Over the last three decades, our society has undergone profound economic and social changes; changes to the way we work, care, learn and play have been set against a backdrop of equally profound changes to family structures and dynamics. Children of this generation are the first to be subjected to many new pressures emerging from the rise of the global consumer culture and the digital revolution. Examples include bombardment by a vast multi-media environment, which includes engagement in social and interactive media at a very young age, the downward pressures of a 'transmit and test' schooling system and the intrusion of heavy traffic into areas that used to be filled with playing children, which along with a heightened sense of 'stranger danger', precludes the possibility of independent and collaborative outdoor play.
Additionally, one in four children in the UK are living in poverty, over 12% of young people aged 16-24 are not in employment, education or training and many children and young people have low aspirations and low self-esteem. The national climate for many children, young people and their families is one of 'just coping,' with no end to this situation in sight. The financial pressure upon families has created a huge 'push' factor creating pressure for both mothers and fathers of infants to participate in the workforce, despite the fact that what matters most of all to the vast majority of parents is the ability to spend sufficient time with their children to create the deeply bonded relationships that provide them with life-long emotional security.
The political gaze has, instead, turned towards the provision of 'universal childcare', with little attention paid to sufficient quality; in particular, there is great concern relating to the low pay of workers within the child care sector, and about the suitability of mass daycare for children under three in terms of permanently raising their stress levels. The stress of modern living also contributes to the break-up of families, which inevitably creates yet more stressful transitions for children involved. 15% all marriages are now remarriages for both partners, 18% are a remarriage for one partner, and 9% of British children are raised in stepfamilies, while lone parents head 25%- a quarter- of all families in the UK.
These rapid changes have had a clear effect upon children and young people, whose wellbeing has become the subject of increasing concern. Currently, one in ten children is diagnosed with a mental health disorder with nearly 80,000 children and young people suffering from severe depression, including 8,000 children aged under 10 years of age . 20% of the young people currently living in the UK deliberately harm themselves and there has been a huge increase in admissions to hospital for this reason. At the same time, austerity has had a deep and negative impact upon child mental health support services. It is therefore not surprising that the UK's 16-24-year-olds record the lowest levels of trust and belonging in Europe.
Clearly the causes of these issues are complex, multi-factorial and would take a long time to fully unpick. However, children only get one chance at childhood, and there are things that we could do now to ease the situation for the current generation. These include:
• Provide social funding for families with children under three to enable care to be provided within a secure, predictable domestic environment alongside the provision of parenting support where needed;
• Commit to the effective fulfilment of the UNCRC, and in particular, Articles 3 (best interests of the child), 27 (adequate standard of living), 29 (development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential) and 31 (play, cultural life and the arts);
• For children between three and seven, provide state funded, high quality play-based early years education (with regular access to local outdoor, natural landscapes) led by staff with degree-level qualifications in child development and early learning;
• Cease 'high stakes', nationally notifiable testing of children under thirteen, and commit to teacher-led assessment in primary schools, undertaken within a diagnostic rather than summative culture;
• Provide effective, timely mental health support services for children and young people (to the age of 21 years).
A pledge to do all in their power to achieve such reforms both from those currently in governance and from those seeking to move into governance in the future would, on a continuing basis, contribute to the protection of our most valuable national resource- each successive rising generation of citizens.
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