Reflections on ‘Growing Up Happy’

by Richard Newson November 17, 2015

Reflections on ‘Growing Up Happy’

What can be done to protect the mental health of children and young people? Young NCB member Jack Welch reflects on the ‘Growing Up Happy’ conference.

In recent years, there have been few issues on the child health agenda as hotly debated as that of mental health and wellbeing and you don’t have to look far to find an array of reports and policy recommendations on how services can be bettered for those in the system. At the beginning of November, I joined clinicians, researchers and other voluntary sector delegates who came together at the UCL Children’s Policy Research Unit (CPRU) conference on the theme of ‘Growing Up Happy’.

Throughout the day, we covered topics including resilience, self-harm and effective coping strategies, and a common trend emerged: that early intervention not only saves lives by preventing a crisis for a young person, but also saves money for government. This in itself should be a big incentive.

Professor Lord Richard Layard, Director of the Wellbeing Programme at the London School of Economics, highlighted that just 25% of children who need specialist help actually receive it. Quite rightly, he stated, many of us feel ‘outraged’ by the second-class support for mental health in recent years, rather than it being on parity with other areas of health. More school-based support was recommended, but questions of whether the stigma associated with seeking support could be a barrier was also raised. It should be noted that the Department of Health, in their Future in Mind report, have stated their intention to invest at least £150 million in mental health services for young people over this term of government.

While states of anxiety of anxiety and depression are deep concerns for those who have an interest in mental health, so are self-harm and eating disorders. Cases of Anorexia have increased dramatically and within the last year alone 200 more people with this diagnosis were admitted into hospital. A powerful film from the charity Fixers was shown as an example of the extent of waiting times and failure by doctors to take action more quickly.

Throughout the conference, films that Young NCB produced were shown to spark discussion, exploring happiness in general and the role of society and institutions in improving mental health. For the final part of the afternoon, I took part in a panel discussion of policy actions which could improve care. Joined by representatives from Great Ormond Street Hospital, YoungMinds and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, I spoke of the need for more joined-up communications between counsellors in schools and CAMHS services. Too often, the support is fragmented and can end up with young people having to repeatedly give information about themselves to different specialists as they seek help.

Greater clinical support and greater awareness amongst teaching staff in schools could lead to better support being available to students, particularly in high stress periods around exams. This could also end the high cycle of DNAs (Did Not Appear) that are often the result of excessive waiting times. We also need to do more for the most vulnerable and those who have learning disabilities as these are often the people who suffer most. A lack of support can lead to the tragedy of suicide, and delegates shared moving examples of friends and colleagues who had taken their lives. Could they have been helped if proper action had been taken by mental health services?

After a successful and passionate discussion to close the conference, I am very confident NCB will continue to campaign for further steps to be taken so that mental health in young people will be an equal priority in services across institutions and communities.


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Getting the 30-hours of free childcare right.

by Richard Newson November 3, 2015

As the Childcare Bill finishes its journey through the House of the Lords, Heather Ransom, from NCB’s policy team, reflects on the development of the new 30-hour free childcare offer for three-and-four-year-olds.

Childcare was a flagship policy in the run up to the General Election, with all leading political parties promising to extend the number of free hours for pre-school children. Whilst the original aim of early education and childcare was to support children’s learning and development, this time around its focus is on supporting working parents.

As a result, some of the most vulnerable families will miss out: a missed opportunity given that making childcare more available could help these parents to enter the job market or access education and training.

The fast pace of reforms, with implementation of the scheme due in September 2017, means that legislation is being debated before the Childcare Funding Review has been completed. Nurseries and childminders have been vocal in calling for greater financial investment so that they can continue to deliver high quality childcare without putting up fees for younger children. These concerns are shared by the House of Lords – they have voted to hold back passing legislation until it becomes clearer what funding will be available and how it will be distributed to providers.

At NCB, we are working to ensure that children’s experiences of childcare are not overlooked in the debate. Over the past few years we have seen a gradual increase in the quality of early education and childcare with 85% of providers now rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. This is heartening, particularly at a time when early years has felt the brunt of local authority cuts.

We would like to see this improvement continue.

Through the Childcare Bill we are calling for early years staff to be supported to improve their qualifications, so that they have the skills and knowledge to work with all young children, including those with special educational needs and disabilities. We welcome the recent commitment by government to set out progression routes for the early years workforce – we believe that opportunities must be put in place at every level in order to attract and retain good practitioners.

The Department for Education has invited early years providers to pilot the new childcare scheme from next September. They will be responding to some of the challenges of expanding childcare provision and hope to identify the key ingredients of high-quality, accessible and flexible free offer.  In reality, many children will be attending more than one nursery, school, or childminder in order to access the full 30-hours. Providers will therefore need to work closely together in the local community, with the support of the local authority, to develop a free childcare model that works for both children and parents.

Free childcare is a worthy aim – but bringing the pieces of the jigsaw together in a way that ensures both access and quality is key to ensuring children and families really benefit.


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Xbox or Instagram - are they holding children back in exams?

by Richard Newson October 13, 2015

The internet can a powerful part of children’s learning, but are digital distractions undermining GCSE results? Richard Newson, considers the impact of screen time.

Most parents observe the ease and eagerness with which their children engage with laptops, games consoles and mobile phones with considerable misgivings.

Online grooming, sexting and cyberbullying plague the online world – and children are vulnerable.

But alongside these worries is a more general concern that the distractions of digital devices are undermining their child’s education. But are these worries grounded in fact?

Research by the National Children’s Bureau in Northern Ireland looked at precisely this question. It explored how a cohort of 14 to 16 year olds were using ICT (that’s Information Communication Technology for anyone born in the previous millennium) and how this related to their GCSE exam results.

The findings are surprising.

For a start, while excessive gaming is closely linked with poor exam results, the research showed no link between intensive use of social networking platforms and poor performance in GCSEs.

And let’s be clear – we are talking about using a games console or portable games player at least a couple of times per day. Only 41% of pupils who followed this pattern achieved five good GCSE grades, compared to 77% of those who played games rarely.

Why this discrepancy between gaming and social networking should occur is beyond the scope of this study but it does indicate parents should be concerned about the extent of gaming. Particularly considering that other studies indicate that low levels of gaming (less than one hour per day) can actually have a positive impact on young people’s academic engagement compared to those to those who do not play at all.

But while gaming is an issue, it is important that all young people are encouraged to use their computer time, at least in part, to do homework.

The NCB research found that four in 10 young people are online for over four hours per day in their GCSE year. But that much of this time is spent on recreational activities. 43% of young people spend less than an hour each day using a computer for homework.

Unsurprisingly, those pupils spending around three hours every day using a computer to do homework achieved the best exam results, with 79% achieving five A* to C grades in their GCSEs.

Given this, teachers have a role in setting their pupils homework that require the use of computer. And parents should be vigilant that their child establishes good online habits (including being aware of e-safety) and that homework is done, rather than idle surfing.

Finally, we should not forget the 5% of 14 to 16 year olds who have no computer access whatsoever at home. These children fare considerably worse in education than their peers and need the targeted support of policymakers if they are to avoid being left behind in the digital age.

‘ICT and Me’ is available as both a report and a video for young people at:


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World Obesity Day: youth-led solutions

by Richard Newson October 9, 2015

On World Obesity Day, young people can help develop solutions that work says Amy Davies.

A third of children in the UK are overweight or obese.  This significant public health challenge can cause a range of chronic health problems and is linked to low self-esteem, poor exam results, and reduced overall life chances.


But obesity is about poverty too.

Young people from low-income groups are at particular risk – whether this is because of low levels of health education, parental obesity, lack of physical activity, or the financial cost of eating healthily. Aggressive marketing of unhealthy food to children and young people and the number of cheap takeaways in deprived areas are also important factors.


National Children’s Bureau has recently published findings from the European Youth Tackling Obesity (EYTO) project which we led with partners across Spain, Portugal and the Czech Republic. EYTO, a youth-led social marketing project, supported groups of young people across Europe to promote healthy lifestyles amongst their peers and help reduce rates of obesity.


We found that long-term changes to behaviour requires a collaborative approach between young people, parents and professionals in the community.


In particular young people underlined the impact of their own voices in healthy lifestyle campaigns. A youth-led and peer-to-peer approach that places young people at the centre of public health initiatives can ensure that interventions are accessible and appealing.


Young people participating in EYTO also stressed that positive and inspirational messaging which makes an emotional connection, is more likely to motivate them to live well.


But progress in reducing rates of child obesity will also depend on supporting parents to provide healthy food at home, and some groups of children will require targeted support to overcome the barriers presented by language, disability and, of course, poverty.


We hope that this holistic approach will be a feature of the Government’s new Child Obesity Strategy. The young people working with EYTO were clear that solving the problem of obesity is a challenge that ought to involve us all: communities, food manufacturers and retailers, schools and colleges, parents and policymakers.

Only by working together can we change what foods and drinks are available in different settings, and to give individuals the understanding, resources and opportunities to make healthier choices for themselves.

For further information about the EYTO project, our findings and to access practical tools to help replicate our approach please visit



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Security, stability and opportunity for children?

by Richard Newson October 6, 2015

Has the Conservative Party Conference provided hope for children? Enver Solomon, Director of Evidence and Impact at National Children's Bureau, considers.

Security, stability and opportunity was the message on the hoardings at the Conservative party conference this week. What does this mean for the nation's children? According to ministers speaking at various fringe events it's about how to ensure children reach their potential. And the answer to that is 'character education'.  

It sounds rather grand. For the education secretary Nicky Morgan, character is one of her top priorities. Schooling, she argues, is not just about teaching core subjects but about instilling the virtues of compassion, care, self-regulation, honesty and decency, as well as overcoming failure. Such virtues should be role modelled by all teachers and be at the heart of every school's ethos and culture. And it's not just the job of schools. Parents and civic society must shape children so they acquire the virtues needed to become good citizens

This appears to be the developing narrative for children as the government sets out its agenda for the next five years.  The aspiration is for the UK to be global leaders in character education.    

What does it mean in practice? Schools are very much at the heart of the character project. Their mission should not just be about academic achievement but also teaching children to be good citizens. This can done through sport, schemes such as the Duke of Edinburgh awards and other social action initiatives. The community and voluntary sector also have a key role to play as does business. 

None of this is very new, but the language is different. Social and emotional learning, well-being programmes and the previous healthy schools programme all had the same objective. They have a stronger evidence base as the recent evidence review published by NCB shows. It's important not to forget this and see character education as being part of an approach to childhood which is centred on a child's overall social and emotional development.  

Character is now the latest government buzzword for children. There's nothing wrong with this. Ultimately, it's about giving all children the opportunity to flourish.  But it needs to be presented in a wider well-being framework as a means to supporting children to become happy, healthy and productive adults. 


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What will the 'kinder' politics of the opposition mean for children?

by Richard Newson September 30, 2015

Jeremy Corbyn's speech to the Labour party conference centred on kindness and equality. So, how might this translate into policies that promote child wellbeing? Zoe Renton, NCB’s Head of Policy, considers #Lab15.

With a brand new leader and shadow front bench, Labour's party conference this year was unlikely to provide big policy announcements on children’s issues. However, there were some hints of Corbyn's priorities, and fringe appearances by key spokespeople gave us a sense of their emerging plans.

Corbyn's emphasis on family security, cuts to welfare and affordable housing will be welcomed by many in the children's sector, where there are grave concerns about government plans to cut tax credits and eradicate the very concept of child poverty, rather than child poverty itself! (See the Welfare Reform and Work Bill currently going through Parliament). But, given the opposition failed to block the Bill a couple of weeks ago, you'd be forgiven for wondering how they will really make a difference, while at the same time developing alternative policies that they can sell to the public in the 'age of austerity'.

In a fascinating fringe debate, a new labour MP challenged his party on just that, saying they needed new ideas and to reframe the debate. Nevertheless, the new shadow employment minister and NCB's own local MP, Emily Thornberry, explicitly refused to compromise on the party's mission to eradicate child poverty – welcome news for NCB and other members of the End Child Poverty coalition which is calling for the same triple lock on children's benefits as has been given to pensioners.

Health inequalities and the impact of poverty on health – key themes of our recent report 'Poor Beginnings' – were highlighted by the new shadow public health minister, Andrew Gwynne MP, who talked about the ten year difference in life expectancy between those living in the affluent and disadvantaged areas in his constituency. He said he wanted the transfer of responsibility for children's public health to local authorities to provide the catalyst for ensuring that children's health and well-being strategies are embedded across all local services. This is a useful start for organisations, like NCB, working to improve the health of children, keen to see a cross-government approach at the national and local level.   

A week into the job, Lucy Powell MP, the new shadow education secretary continues to show an interest in her former brief, childcare, a sign of the Commons opposition preparing for the Childcare Bill. The Bill will enable the government to double the amount of free childcare available for working parents of 3-4 year-olds, but with little detail on the plans, NCB is concerned that while the policy is welcome in principle there won't be sufficient funds to ensure the care offered is good quality, delivered by a highly skilled workforce and accessible for disabled children or those with special educational needs.

Corbyn’s speech touched on children and young people’s mental health services – recognition of the need for investment and reform. He also indicated that under Labour responsibility for all schools, including academies and free schools, would be returned to local authorities – perhaps recognising that the government’s weakness on education could be their focus on structures rather than the purpose and quality of education.

So it was useful that we heard something about children in Corbyn’s speech, underpinned by his stated vision for a society that has 'aspirations for all children not just the few'. Nevertheless, there’s a way to go before we have a more detailed understanding of what Labour might be saying about children and families when (or if) he leads his party into the 2020 election. 


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North and south, rich and poor

by Richard Newson September 14, 2015

Kiran Iqbal, a Young NCB member aged 18 from Rochdale, gets to grips with health inequalities.

For decades, England has seen a large divide between the north and the south of the country in almost every aspect, whether it is regarding poverty, education, economics, employment or the quality of one’s life. However, this divide is particularly in evidence for health.

In Rochdale, which is the country’s 23 most deprived area in England, many young children are affected by poor health outcomes:

  • Nearly one in ten 4-5 year olds are obese
  • Nearly 30% of these young children have tooth decay and
  • Half of all children in Rochdale fail to achieve a good level of development by the time that they leave reception.

I believe that it is completely unfair and unacceptable that a child is disadvantaged from such an early stage in their life simply because of where they live. These issues are limiting children from achieving their potential and are having devastating effects which reach into every part of a child’s life, not just their health.

Childhood obesity is a serious problem. Obese children are more likely to develop asthma, diabetes and emotional and behaviour problems both during childhood and later in life.

We know that there is a strong link between low income and childhood obesity – children from poorer areas are almost twice as likely to be obese as those from more wealthy areas and research on this has found that it is likely to be because ‘healthy’ food such as fresh fruit and veg is generally more expensive than junk.

Many young people and adults that I know admit that they would eat healthier if a salad cost the same as a burger.

The story is similar for tooth decay: a third of five-year olds in my region have tooth decay. I know a girl from a low-income family who has bad tooth decay and because of this she has had problems with her speech for most of her life and struggles to communicate with other people.This shows that even if the problem seems trivial it can have adverse effects for a young person’s future.

If young children in the North West had the same health and development outcomes as children in the South East, every year we would have:

  • Over 1,500 fewer obese 4-5 year old’s
  • Around 11,000 fewer 5 year olds with tooth decay
  • And over 5,000 more children achieving a good level of development at the end of Reception

This is unacceptable especially for a country as Britain which is ranked as having the 14th best healthcare system in Europe, and the 18th best system in the World.

It is time for the government, and local authorities, to take note of the findings in this report and take action in resolving these issue of inequality, especially for children, regardless of where they come from.

Poor Beginnings is available from: beginnings


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A child’s postcode still determines their health and development

by websupport September 7, 2015
As local authorities take on responsibility for public health services for young children, the National Children's Bureau's Head of Policy, Zoe Renton, discusses our new report which reveals that the North-South divide continues to have an impact on the life chances of children growing up above a certain latitude.

Using data collected by Public Health England, Poor Beginnings finds that simply by growing up in a certain part of the country, a young child is more likely to suffer from obesity, tooth decay, injury and poor development in the early years. A five-year-old growing up in Leicester, for example, is five times more likely to have tooth decay than a child of the same age in West Sussex. A child starting school in Barking and Dagenham in London is two and half times more likely to be obese than a pupil of the same age in Richmond upon Thames, just on the other side of the capital.

These experiences of poor health will not only pose problems for children in their early years, but will have implications for the rest of their lives.

But it is the gap between the North and South of the country that stands out. In the North West, thousands fewer children would suffer poor health in the first five years of their life if the region had the same outcomes as the South East. There would be, for example, 11,000 fewer children suffering from tooth decay, and 5,500 more children reaching the right level of personal and social development to help them prepare for learning and school life.

The link between deprivation and the health of young children is also clear. Those in the 30 most deprived local authorities are more likely to be obese, have tooth decay and suffer injuries, and less likely to reach a good level of development than those in the 30 least deprived areas.

However this pattern is not inevitable. There are areas that buck the trend, where young children are doing as well as or better than the national average despite growing up in difficult social and economic circumstances – like Salford with average obesity rates or South Tyneside with low levels of tooth decay.

Disrupting these regional and socio-economic trends will take strong political resolve, as well as strong leadership and an ambitious cross-government national strategy for improving the health and development of all young children.  We also need to understand and respond to those inequalities that are less easy to explain – and learn from areas where children are doing better despite high levels of deprivation.

From October, the onus will be on local authorities to support public health services for young children. However, in light of persistent regional variations and the continuing link between poverty and health, now is the time to make reducing the health gap between young children growing up in different parts of the country a new national mission.


Filed Under: Health

International Youth Day: where next for NCB?

by Richard Newson August 13, 2015

On International Youth Day, Jack Welch unpicks what he and fellow members of Young NCB are doing to have their say.

As this year’s International Youth Day celebrates the value of civic engagement, it is a timely reminder to take stock of the many challenges affecting young people across the UK and what the team at Young NCB see as their role in advocating for the organisation itself and beyond.

This month brought together a dozen activists in the cohort of Young NCB members to celebrate their achievements during the past year at a residential in Doncaster. It was also a chance to help NCB consider its future in the current political and socio-economic climate, as well as looking at how people beyond the sector could recognise how the diverse functions of the charity serve young people.

What does it mean to be ‘civically engaged’ though? While there may be no single definition, the value of young people’s participation in society to influence wider outcomes, which encourages their personal development as an asset to the community, would be a start. This is a good definition of what we do at Young NCB.

Some of the discussions at the residential, identified young people in the UK as more likely than ever to be facing economic disadvantage that will leave many of the most vulnerable without any safety net. As highlighted in NCB’s ‘Generation Next’ report last year, which found that less than two-fifths of those surveyed believed that their life would be better than their parents. Tougher restrictions on the welfare system and high debt after university are also likely to impact on the quality of life of children and young people; problems which will be picked up by charities such as NCB.

After extensive coverage of the collapse of Kids Company, the Young NCB group recognised the serious implications for the way charities would be able to do their work, with the fear that many in the course of this Parliament could close their doors and an increase in demand for those that are able to survive.

Without charities like NCB, the Young NCB members felt that their chances would be significantly worse as they would be deprived of an outlet to engage with decision-makers and other important forums.

While many more of the current generation of young people are responsible and keen to participate in civic engagement than at any other time, it cannot be forgotten that young people worldwide also face more uncertainty about their futures. Those in power must realise that the cost will be grave if they are unfairly penalised and not allowed to play their part.



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Improving the mental health of mothers

by Richard Newson July 30, 2015

How can mental health services for the crucial period before and after birth be improved? Amy Davies considers.

This week NCB and the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) are bringing together professionals from across the country to discuss how best to support women who are affected by mental health problems during pregnancy and in the first year after birth.

More precisely, we will be considering the mental health services that support mothers and their children in this period. These services, known as perinatal and infant mental health (PIMH) services, provide a lifeline for mothers with mental health issues.

Up to 20% of women will be affected by a mental illness at some point during pregnancy or after the birth of their baby, which means that each year in the UK more than 70,000 families will experience the impact of these illnesses.

The cost to the NHS of the current system is £1.2bn for each annual cohort of mothers and their babies. The wider costs to society that come about because of poor attachment between parents and their children, abuse and neglect, and the adverse impact on long term child development, are even higher, costing over £8bn every year.[1]

Providing easy access to quality services is both a moral responsibility and an economic imperative.

PIMH is a national priority for Government and health service partners. And some Strategic Clinical Network (SCN) areas have put in place approaches which are providing high quality services.

However, there remains significant variation across the country in terms of the access and availability of appropriate services. Some SCN areas have no, or at best very little and localised, provision.

One way of improving services is through more joined-up working. Strategic Clinical Networks working in the areas of maternity, children and young people, and those working in mental health currently do not have any formal mechanisms for working together.


This is one area that will be addressed at our roundtable, which brings professionals together to:

  • Discuss the importance of quality PIMH services and the role of health system partners in delivering this agenda.
  • Share ideas, potential solutions, and practice and service examples likely to help take forward key messages and address the challenges.
  • Explore the different roles that the voluntary and community sector can play in supporting PIMH and wellbeing.


NCB and MHF will be producing a report from the information and views captured at this event to inform national leaders and those working within Strategic Clinical Networks about potential improvements in the ways we support mental health and wellbeing.


We hope this will contribute to better mental health for mothers and their children, and help already stretched budgets have greater impact.


Filed Under: Early Years | Health | NCB General | Vulnerable Children


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