

I no longer feel such a minority with my insane ideas about child-centred education because over testing is belatedly seen not to have worked. It has not produced more functionally literate and numerate children. Quite the opposite. Music and art have been squeezed out. Children who won't or don't fit into this system start bunking off and never really return. A pupil referral unit refers mainly to explicit social exclusion. School can be a rewarding place for already successful children, but for the many who already, by secondary level, feel failures, they are often simply another venue in which to fail fast.

Instead of dealing with this head-on, the national discourse acts as a form of displacement. We worry terribly about Oxbridge entrance and starred A-levels and how degrees aren't what they once were. Serious people fret about the kind of social engineering that may allow more state school candidates to enter the elite institutions. Have we become so idiotic that we refuse to insist that education remain the most important form of social engineering, of the widening of opportunity, available to us? Education matters increasingly because it indicates the future economic function of each child. As the economy now demands two working parents to provide a decent standard of living, this matters. A lot.

As social mobility has ground to a halt, what will differentiate one young person from another is not only formal education, but social and personal skills. According to a 2006 IPPR report, in a survey of those born in 1958 and 1970, person al and social skills "became 33 times more important, between generations, in determining earnings in later life". And how do you get those skills? You pay for them. The middle classes purchase activities that will enhance their children's development. Poorer kids commit the crime of hanging out in unstructured environments. The mantra of the young is that they simply want to "be themselves", but some have had a lot more support than others in learning who they may be. Those who cannot be contained indoors or via extended school activities may have the audacity to go outside, to inhabit public spaces, to call the streets their own. This in itself is now seen as anti social. One of the most mind-blowing statistics I read was that in the British Crime Survey of 2004/2005, 1.5 million people said they had considered moving or leaving the country "mainly because of young people hanging around". With any luck, they can emigrate to countries where children are culled at puberty.

Visible youth

"Visible youth" are seen both as at risk and as a danger to others. They are a potent signifier of our deep moral decline. We are completely schizophrenic on this subject. If kids are inside, they risk obesity and absorbing ever more violent imagery from computer games. They are also in peril from "turbo-consumerism", encouraged to identify themselves only through brands. Should they venture outside the home, if they are small they could be taken by paedophiles, or if they are big their presence may upset any adults who come across them. Children are ever more contained and surveyed. Rowan Williams, ever the man for the unpopular cause, is one of the few public figures to speak up for the rights of teenagers to loiter. The kids themselves say they have nothing to do. And it's true. For those with little money there are few places to go, or organised activities. Solutions such as having parks and playgrounds staffed have not materialised. As the recent UN report says: "The government must urgently address the widely held intolerance of children in public places." But how? By remaking civil society, or by a Cameron-style social revival? All this runs counter to the privatisation of so many aspects of childhood.

The rapid social changes of the past 30 years have hit women and children hardest. Women have adapted by going out to work, and as soon as women can be financially independent, marriage is in trouble. The impact of this on children is undeniable. Two parents may be better than one, but this is not a trend that is going to reverse any time soon and the Tory fantasy of glueing together broken families by means of tax breaks remains just that - a fantasy.

Underpinning much of our concern about youth is the undeniable fact of widening inequality. This is especially pertinent to the way we have criminalised whole sections of our youth as though a punitive attitude is in itself a solution. Inequality does not "excuse" crime, but to deny its effect is preposterous. We can certainly look at countries such as Germany and Finland, whose youth justice systems do better than ours, and ask what they do that we don't. One of the most obvious is that they do not criminalise children at such a young age. At ten, our children are not deemed legally responsible enough to own a pet, but they can still be a criminal. The murder of James Bulger brought these arguments to the fore. Who can forget the women with toddlers in buggies coming to scream that the killers should be killed because, as one red-faced mother with impeccably twisted logic said to a TV crew, "Killing children is wrong"? All the latest research by neuroscientists indicates that at ten, the frontal lobes may not be developed enough to fully manage and control emotions. Our current youth justice system is not working, and produces a huge rate of reoffending.

The years of hardcore and basically right-wing policies enacted by new Labour in the fields of education and crime have not worked. Money has been poured in and child-centred or therapeutic approaches have been pooh-poohed. The tide now has to turn not simply for ideological reasons, but for economic ones. We have more money than ever, but our children are demonstrably not happier. Overtesting our children has not made them cleverer; criminalising them has not made them behave better. Not enough children have been "lifted" out of poverty. Frank Field MP talks of the cul-de-sac of government policy on this issue. If something is not working, why do we keep doing more of it?

As adults, we do not seem mature enough to deal with a changing world. We fear the virtual world our children inhabit because we cannot mediate it. We fear consumerism but we do little to challenge it. Our children cannot grow up properly, as the traditional markers of adulthood, such as marriage and setting up home, occur much later. The gap between childhood and adulthood is not easily defined. Instead, we rush to occupy this space ourselves, colonising the culture of our offspring and refusing to grow old.

The only agency that we offer young people is consumption. That they choose then to overconsume a toxic mixture of skunk, Primark and fantastically cheap booze should not surprise us. Adults have in effect given up their role of socialising the young. We are scared to intervene ourselves but are outraged when public bodies fail. When a child dies, the witch-hunt for the hapless social worker ensues. It is shocking that we have no single agency responsible for early intervention in children's lives, because just about everybody agrees that this is absolutely key.

All the statistics show that the emotional well-being of a ten-year-old will predict their behaviour at 16. All of us have surely seen this in the classroom - kids already lost before they have begun. Still, we spend 11 times more on locking up children than we do on trying to prevent difficult behaviour. Countries that are doing better than us do so because therapeutic and family interventions are not only more effective than punishment, but cheaper.

Our own failing

The public and political response to this failure has been denial, calling for these already deficient systems to become harsher. Lock up more kids, make them do even more exams, hate them for staying indoors, be afraid of them outside and ignore the collateral damage. The state as it functions is not a great parent. It is impotent in the face of declining social mobility as it now cowers before the market instead of trying to regulate it.

Our current fear of youth is basically a fear of our own failing. The "I'm all right, Jack" approach that requires us to become entrepreneurs on behalf of our own offspring has produced a culture that now fears the children of others so much, it turns them into aliens. We have angels, they have devils. And what do these demons say when asked about their aspirations? They want love, respect, to feel safe and protected, but they also want freedom and places to go that are free and local. Are these such ridiculous demands?

The battle of the future is chiefly about the limits of the state. Cameron dodges it by quaintly reinventing society and promising to deliver the voluntary sector. I look forward to the rehabilitation of crack addicts by the Women's Institute. Yet both of the main parties must acknowledge that the state has not been adept at catering to the needs of young people. It appears in their lives as both anachronistic and antagonistic.

In short, children need a New Deal. One that works. They need to be given much more space, both physically and mentally. They need to be seen as full of potential, not evil. Demonising them has proved a self-fulfilling prophecy. Culturally, politically and economically, they need to stop being punished as symbols of our self- indulgent idea of moral decay. The first step is that they be "decriminalised"; the second is that they are allowed to be seen in public; the third may be that they can sometimes be heard. Radical stuff, I know.

Housing by numbers

The kids are not all right

  • 3.9m number of children living in poverty in the UK (30%)
  • 25% of 11- to 16-year-olds have been bullied online, by email or by text message
  • 70 number of exams andtests the average schoolchild takes in England up to age 16
  • 5hrs, 20 mins time the average UK child spends in front of a TV or computer screen every day
  • 1in5 children play outside every day
  • 7in10 children have a TV in their bedroom (6 in 10 have a games console)
  • 10,000 number of TV ads a UK child sees every year
  • 21% of 11 to 15-year-olds in 2006 reported drinking regularly
  • Research by Alyssa McDonald, Alex Iossifidis and Iselin Åsedotter Strønen