Nelson Mandela once said: ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.’
This is true in many ways — if a nation’s children are unhealthy, dying prematurely, hungry and uneducated, it is shameful for every member of that society.
As a highly developed and industrial country, you would think that child well-being in the UK would rate highly compared to other countries. But in 1999, the BMA published a report, Growing Up in Britain, and it painted a very different story.
The report said that despite being a member of the elite G8 group of leading industrial economies, the UK ranked poorly on key child health indicators. For example, it came eighteenth for death in early childhood, behind Singapore and Slovenia.
It also said that the UN Development Programme considered the UK one of the most unequal of the industrialised countries in the world.
At the launch of the 1999 report, one of the authors, former BMA treasurer James Appleyard, said: ‘We like to think of ourselves as a child-friendly society, but the facts do not support that comfortable, complacent assumption.’
So 14 years later — what has changed? We’re about to publish Growing Up in the UK so it’s a good time to reflect on what, if anything, has been achieved.
There is some good news and we should celebrate this. The past decade has seen improvements in health services for children, young people and families. New public health campaigns have been put in place to tackle modern-world pandemics such as obesity, smoking and alcohol misuse. And Sure Start children’s centres were set up to help provide health and education services in the early years of a child’s life alongside schools and community health services.
A key recommendation of the 1999 report was that we needed a children’s commissioner for the devolved nations. And in 2005, Professor Sir Albert Aynsley-Green was appointed as the first children’s commissioner for England to be the independent voice for children and young people, implementing new ways of engaging with them, particularly those most invisible in society. He was particularly successful in exposing the injustices faced by children with mental ill health, those in conflict with the law, and those seeking asylum.
The updated report is timely. The UK is in the midst of recession and cuts in welfare benefits have come into force that will undoubtedly put poorer families under even more pressure.
So how do children and young people fare in today’s UK?
Before we publish the new report it would be good to hear from you about what practical policy changes you believe have helped children’s health and well-being in the UK and what else needs to happen.
Growing Up in the UK II will be published in early summer.
Vivienne Nathanson is BMA director of professional activities
The story so far:
Born equal? — the fight against child health inequality
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