We live in historic times. Centrist politics, the mainstream media and ‘establishment’ institutions are shedding public trust and support. Strong Governments commanding large majorities in Westminster are no longer the norm. Brexit has ushered in an era of intense political and economic uncertainty, and technological changes are accelerating faster than society can process their impact.
In this context, a group of ‘civic leaders’ – senior representatives from across the public, private and voluntary sectors – including Common Purpose, MTCnovo Ltd, Early Intervention Foundation, New Philanthropy Capital, Hampshire Police and myself from Barnardo’s - have come together to consider how we can help build a brighter future for vulnerable children in post-Brexit Britain.
Children today are growing up in a uniquely atomised, fragmented, increasingly lonely world – often far from the ‘village’ we know it takes to raise a child, and without much sense of community.
Technology has transformed how children learn, play and communicate – and also how they think and feel. There are benefits, but the dangers are profound – cyber-bullying, online gaming addiction, and worst of all grooming. But what if regulation made the online world much safer for children? Would we have nothing to worry about? Would 12 hours of screen time a day necessarily be a bad thing? If it leads to a sense of fragmentation, a false sense of ‘community’ with online contacts, rather than meaningful relationships, then the answer surely is yes.
But beyond the internet – there are a host of other factors that must make it incredibly hard to be young in 2018; young people are bombarded with so many messages surrounding expectations: Be a footballer. Be a musician. Start your own business. Make millions as a teenage vlogger. Change the world.
But in real life, things can look very different. In the 6th richest economy in the world some 4.5million children are living in poverty. One in three has a diagnosable mental health condition. Outcomes – whether in education, employment, health, or life expectancy - are far lower for children facing disadvantage.
The ‘need to belong’ is a natural human desire for us all. But if you didn’t get any good GCSEs, you have no job prospects, and you’ve grown up where neglect, addiction and poor mental health are the norm, it’s easier to see how you would end up with a knife in your pocket, or in a criminal gang, or become easy prey for indoctrinated extremism.
Sadly, too often young people are depicted as the ‘other’. People see an angry young person (usually male, and often BAME) who poses a threat. They don’t see a child failed by the society responsible for protecting them.
We believe strongly then that there are serious challenges facing today’s young people. And more than that, their future is at risk. They may be the first generation since the Second World War to have worse prospects than their parents – whether that’s the chance to own a home, wellbeing and happiness, or even life expectancy. As leaders we have a duty to leave our society in better shape for future generations than when we found it - and we are failing. And the all-consuming task of Brexit leaves precious little time for domestic policy – improving children’s life chances just isn’t top of the ‘to do’ list.
So what can we do about it?
Firstly, we have to help young people directly, and to drive systems change. What children need most and foremost is ‘love’. We must make sure every young person has at least one trusted adult in their lives. It could be a foster carer, adoptive parents, a frontline charity worker, a social worker, teacher, police officer, or even a mentor. But we have to fight the ‘poverty of hope’ by showing young people that there’s someone who believes in then, and who is with them for the long haul.
Secondly, we have to speak up. We have to use our collective voice to drive attention to the challenges facing children today, and the emerging risks of tomorrow. The 2019 Comprehensive Spending Review is a vital opportunity to demonstrate our commitment, as a society, to giving children the best possible start in life. Whatever comes out of Brexit, our focus needs to return to the fundamental issues which will shape the lives of future generations.
We have built our professional lives in different contexts, but we share a simple common goal - to make the world a better place. And we believe that goal is shared by most politicians too.
That means it’s our duty to concentrate time and resource on improving the life chances of the next generation. We are going to work together to translate this sense of duty into new thinking and most importantly, action. If not us, who? If not now, when?
Javed Khan, Chief Executive, Barnardo’s
Julia Middleton, Founder, Common Purpose
Paul Baker, Deputy Director of Communities, MTCnovo Ltd
Jo Casebourne, Chief Executive, Early Intervention Foundation
Dan Corry, Chief Executive, New Philanthropy Capital
Olivia Pinkney, Chief Constable, Hampshire