Thursday, 15 September 2011

Brent children agreed with Unicef 8 years ago

I was not surprised by Unicef's report published yesterday which concluded that UK children were caught in a 'materialist trap' in which parents felt pressurised to buy goods for their children. Children themselves said their their happiness depended on having more time with their families and having plenty to do outdoors.

I was involved in a consultation in 2003 on the Green Paper called Every Child Matters. The paper followed a number of high profile inquiries into the deaths of children, including some which took place in Brent. We brought together children from primary schools across Brent to hear their views on what would make them feel safe, secure and enable them to develop fully.

One of the most striking comments, that received support from pupils irrespective of the schools from which they came, was a concern that their parents had to work long hours and thus had less time to spend with their children. More than that the children also reflected on the quality of the time they they did have their parents. They described their parents as exhausted when they did get home and often irritated or short-tempered. One child said that this was when their mum or dad ended up hitting them when they did eventually get back from work.

Unicef suggest that the buying of branded goods is a way of parents compensating for the lack of time they spend with their children. In 2003 those children, now teenagers, had a simple solution. They said that wages were too low and that their parents had to work long hours or have several jobs in order to pay the bills. They said wages should be higher so that their parents could work a shorter day. They said that they would prefer to have fewer toys and gadgets and more quality time with their parents.

We are caught up in a long working hours, low wage economy with many parents working at several small jobs to earn enough to care for their family. I know of women who clean before school, work in a school in the kitchen or as a dinner lady during the day, and do an evening shift on a supermarket till in the evening. In some ways this low wage-long hours economy is supported by the tax and benefit system so that low wages are 'topped up'. Private companies are in effect subsidised and so can continue to pay low wages and maximise their profits.

As a headteacher I was always ambivalent about extended school hours that were seen as 'working parent' friendly but could see children in a school from 8am at a Breakfast Club until 6pm at an Afterschool Club - a 10 hour days for children replicating the parents' long working hours. Such provision is being eagerly advertised by academies and free schools - but at what expense to the child?

This is why the Green Party's policy on a Living Wage is so essential as a way of beginning to break out of the cycle. However Coalition policies are worsening the situation for children in many ways with cuts impacting on everything from play facilities to the ability to stay on at school to study. The housing benefit cap will have a major impact on low wage families and in Brent we are already seeing private landlords giving families notice to quit and an increase in the number forced into bed and breakfast accommodation.

Back in 2004  in reaction to the Green Paper the Mayor published a strategy document entitled 'Making London Better for All Children and Young People' - the 'All' is vital. It included the following aims:

All London’s children should have opportunities to:
• influence decisions about their city
• express their opinions on the kind of city they want
• participate in family, community and social life
• benefit from good quality, child-focused services such as health, education, social care, and housing
• be protected from exploitation, violence and abuse
• walk safely in the streets on their own
• meet friends and play
• enjoy green spaces for plants and animals
• live in an unpolluted environment
• participate in cultural events
• live as equal citizens of their city with access to every service,regardless of ethnic origin, race, religion, income, gender, disability or sexuality
 In the light of the discussions taking place in the wake of the riots we could do worse that revisit this document and renew the dialogue with children about their experiences and aspirations. As Kate Mulley, head of policy development and research at Action for Children said in reaction to the Unicef report 'The government needs to stop just hearing young people and actually listen to them'.

A child-friendly version of the Mayor's strategy is HERE

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