A few years ago researchers described the UK as ‘contender for the title of worst place in Europe to be a child’ and by extension young person (Micklewright and Stewart, 2000: 23). Last year, in the UNICEF assessment of the well-being of children and adolescents, the UK was ranked worst overall and, with the US, was in the bottom third of the rankings for 5 of the 6 dimensions reviewed (UNICEF, 2007). This led to much public soul-searching particularly in relation to children and young people’s material circumstances and psychological well-being/mental health. More recently, the UK Children’s Commissioners (2008) published a highly critical report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in which they highlighted the public demonisation of children and young people.
It is unlikely that anyone in the UK would seriously claim that our children and young people are growing up under equitable conditions. The extent of poverty among children and young people (despite partial success in reducing child poverty) and the depth of inequality mean that
children born in different circumstances in the UK today have very different chances of enjoying good health, a good level of personal development and education, and a safe environment in which to live – outcomes which can have knock-on effects through later life…In particular, low income, low socioeconomic status, disability and membership of particular ethnic groups are associated with much higher risks (Fabian Commission, 2006: xiii-xiv).
This note first addresses briefly the three domains of justice through education, participation and integration. It then provides a brief overview of policy towards young people in the UK.
Justice through education
The British education system privileges the wealthy both through private, fee-paying schools and informally through parent’s ability to invest financial and cultural capital in ensuring their children get the most out of the state system. The state system does not do enough to help children from deprived backgrounds to overcome the obstacles they face. Indeed, as the Fabian Commission demonstrated, the class gap in educational outcomes widens ‘throughout the years of compulsory schooling, with long-term consequences for later life chances…Young people who leave school with low qualifications have a higher risk of unemployment, worse health outcomes, and a higher risk of poverty in later life’ (Fabian Commission, 2006: 85).
The Commission also documented how ‘social divisions exist in the pathways followed by young people after the end of compulsory education, with clear class differences in entry to further and higher education, in degree completion, and in the types of institutions and courses to which young people from different social backgrounds apply’ (Fabian Commission, 2006: 105).
The gap between the proportion of young people in England from higher and lower socio-economic class backgrounds who are participating in higher education is currently 23.4 % points (HM Government 2008) .
Justice through participation
Of particular concern is a persistent minority who are not in education, employment or training (NEET) and who have effectively slipped through the net – over 1 in 10 and a higher proportion of those with low educational attainment. The school-to-work transition has been described as ‘now more protracted, risky and fractured, especially for those from low-income backgrounds’ while the trend is ‘towards increased polarisation among young people in relation to qualifications, occupations and earnings’ (Kemp, 2005: 153). The labour market has become tougher for young people both in terms of the availability of jobs and wage levels.
Nevertheless youth unemployment has improved over the past decade and in particular there has been a sizeable reduction in the numbers unemployed for over a year. The proportion of all young people who are unemployed is slightly higher than the EU average, with young men slightly more likely than young women to be unemployed but young women less likely to be economically active (CEC, 2007). There remains a significant gender pay gap and an independent survey indicates young women are more than four times likely than young men to be on a low income (Fahmy, 2006; YWCA, 2007). Disabled young people are particularly disadvantaged.
A government policy review of children and young people emphasised the importance for young people’s life chances of participation in high quality ‘positive activities’ during their free time (HM Treasury/Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2007). It also observed that young people from disadvantaged groups are less likely to participate in such activities, with costs, lack of affordable transport and inappropriate facilities acting as deterrents.
Participation in policy development
One area in which there has been real progress is in involving young people in policy development through structures such as a youth parliament, local youth councils and user-involvement in youth centres and projects. But, again, marginalised groups of young people are under-represented in such structures (HM Treasury/Department for Education and Skills, 2007: 48). Moreover, while one study pointed to a ‘mushrooming of participation activity’ in recent years, it also warned ‘there is still much work to be done in ensuring this participation is meaningful to young people, that it is effective in bringing about change and that it is sustained’ (Kirby et al., 2003: 3). And the Children’s Commissioners conclude that ‘a considerable amount of progress is yet to be made to fully achieve…participation rights’ (UK Children’s Commissioners, 2008: 13).
Justice through integration
Questions of integration in the UK relate primarily to the black and minority ethnic offspring of earlier migrants as well as also now migrant families from the enlarged EU, young asylum-seekers/refugees and Travellers & Gypsies. These are groups who are at particularly high risk of poverty and exclusion (although there are big differences between minority ethnic groups and official poverty statistics do not identify asylum seekers or Travellers).
In education, the attainment gap has narrowed for most minority pupils but it has widened for young travellers/Gypsies and more generally minority ethnic young people remain disadvantaged in ‘the youth education, labour and training markets’ (Craig, 2005: 73). The Children’s Commissioners have expressed particular concern about the failure to meet human rights obligations towards children and young people seeking asylum.
This note paints a pretty gloomy picture of the unequal start in life children and young people face in the UK. The government is committed to addressing this and in particular to the eradication of child poverty by 2020 (and halving it by 2010). Under Gordon Brown it has created a new government department for Children, Schools and Families and has produced a Children’s Plan, one aim of which is enable all children and young people to fulfil their potential and also enjoy childhood and adolescence (DSCF, 2007). There are specific targets to reduce educational attainment gaps and a new strategy to improve youth support services.
However, the issue of young people’s poverty, which independent research suggests is higher than among adults, tends to be over-looked (Fahmy, 2006; France, forthcoming). It is likely that much of the recent increase in poverty among childless people of working age is among young adults. Moreover, government policy and rhetoric vacillates between, on the one hand, prioritising children and promoting a more positive approach to young people and, on the other, authoritarian regulatory measures, which demonise and criminalise children and young people from deprived areas as perpetrators of anti-social behaviour. The UK is therefore still a long way from the government’s aim to make it ‘the best place in the world for our children and young people to grow up’ (DCSF, 2007: 1).
CEC (2007) Commission Staff Working Document on Youth Employment in the EU, [COM(2007) 498 final], Brussels, Commission of the European Communities.
Craig, G. (2005) ‘Poverty among black and minority ethnic children’ in G. Preston (ed) At Greatest Risk, London: Child Poverty Action Group.
DCSF (2007) The Children’s Plan, London: Department for Children, Schools and Families.
Fabian Commission (2006) Narrowing the Gap. London: Fabian Society.
Fahmy, E. (2006) ‘Youth, poverty and social exclusion’ in C. Pantazis, D. Gordon and R. Levitas (eds) Poverty and Social Exclusion in Britain, Bristol: The Policy Press.
France, A. (forthcoming) ‘From being to becoming: the importance of tackling youth poverty in transitions to adulthood’, Social Policy & Society.
HM Government (2008) PSA Delivery Agreement 11: Narrow the gap in educational achievement between children from low income and disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers,, London: HM Treasury.
HM Treasury/Department for Education and Skills (2007) Policy Review of Children and Young People, London: HM Treasury.
Kemp, P. A. (2005) ‘Young people and unemployment: from welfare to workfare?’ in M. Barry (ed.) Youth Policy and Social Inclusion, London & New York: Routledge.
Kirby, P., Lanyon, C., Cronin, K. and Sinclair, R. (2003) Building a Culture of Participation, London: Department for Education and Skills.
Micklewright, J. and Stewart, K. (2000) The Welfare of Europe’s Children Bristol: The Policy Press.
UK Children’s Commissioners (2008) UK Children’s Commissioners Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, London: 11 Million.
UNICEF (2007) An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries, Florence: Innocenti Research Centre.
YWCA (2007) No Frills: young women and poverty, Oxford: YWCA.
Ruth Lister works as Professor of Social Policy at Loughborough University. She is member of the Fabian Comission on Life Chances and Child Poverty, a former Director of the Child Poverty Action Group and served on the Commission on Social Justice, the Opsahl Commission into the Future of Northern Ireland and the Commission on Poverty, Participation and Power. She is a founding Academician of the Academy for Learned Societies for the Social Sciences and a Trustee of the Community Development Foundation. She is currently Donald Dewar Visiting Professor of Social Justice at the University of Glasgow. She has published widely around poverty, welfare reform and women’s citizenship.
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