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David Willetts MP: Train a child in the way he should go…

David_willetts David is Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills.

The recent UNICEF report about the well-being of children in the world’s richest countries was a wake-up call for Britain: we come last among the 21 industrialised nations.  Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise.  Behavioural problems in children have doubled over the last 30 years and emotional problems have increased by 70 per cent.  Maybe it hit home because the blow was so blunt; the report said that our kids are just plain unhappy.

The news comes against the backdrop of other sobering social trends:  soaring crime and antisocial behaviour, diminishing educational achievement, and failing public services.  As David Cameron indicated when he announced that the Conservatives would be leading a Childhood Inquiry, “The great challenge in this decade and the next is social revival”. 

Today I can announce that the Childhood Inquiry will be investigating six broad areas of childhood in Britain, and each sub-group will be lead by a colleague with expertise in the area.  Alistair Burt MP will be leading the subgroup of Play and Space.  He will investigate how outdoor play and space are being increasingly lost to a screen-based world.  Advertising to Children will be considered by Tim Loughton MP, and will look at how children can be better protected from commercialisation and sexualisation.  Ann McIntosh MP will explore ways in which the wider family, especially grandparents, can play a positive role in children’s lives by leading the Extended Family sub-group. 

The effects of the Health and Safety culture will be examined by Julian Brazier MP.  He will look at the damaging social effects of the compensation culture and the role insurance plays in depriving children of opportunities to play.  Baroness Morris will lead the sub-group on Emotion and Attachment, investigating the early development of children, and specifically how emotional attachment of children to family and friends can be improved.  Finally, Nick Gibb MP will head the sub-group on Bullying and Unhappiness to look at how loneliness can be prevented and how bullying can be combated.

The blend of influences is complex.  The challenge for the Childhood Inquiry is to isolate the main factors that are adversely impacting our children and find ways to tackle them.  Making friends, building relationships, experimenting, imagining, taking risks, and making mistakes are important for the mental health and well-being of children.  We have long warned about the costs of red tape on business, we now need to worry about the red tape on childhood.  We need to allow children to have vivid lives and everyday adventures in the bosom of secure families and robust communities. 

Throughout the Inquiry, my colleagues and I will consult closely with independent experts and draw our conclusions from the empirical evidence.  A number of high profile experts that are independent of the Conservative Party have already agreed to contribute, including Lord Richard Best, former Director of the Rowntree Trust; Sir Richard Bowlby, President of the Centre for Child Mental Health; Tim Gill, Director of the Children’s Play Council (now Play England) from 1997 to 2004; Baroness Susan Greenfield, Professor of Pharmacology and Director of Institute for the Future of the Mind, University of Oxford; Sue Palmer, author of ‘Toxic Childhood’; and Bob Reitmeier, CEO of The Children’s Society.  Other experts have already come forward to contribute and we will draw on their work too.

The decline in the quality of life for our children has been a long time coming.  Putting aside Labour’s ten-year assault on marriage and the family, our culture has been transformed dramatically in the last 50 years through technological and social change.  Televisions, computers, DVDs, ipods, mobiles and constant advertising now permeate our lives.  There are numerous benefits of living in a high-tech and highly connected world, but for children the pace and quality of this life can come at a price.

Our family lives have also shifted, often to the detriment of children.  There are fewer married couples, higher levels of children living in lone-parent households, high rates of divorce, and more complex family arrangements.  Many families have tough work commitments that make it difficult to manage childcare and family life.  Meanwhile we are increasingly separated from extended families which once formed a critical support network and resource for both practical care and moral guidance. 

Some could argue that this is not a matter for the government—that just as politicians should stay out of the bedroom, they better well keep out of the nursery too.  But government can play a role in influencing debate and offering parents and families more choices. 

As David Cameron said, “The first test of any policy must be this:  does it help families?”.  At the heart of any healthy society are healthy families; families that are empowered to raise emotionally, socially, physically and spiritually healthy citizens.  We must tackle the declining well-being of our children, not just because we love our kids but because the social costs will reverberate for generations to come.


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