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The nurturing of children should be everybody’s business, argues former Children’s Commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley-Green FRSA.

Children are our most precious resource; they are citizens of today, but our nation’s future depends on them. What we do for them determines their outcomes and potential in life, and they will be the people who generate the wealth to support our pensions and services as we grow old.

Nurturing is the bringing up of children. They need love and care; physical contact and comfort; protection, security and safety; nutrition; play, exploration, encouragement, managed risk; friendships; education, and expectation, values, spirituality and purpose in life.

Parents and families are fundamentally important, and there is a limit to what central government can do. It creates policy and allocates resources but the well-being of children also depends on building child-friendly communities by local government and other institutions. If we accept this, then nurturing children really should be everybody’s business.

There is much to celebrate. The majority of children and young people are loved, law-abiding, are working hard to be successful and contribute to their localities. New Labour ‘s experiment of putting children at the heart of government’s policy has made an impact; more has been done in the last ten years in terms of policy for children than in the whole of the previous fifty. The appointment of a cabinet level Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (not just for education) is admired internationally and signalled an attempt to generate a truly cross-government agenda. At the same time, local children’s trusts created a focal point for community responsibility for children.

So, does the return to a Department for Education signal a retreat? I hope not; my plea to the coalition government is that they do not throw the baby out with the bathwater! Learn from what has been achieved and keep children right at the heart of government. Who is now responsible for co-ordinating all aspects of children’s policy in the various Departments of State and for ensuring, for example in the Home office and Ministry of Justice that the best interests of children prevail?

For, while progress has been made, there are real challenges to meeting children’s needs. The financial turbulence we face requires government to make very difficult decisions about priorities. These choices are made all the more difficult in light of a population that is aging and where the ‘grey’ vote dominates politics. Moreover, the unprecedented demonisation of children by influential sections of the media is destroying empathy for our young.

Even before the financial crisis, the international benchmarks of the well-being of children published by UNICEF in 2007, the concluding observation of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2008 and an OECD report in 2009 exposed how far we have to go to match best international standards. Meanwhile, the Good Childhood Inquiry highlighted five crucial threats to children: excessive individualism; soaring family breakdown; commercialisation of childhood; overly-competitive education and poverty. It is now more important than ever to monitor the impact of the current financial turbulence on children and young people; without hard facts it is impossible to advocate effectively for their needs. Who will do this?

The coalition government is keen to borrow from Sweden its model of ‘free’ schools. Should it not also take Sweden’s parliamentary process of routinely performing childhood impact assessments of all new policies and budgets?

There is now widespread political acceptance in the UK of the value of early years intervention and important steps have been taken including Sure Start, Children’s Centres, nurse-family partnership programmes and investment in health visiting. These should be protected and built on. But what about wider community involvement? I want to suggest two examples of what could be done.

First, the HELP (Human Early Learning Partnership) project in Vancouver. This began when local government asked the simple question: where do children live? In drawing up a demographic density map they found the greatest densities of children in the poor parts of the city. They then applied to the same postcodes every piece of information they had on the lives of children including inputs and spend on services, and known outcomes. This mapping exercise was coupled with a screening tool for evaluating the development of all four-year-olds entering early year’s education.

This combination has enabled HELP to develop locality maps of vulnerability and ‘nurturative assets’, and a practical ‘toolkit’ that all agencies and individuals can use to create communities in which children can thrive. This programme is now being used across Canada and can lead to remarkable changes in the local outcomes of children. Its success depends upon a change in the cultural mindset of organisations from competition to collaboration, government support, the engagement of schools, and above all, inspirational leadership in local communities.

The UK has used mapping to innovate, particularly in relation to health services. Could this be built upon to incorporate the principles of the HELP programme and develop locality-based maps to improve the nurture of children? I believe it can.

A second example can be seen in Wiltshire Council where the county has been divided into eighteen Area Boards, each being empowered to define local priorities and to implement change. This process is transforming the relationship between the council and its local citizens. In particular, this new approach has ensured that the views and voices of children are being taken very seriously. I propose that mapping of children’s lives could enhance this approach still further.

I offer seven recommendations to provoke discussion on nurturing children through promoting pro-social behaviour, empathy and building communities with children at their hearts.

1. Building empathy for children by confronting public attitudes to our children and young people, and celebrating their existence and contributions.

2. Listening to children and young people and giving them respect through effective participation.

3. Investing in parenting through educating children to prepare them for becoming parents themselves.

4. Understanding where children live and mapping their lives at the locality level to provide a way of understanding what has to be done.

5. Building local communities with children at their hearts through parents, schools, faiths, voluntary and statutory bodies and fund-raising working together.

6. ‘Child-proofing’ all aspects of local and national government policy that have an impact on children.

7. All of this demands leadership of the highest quality, especially in local government, and a willingness to assume community responsibility for our children and young people.

What may this mean for the RSA? Perhaps it could act as a ‘dating agent’ to bring together experts in all these areas, and pilot a ‘whole system’ approach to nurturing children in a few diverse communities based on mapping? I warmly support the RSA’s Education Charter in raising debate, by proposing a set of key principles, on what is the purpose of education. But is the RSA missing a trick here? Although crucially important, education is but one component of the nurture cascade. Why not, right up front, think of creating a Charter for Children, within which is the key component of ‘Whole Education’? Either way, the RSA is in a good position to help define and encourage pro-social communities to take on broader shared responsibility for all their children.

Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green FRSA is the former Children’s Commissioner for England.


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