Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The well-being of our children

The publication of the Unicef report Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child well-being in rich countries' has prompted predictable sensational headlines and sceptical denials from people who haven't looked at the actual report.

The concept of 'well-being' is based on the definition used in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, accepted by virtually every country. It looks at the importance of growing up in a happy, loving family environment, at the right to an adequate standard of living, access to social security, protection from violence and exploitation, access to the highest attainable standard of healthcare and to equitable access to educational opportunity.

The report only addresses those areas where internationally comparable data is available, the sources and dates of which are published. There is one additional area - 'Dimension 6 Subjective well-being' - which is based solely on the children's own perception of well-being. The data refers to children living at home and attending mainstream schools. It does not reflect the situation of children with disabilities, refugees, members of ethnic minorities, those from immigrant families or those living in institutionalised care. While acknowledging these limitations, the authors conclude the report 'breaks new ground in bringing together the best of currently available data and represents a significant step towards a multi-dimensional overview of the state of childhood in a majority of the economically advanced nations of the world.'

The newspaper and television reports that I have seen to date have concentrated on the summary table which gives countries an average ranking position for all six dimensions covered in the study. This shows the Netherlands at the top and the UK at the bottom of the list of 21 countries and the US in 20th position. League tables, as every teacher in England knows, do not provide a complete or helpful picture. However, they do grab our attention and should lead us to a more useful examination of the details of the study.

The information contained in the report will be useful for governments and other agencies in evaluating child-related policies. It could lead to a more effective allocation of resources and the setting of smarter targets. By comparing countries, we can see what is possible, what works and what needs to be addressed.

For my son, and others who may not have the time or inclination to read the report in full, I offer a summary of what each section (or dimension) covers. The detailed results are far more interesting and useful than the averaged results published in the press.

Previous reports in this series have used income poverty as a proxy measure for overall child well-being. In Dimension 1 Material well-being, this study looks at three aspects of poverty:
  • relative income poverty
  • households without jobs
  • reported deprivation

The authors point out that there is no satisfactory measure of poverty, whether relative or 'real.' A low income may be used wisely and fairly and a high income may be squandered on alcohol, gambling or drugs; the child in the latter situation suffers greater privation than one in the former.

Three indicators were used to measure 'deprivation'

  • The WHO's Family Affluence Scale which uses the answers to the questions: Does your family own a car, van or truck? Do you have your own bedroom for yourself? During the past 12 months, how many times did you travel on holiday with your family? How many computers does your family own?
  • Cultural and educational resources: Which of these do you have at home: a desk for study; a quiet place to work; a computer for schoolwork; educational software; an internet connection; a calculator; a dictionary; school textbooks?
  • Fewer than 10 books in the home

Dimension 2 Health and Safety looks at:

  • Health at age 0-1 : number of infants dying before age 1 per 1,000 births; percentage of infants born with low birth weight
  • Preventative health services : percentage of infants age12 to 23 months immunized against measles, DPT and polio
  • Safety : deaths from accidents and injuries per 100,000 aged 0 to 19 years

Dimension 3 Educational well-being looks at:

  • School achievement at age 15 : average achievements in reading, mathematics and science
  • Beyond basics : percentage aged 15 - 19 remaining in education
  • Transition to employment : percentage 15 - 19 not in education, training or employment; percentage of 15 year olds expecting to find low-skilled work

Dimension 4 Relationships:

  • Family structure : percentage of children living in single parent families; percentage of children living in stepfamilies
  • Family relationships : percentage of children wh oreport eating main meal at a table with parents more than once a week; percentage of children who report that parents spend time 'just talking' to them
  • Peer relationships : percentage of 11,13 and 15 year olds who report finding their peers 'kind and helpful'

Dimension 5 Behaviours and risks:

  • Health behaviours : percentage of children who eat breakfast; percentage who eat fruit daily; percentage physically active; percentage overweight
  • Risk behaviours : percentage of 15 year olds who smoke; percentage who have been drunk more than twice; percentage who use cannabis; percentage having sex by age 15; percentage who use condoms; teenage fertility rate
  • Experience of violence : percentage of 11, 13 and 15 year olds involved in fighting in last 12 months; percentage reporting being bullied in last 12 months

Dimension 6 Subjective well-being

  • Health: percentage of young people rating their own health as 'fair' or 'poor'
  • School life : percentage of young people 'liking school a lot'
  • Personal well-being : percentage of children rating themselves above mid-point on a 'Life Satisfaction Scale'; percentage of children reporting negatively about personal well-being


  1. I saw articles about this report and it seemed quite interesting. Thanks for providing a little more in-depth analysis that goes well beyond the typical media report. Regards.

  2. Michael:
    Thank you. You'll find far more negative responses to the report on 'Think of England'

  3. It was my reading of the report, having seen the headlines, that led me to criticise both the headlines and the political nature of the report.

    I have no objection at all to studies that identify problems for British youths.

    This report didn't do that. This report took old studies identifying problems for British youths and used them in a biased way to create an arbitrary league table for a specific political purpose.


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