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David Cameron speech on the quality of childhood

David Cameron will today deliver a speech and set up an inquiry into the quality of childhood in Britain. It arises from the Unicef report into the wellbeing of children in rich countries which revealed that children in the UK suffer the lowest quality of life in the developed world. The group will investigate how and why children in Britain are failed when it comes to measures of subjective well-being, behaviours & risks, and family & peer relationships.

The review will be headed by David Willetts, and will be advised by a number of high profile, independent experts including:

Lord Richard Best; former Director of Rowntree Trust (cross-bench peer)

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, author of the forthcoming 'No Fear: Growing up in a risk-averse society'

Baroness Susan Greenfield; Professor of Pharmacology, Director of Institute for the Future of the Mind, University of Oxford

Sue Palmer; author of 'Toxic Childhood'

Bob Reitmeier; CEO of The Children's Society

Launching the review, David Willetts said:

"There are already lots of initiatives aimed both at the most gifted and at the most disadvantaged children. There are also lots of initiatives for improving academic results in schools. The proposed focus for our investigation is different - how can we improve childhood for every child? 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 dangers 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 a speech in Trafford today, David Cameron will say:

(Check against delivery)

"The great challenge of the 1970s and 1980s was economic revival. The great challenge in this decade and the next is social revival.

Instead of dealing with rampant inflation, businesses that can't deliver and irresponsible trade unions …we are dealing with rampant crime, and public services that don't deliver and irresponsible parents.

Strong families must be at the heart of that social revival.

Recently, this country had a serious wake up call about the way we treat our children.

UNICEF released a report that brought together comparative research on the material, educational and emotional state of childhood in 21 developed nations.

Many people were shocked to discover that Britain is right at the bottom of the list.

Ten years after the current Government was elected on the promise to end child poverty and make education its number one priority.

Britain comes 18th out of 21 rich countries on material wellbeing, and 19th out of 21 on educational wellbeing.

According to the report, British children are among the poorest and least educated in the developed world.

But that's not the worst of it.

We come at the very bottom - 21st out of 21 - on three other measures are in some ways even more important.

First, we come bottom on 'subjective wellbeing' - how children themselves rate their lives.

Put another way, we have the unhappiest children in the developed world.

Second, we come bottom on 'behaviours and risks'.

That means, for example, that British children have the highest rates of underage drinking and teenage pregnancy.

Our children face some of the greatest risks in the developed world.

And third - for me, perhaps the saddest finding of all - we come bottom on the measure of 'family and peer relationships'.

To put it another way, we have the loneliest children in the developed world.

That's why I'm setting up a Children Taskforce to look at how we can improve the lives of children in Britain.

It will include experts from several disciplines and won't be confined to Conservatives.

We need to tackle the problem we have with our children.

Why has this problem arisen?

How did we get into such a mess?

I believe that there has been a failure of leadership at every level.

Today I want to identify these failures and set out what we can do to put things right.

It isn't just a job for government but for everyone.

In other words, it's a social responsibility.

The role of government

Government can't bring up children.

But government decisions have an influence on how children are brought up.

So there's one straightforward principle which will guide my policy-making.

The first test of any policy must be this: does it help families?

For example, it's a disgrace for the fourth richest country in the world to have so many children growing up in poverty.

Ending child poverty is central to improving child wellbeing.

However, poverty is far from being the only factor.

I know that a dynamic economy is essential to create the wealth we need to eradicate poverty.

But greater wealth will not bring greater happiness or greater well being if it is accompanied by even greater family failure.

Quality of life matters as well as quantity of money.

So if our working habits are damaging our families, we need to change our working habits.

There are a number of things that I will seek to do in government.

We'll reform the law, and the rules around child maintenance, to compel men to stand by their responsibilities.

We'll audit the welfare system to ensure that it helps parents stay together, rather than setting up perverse incentives which make a couple better off if they live apart.

We'll develop child-care policies that take account of the extended family which means not limiting support for childcare simply to registered childminders.

And we'll make sure that marriage is supported through the tax system.

Not through some naïve belief that one tax break can make all the difference between getting married or not, or between staying together and falling apart - of course not.

But because marriage is a good institution that encourages people to commit to each other.

The evidence is powerful. While half of unmarried couples split by their child's fifth birthday - the figure for married couples is one in twelve.

Education is another area where children are not getting what they deserve.

We need common sense in schools.

We'll make sure that teachers and heads are no longer second-guessed by outside evaluators when they want to impose simple discipline in their own classrooms.

We'll safeguard teachers so they'll no longer fear that if they restrain a child who is violently bullying another child, they might end up in court on charges of abuse.

We'll stop the closure of special schools that give expert help to some of our most vulnerable youngsters, including those with behavioural difficulties.

We'll have a blitz on the health and safety culture that leads schools to have to cancel outdoor trips because their insurance policies won't cover them in case of mishap.

Children need to be protected to a reasonable degree but our society has gone too far with rules and regulations that sometimes come close to paranoia.

Parents coming to pick up their kids from school are even being banned from playgrounds on absurd health and safety grounds.

We are seeing the steady replacement of pragmatic common sense with endless rules and rights.

That's why we'll take action in government.

We'll replace the European Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights.

One of the other benefits of this it that it will send a clear signal to children that asserting their rights as free individuals is only half the story.

I want young people to recognise that we're all in this together.

That our freedoms come with responsibilities attached - indeed, that our freedoms are only preserved by our collective commitment to self-restraint and duty.

The British Bill of Rights will do that.

The role of local government

Local government too has a role to play.

Councils look after some of the most vulnerable children in society - those who, for whatever reason, can't be cared for by their parents.

There are 61,000 children in care, 60 per cent of them aged 10 or older and the situation isn't encouraging.

The figure has risen from 52,000 in 1997, an increase of 18%.

Educational outcomes for children in care in comparison to other children are dreadful.

54 per cent will fail to achieve a single qualification at school.

Only 1 per cent make it to university.

They are 10 times more likely to be excluded from school.

We have to improve this record.

I'm proud that Conservative councils are pioneers of best practice in this area.

Councils like Kent and North Yorkshire are leading the way with strategies on early intervention, Family/Friend carer living arrangements and Leaving Care Teams that provide particular support to children in transition.

As the largest Party in local government, Conservatives need to play an active role in spreading best practice.

The role of business

Business too has its responsibilities.

For lots of families with young children, the balance between work and family life is not just one issue among many - it is the issue.

Companies that are leading on this agenda in terms of flexible working are finding that it helps with not just recruitment and retention - but performance too.

Politicians should not assume that this agenda is automatically all about regulation, it isn't.

Companies pioneering progressive approaches are often the most vociferous in not wanting additional regulation in this field. Far from wanting a levelling up as some might expect, they fear that state intervention will crush local best practice and innovation.

But as well as having a positive responsibility to help, business also has a responsibility not to harm.

Again, we should encourage responsibility where possible and only regulate where strictly necessary.

But I am clear that this is a vital area.

We can argue for ever whether violent video games are a cause or a reflection of the violence in our societies, and we can rightly debate at length the right role for the law in this area.

But we should also want people to exercise real responsibility. I want every manufacturer, promoter and retailer to ask themselves - "am I acting responsibly by designing, building, promoting and selling this stuff to our children?"

The same goes for clothes and accessories that seem to treat young children as fully sexualised adults.

Of course the law can't go here and somehow outlaw clothes that sexualise children, but parents, the media, politicians and others shouldn't be frightened to speak out.

Role of communities

I saw earlier the excellent work done by Bolton Lads & Girls Club.

It's a great example of community action.

Institutions like that are an asset to any neighbourhood and should be cherished and supported.

Communities have an important role in bringing up children.

Collective disapproval is a powerful tool in regulating behaviour and establishing social norms.

If children are misbehaving we should say something.

If we're met by a volley of abuse then other adults have a duty to intervene.

We don't want to live in a walk-on-by society.

Parental responsibility

I've left the most important responsibility to the end.

Parental responsibility.

Children learn their morals and their manners from their parents.

And that means both parents - including fathers.

I don't pretend that parental responsibility comes easily.

The fact is that bringing up children is a very difficult job - far harder than anything we do in our professional lives.

If people are to take their responsibilities seriously, they need to be respected for it. And this brings me to an old-fashioned word you don't often hear these days: authority.

Authority is the culture of persuasion that operates in a family or a community with settled rules and understandings.

It's the system of natural boundaries - what Burke called 'moral chains upon our appetites'.

Acquiring these chains, sounding out these boundaries, is an essential part of the business of growing up.

Of course, we need to teach our children to make the world a better place - to do things like taking your litter home with you or turning the lights off when you leave the house.

But we also need to say 'no'.

If a child is eating too much it's the duty of a parent to stop it happening.

Allowing harmful behaviour as the price of a quiet life is grossly selfish and irresponsible.

Being a good parent isn't just a gift to your child but to the whole of society.

When we were last in government, in another political era, we stood for economic revival.

We still do - but that's not where the battle is today

We now stand for social revival.

We used to stand for the individual.

We still do - but individual freedoms count for little if society is disintegrating.

Now we stand for the family, for the neighbourhood - in a word, for society.

We can turn our society around.

It requires leadership at every level.

Government.

Business.

Community.

Family.

It's time for social responsibility.

We're all in this together."

Notes to editors

The individuals advising the new group are not endorsing the Conservative Party, nor are they members of the Conservative Party.

Amongst the topics that the review will cover are:

Extended families - have we raised barriers to a broader-based family life?

Fathers and sons - are there particular problems affecting boys?

Advertising to children - how can society protect children better form commercialisation of childhood?

Play and space - are children growing up in a flat world, with insufficient space and time to play and explore the world for themselves unsupervised?

Stranger danger - have we allowed fears of strangers to obstruct normal contacts between adults and children putting too much pressure on parents and schools?

The review will report in the Autumn.

Key Facts

Children in the UK have the poorest quality of life in the developed world, with poor results for educational well-being, relationship formation, risk-taking behaviour and general happiness. (Unicef, 'An overview of child well-being in rich countries', February 14th 2007, p. 2).

There is one acre of play space for children for every 80 acres of golf course and playing fields have been lost at a rate of one a day in the last eight years (Children's Play Council, National Play Day Study, August 2005)

A survey of 700 schools that had improved their grounds in the past 4 years. It found that 65 per cent of schools reported an improved attitude to learning, 52 per cent reported improved academic achievement, 73 per cent said behaviour had improved, 64 per cent reported reduced bullying and 84 per cent reported improved social interaction (LTL National School Grounds Survey, 2003)

Between 1970 and 1991, the 'home habitat' of children shrunk to 1/9th of its original size (M. Hillman, J. Adams and J. Whitelegg, One False Move, Policy Studies Institute (1991))

30% of children never play outside without an adult watching over them. (Mintel, Mum's the word when it comes to childplay, 12th September 2004)

68% of children spend more time playing on their own than with other children (Mintel, Mum's the word when it comes to childplay, 12th September 2004)

British children now spend as much as 53 hours a week - seven and a half hours a day - watching television, up from 38 hours a decade ago (The Daily Telegraph, 8th April 2006).

These are not idle concerns. Advances in neuroscience increasingly show the importance of these welfare issues:

359,000 children were prescribed Ritalin in 2005 and 130,000 children were prescribed SSRI anti-depressants (Daily Telegraph, 17th September 2005, Lords Hansard, 17 Jan 2007, Column WA158)

4% of children aged 5 to 15 are assessed with having an emotional disorder, 2.1% of 11 to 15 year olds have attempted to commit suicide, whilst 24,000 teenagers self harm. (Mental Health of Children and Young People in Great Britain, 2004 (ONS).

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