12 Dec 2007

"Yesterday the Government published its 10-year Children's Plan. It comes at a time when all sections of society are increasingly interested in childhood, fuelled by a mixture of real concern and a desire to rethink what childhood should be about. There are high expectations of the Children’s Plan, not least because there is a growing acknowledgement that for all our carefully crafted policy and legislation, the experience of childhood has become impoverished for many children. Longer working hours, fears for safety, lack of freedom to roam, growing drug and alcohol problems all contribute to this. While children themselves are more protected than before, the space of childhood is being eroded.

So what can the Government actually do about childhood? To what extent is the problem of childhood in modern day UK a cultural issue rather than a policy issue? Policy change is clearly within the Government’s power – but underlying the Children’s Plan is an idea that we want a different sort of childhood for our children which means that a deeper cultural change is required. The question for the Government must be how far can policy result in cultural change?

It is crucial that the Government keeps to its promise to eliminate child poverty. Everything we know about poverty tells us that children who could otherwise succeed in life will fail because of poverty. Children will do less well at school, suffer worse health, have worse jobs, get more depressed and feel less in control of their lives because they live in poverty.

The plan’s commitment to providing universal support for parents is good news. How parents became sidelined from the children’s agenda is a mystery to many of us, but putting them at the heart of the plan demonstrates the importance of family in tackling children’s well-being.

But these commitments need to be matched with targeted support for some of the least popular children, and a move to start treating them as children first. This means, for example, ending the practice of locking up children in prison for minor offences or imprisoning children who have serious mental illnesses, or putting an end to the practice of keeping refugee children in custody for no other reason than they have fled their home country for their own safety.

These policy issues don’t exist in a vacuum. They are part of a complex picture that includes our voting system, populist politics and the culture of childhood we’ve created. The idea, as the Archbishop of Canterbury put it, of childhood being a place where you are permitted to make mistakes – even very serious ones - is vanishing rapidly. Instead we are too quick to condemn and judge. This is true of sections of the media and is reflected in the hostility and fear that surrounds young people.

One of the positive sub-texts of the Children’s Plan is that it acknowledges that the space of childhood should be elevated. Hence there’s a welcome commitment in the Children’s Plan to restrict advertising to children and to reduce the emphasis on testing. There’s also an understanding that tackling poverty means opening up learning opportunities to all children. These initiatives tell us that we want childhood to be different to what it has become. We want childhood to be free from some of the stresses that the public world imposes on our children. A holistic approach requires a cultural change, not just in the way that the Government acts, but in the way it wants the public to act.

This cultural change is what we at The Children’s Society warmly welcome. It’s a change we ourselves are working towards through the ongoing Good Childhood Inquiry – the UK’s first independent inquiry into childhood.

But cultural change is complicated territory. In an age of high expectations and a desire for immediate results, this type of change is in many ways an unattractive proposition to politicians. Cultural change is difficult to measure, takes time and can be costly. Cultural momentum is difficult to both maintain and control.

The optimist in me hopes that the more holistic view of children identified in the plan will open up a more sympathetic response to help children who are most in need – those in prison, or who are being detained in immigration centres and those who are trapped in poverty.

If these children benefit from The Children’s Plan then we can all celebrate."

Bob Reitemeier, Chief Executive, The Children’s Society