Changing the conversation about health

Everyone has a responsibility to nurture today’s children: a sustainable future depends upon it

There needs to be a fundamental change in the way society cares for children if we are to fully unleash their potential, writes Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green, currently visiting Professor in Advocacy for Children and Childhood Nottingham Trent University… 

Children and young people matter to families and to society where they are our nation’s most precious resource.

As well as being citizens today, they are the workers and parents of the future – on whom our prosperity will depend. Since fewer working-age adults are supporting an ever-increasing, ageing population, investing in our children should be our nation’s key priority. But is it? And how well are we doing for our children and young people?

These questions were addressed in a recent commentary published by the Nuffield Trust, from which it was concluded that too many children and young people in the UK experience some of the worst outcomes for health, social care, education, youth justice and poverty in the developed world.

So why do we have these dismal outcomes? In my opinion, they are the result of indifference to the importance of children and young people in society, with national political focus for children being short-term, ephemeral, inconsistent and, in the case of some policies, proved untrustworthy. Moreover, the siloed nature of policy-making, which divides issues into health, education, social care and youth justice, does little to promote an overall framework.

What’s to be done? We need a paradigm shift in thinking about the importance of children and young people – and the starting point should be to ask what children and young people need to achieve their potential.

Politically, there needs to be a long-term, coherent, cross-party ideology alongside overarching policies that see children and young people as a vital priority and, importantly, as citizens in their own right, with an explicit commitment from the very top – especially for the most vulnerable.

In local communities, we need to make real the African proverb: ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, with the nurture of children being everybody’s business. Children need nurture from parents and families; play, exercise, exploration and experience of managed risk in their neighbourhoods with friends, role models, and experience of spirituality.

Education needs to provide more than just academic attainment targets; core skills, expectation, values and purpose in life are all essential. Government should be there to support local services based on needs and evidence, with protection of human rights.

Developing national and local strategies demands responsibility and accountability; objectives and measures must be clearly defined. We need to listen to children, young people and families, working in partnerships and engaging with the media. Robust leadership is paramount.

Professionals must look out of the destructive bunkers and silos that currently bedevil services, putting the child and family’s needs at the centre, and see the world through the eyes of the child, young person and family. They must be more effective advocates for children.

We know what has to be done. We know what is needed – healthy, educated, creative and resilient children.

The College of Medicine has recognised this need and is committed to finding ways to address it, including engaging in an initiative in Cornwall designed to road-test the ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ ideology. What are your views on what can be done by the College?