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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 March 2007, 11:50 GMT
Working for a better childhood
By Alex Kleiderman
BBC News

Some of the challenges facing young people in the UK are being explored at a conference in London organised by the charity Barnardo's.

Martin Narey
Mr Narey said halving child poverty in the UK by 2010 was achievable

Last month, the UK came bottom of a Unicef league table of child well being across 21 industrialised nations.

The findings loomed large over the inaugural Childhood Matters conference attended by academics, politicians, government advisers and experts from voluntarily and charity groups - the so-called third sector.

Several speakers questioned the methodology behind the Unicef report.

But the issues it highlighted - that British children were more likely to be unhappy, affected by poverty and poor family and peer relationships - were acknowledged as problems affecting a sizeable minority.

For Barnardo's Chief Executive Martin Narey the estimated 3.4m UK children still living in relative poverty has left too many disengaged from mainstream society.

"Unless the government intervenes we are in danger of locking children born in poverty into poverty in adulthood and their children into poverty," he said.

Child poverty

A government target of halving poverty by 2010 would require expenditure of 4.3bn but was achievable, he said.

"If we can afford the Olympics - and I am delighted we can - if we can afford Trident, if we can afford to build 8,000 new jail spaces, we can most certainly afford to halve child poverty," he said.

Mr Narey, who was recently named chair of the Campaign to End Child Poverty, also cited the economic and "moral" case for tackling poverty and said access to a good education was key.

By helping disadvantaged British children and those of asylum seekers, they will be more likely to find fulfilling careers, so increasing future tax revenues and reducing the burden on the welfare state, he said.

Expanding horizons

Ed Miliband, minister for the third sector, said child poverty had fallen by 700,000 since 1997 but more needed to be done.

He said changing people's indifference about child poverty in the UK was important.

The public sector has to be much better at working with voluntarily sector organisations
Ed Miliband, minister for the third sector

The government was backing a scheme in which charities and volunteering organisation Community Service Volunteers would be working with children from deprived backgrounds.

One of the most disturbing finding of the Unicef report, Mr Miliband added, was to see British children complain of a lack of peer relationships.

"Every constituency I go to in the country, the issue of young people not having any where to go and in a way not having their horizons expanded in the way that good youth services can is just a very big issue," he said.

Mr Miliband told delegates how they could help.

"The public sector has to be much better at working with voluntarily sector organisations and understanding how it can learn the lessons of what voluntary sector organisations are doing on the ground."

According to the Children's Commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the Unicef report was a wake-up call.

"We care about our own children and own families, we couldn't give a damn about the children of others, especially those on the margins," he said.

But he added "against the gloom of Unicef" many young people were working on ways to change their world for the better.

Sir Al ended his speech with a suggestion - that one of the best ways to improve lives is to start "seeing the world through the eyes of a child and young person".

Six ideas

The sort of ideas the children's commissioner may have had in mind were addressed by a panel of six young people from south London and north east England.

Sam Roper-Spring, 19, is now studying photography, but as someone brought up in 12 different care homes feels he made many wrong choices.

Conference panel
The panel were asked to come up with ways to improve lives

"I missed out on a lot of people who could have encouraged me to achieve more early on in my life," he said. "Sadly this is case for a lot of young people in care."

Moira McHale, 21, a Barnardo's volunteer, called for better integration and awareness of children with disabilities.

Moira, who grew up with cerebral palsy and has not been able to walk properly since an accident at the age of 15, said all disabled children face bullying and discrimination in education and their lives.

"Despite the Disability Act I'm still not able to use public transport, not able to get into some public places," she told the conference.

Luziane Tchiegue-Nouta, the deputy young mayor of Lewisham talked about "breaking down the barriers" between adults and children that could push some people into gangs.

Thirteen-year-old Jason Lund said families needed more support - particularly those where parents were out of work - while Therryi Brown's experience of volunteering has left her a strong believer it its value on a personal and vocational level.

Yasmin Ali, 17, MP for Lewisham in the UK Youth Parliament, issued a plea for increased funding for support projects.

"By providing centres, facilities and services, for young people as they grow up, you are ensuring they do achieve their full potential, they do feel motivated, they do feel encouraged and supported," she said.


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