Britain ranks lower than most of the world’s wealthiest countries when it comes to children’s well-being and personal development, a new report from UNICEF shows.
In the “Worlds of Influence: Understanding what shapes child well-being in rich countries” report, published on Sept. 3, the UK was ranked 27th out of 41 nations, just behind Slovakia, Romania, and Iceland.
The researchers looked at several different measures of children’s welfare and development — including education levels, physical health, and mental health — to score each country.
The last time a comparable report was produced, in 2013, the UK ended up in the middle of the scoreboard, ranking 16th out of the 29 countries included, whereas it now sits in the lower third.
The group of countries measured are considered “economically developed” and are either part of the European Union or the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), or both.
“Over the years, stable economic and social conditions [in the UK] have not fully translated into positive outcomes for children,“ Sacha Deshmukh, the executive director of UNICEF UK, noted of the findings.
The main area the UK scores poorly on is well-being — 36% of 15-year-olds reported having “poor mental health." Meanwhile only 64% of children surveyed in the UK said they had “high life satisfaction” — with only children in Japan (62%) and Turkey (53%) reporting lower levels of life satisfaction.
The researchers also note that “many children reach the age of 15 without a basic proficiency in reading and maths.” On this measure, the UK did not do especially well either, with only 63% of children reaching proficiency in reading and maths by the age of 15 — compared with 79% in Estonia, the highest performing country, and 32% in Bulgaria, the lowest performing country.
Children’s physical health in the UK compares fairly well, however a relatively high number of children — 31% — are overweight or obese according to the data, compared to just 14% of children in Japan.
Looking at the full list of countries, Chile, Bulgaria, and the US are positioned at the bottom of the table, whereas the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway rank the best for child well-being.
“Sadly, it seems that poor mental health, obesity, and inadequate social and academic skills are now the hallmarks of modern childhood,” Deshmukh continued.
“Lockdown measures, school closures, and the wider impacts of the coronavirus pandemic have now added layers of complexity to the challenges facing children in the UK,” he added. “For many children, life is now even tougher and a bright, fulfilling future is further from reach.”
UNICEF, which is the United Nations agency responsible for providing humanitarian and developmental aid to children worldwide, says to help improve outcomes for children, nations need to take “decisive action” to reduce income inequality and poverty.
They also need to “rapidly address the serious gap in mental health services for children and adolescents,” the agency recommends.
Other recommendations include the expansion of family-friendly work policies, the strengthening of efforts to immunise children against preventable diseases such as measles, and COVID-19 response policies that protect families with children from budget cuts.