Thursday, February 15, 2007

The happiness of children

Taking the donkeys home, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

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. Unicef looked at 40 indicators from the years 2000-2003 including poverty, family relationships, and health. Interestingly, the Netherlands came TOP.

Interesting for me, because I live here and also because of the perception here in Holland that things are NOT right with children that they have recently created a Minister's for Children and the Family which will be filled by Andre Rouvoet, the leader of the religious minority party, the Christian Union.

A look down the BBC messageboard on this subject reveals that people attribute the sad state of affairs in the UK to:

(mostly) The Government (!)
Liberal ideas leading to a breakdown in family values
Parents spending too much time working
Commercial pressures on children to consume and conform
Making children learn too much too young
Social inequality
The parents (!)
Lack of decent housing
and so on...... but mostly the Government...

While I think it is easy to attribute blame to all players in society to some extent, I think the biggest problem which the UK has here, as in so many other things, is social inequality, whereby a large part of society cannot reasonably expect to get good schooling, followed by vocational training, a skilled job and decent housing. For all the UK's economic success (which is largely skewed towards London and the South East), there are large parts of society which cannot look forward to a decent moderate life. Forced to go to massive schools, where the teaching staff change from week to week because they cannot cope, leaving school early to get a low-skilled job or live off social security and so on, there are far too many teenage pregnancies and a drinking and drugs and consumeristic culture amongst teenagers and young adults. (It is here that the British children score particularly badly and, here, that I see the biggest contrast between the UK and the Netherlands).

I don't think this inequality thing can necessarily be blamed on any one government or another, as they all seem to be as bad as each other. It has more to do with the political system and institutions whereby we do not value education and training as a public good, but as a way of supplying the labour market with the skills it needs. Britain's economy being based on low technology, low investment and low skills does not have very high expectations. The Dutch economy does have higher expectations, but it annoys me when I see constantly how demands from employers dictate the endless changes being made to the Dutch educational system.

Otherwise, I think bullying is a particularly bad aspect of childhood which neds to be tackled in a good way, everywhere it is encountered - and I think in schools which are too large and where the turnover of staff is too high, this is very difficult. In Holland, under the new cabinet they are going to put a stop to schools merging.

Also, extra-curricular activities, like sport, music lessons, dancing and so on are also very important, even though I was not so keen on them much myself. In Holland, I think you might see less organised sport at school, but a much higher participation in sports clubs outside of school. (I think this is also the case in Italy).

There we go... we all have our pet theories and both the top and bottom countries have their own problems, the gap between them probably being less than what the report would have us believe.


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