Taking a risk with SRE is not worth the cost

by Richard Newson February 2, 2016

Young NCB’s Jack Welch considers how worrying gaps in sex and relationships education – especially for LGBT+ young people – are leaving many in the dark.

In many schools, there is an almost unwritten guarantee that some classes are slotted into timetables as an afterthought and will have no bearing on the life choices made by pupils.

Personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education is sadly a perfect example. Even since the time I left secondary school in 2009, little has changed, it seems, in the standard of teaching of vital life skills and emotional maturity necessary to make smooth transition to adulthood.

January, saw the publication of the Sex Education Forum’s (SEF) new ‘Heads or Tails’ report, where findings from a sample of over 2,000 11-25 year olds, revealed the urgency of improving sex and relationships education (SRE) across England. The Parliamentary launch of the report was chaired by Conservative MP Caroline Nokes, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image, who agreed with the need to provide statutory SRE and PSHE and for there to be a higher standard of learning within classrooms.

What makes for an interesting comparison is looking at changes over time. The percentage of 16-25 year olds who rated SRE as ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ has changed very little over the years, with the figure standing at 34% in 2008 and only decreasing to 31% in the 2015 survey.

Only for those under the age of 14 had steps been taken to provide education on relatively new issues facing the UK, like female genital mutilation (FGM), with 40% of younger pupils having learnt about FGM at school, compared to 22% across all age groups. Despite this, failures to educate pupils on subjects around consent and identifying abuse will have a significant social cost if young people are not confident enough to make informed choices about their bodies and not enabled to report dangerous individuals when they feel exploited. With 53% responding that they could not recognise when someone is being groomed for sexual exploitation, it only compounds the findings from the Ofsted report in 2013, which found that PSHE in many secondary schools only serves to emphasise the ‘mechanics of reproduction’, as opposed to areas around healthy sexual relationships and staying safe. Although ‘the mechanics’ may be more likely to be covered at school the Sex Education Forum survey still found that 16% leave primary school without having learnt correct terminology for genitalia.

The launch event in Parliament also gave an opportunity for myself and others invited in the room to find common ground on failures such as inadequate training for teachers and that learning is very much heteronormative - where classes promote heterosexuality alone - and  many of those who question their sexuality or identify as Trans are not sufficiently accounted for. In previous recommendations the Sex Education Forum has called for inclusive education and ensuring teachers are more than able to teach the subject with confidence, without feelings of embarrassment or prejudice on certain topics, but in reality this is still not widespread. It is a tragedy to witness the casual use of homo/transphobic slurs without any thought of the consequences or impact it has on those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or Trans, or confused as to their sexuality. All this because of outdated curriculum standards.

In a country that is still coming to terms with the extent of child sexual exploitation and where technology is enabling new cruelties like revenge porn, not giving pupils the basic knowledge around consent or what constitutes a healthy relationship is making a generation enter adulthood in the dark. With many of these problems occurring well before the age of 18, it is time for the Department for Education to take a decisive stance on this subject and make SRE fit for the modern world. 


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Missing education

by Richard Newson December 16, 2015

At any one time thousands of children are not in school. Amy Edwards looks at new research that seeks to understand why children are missing education and what can be done to turn the problem around.

‘Children missing education’ is an official term used to define those who are not on a school roll and not receiving a suitable education otherwise than at school.

Last year, an NCB Freedom of Information act found that almost 8,000 children and young people in over half of all local authorities in England were recorded as ‘missing education’ on any given day. We estimate this equates to nearly 15,000 children and young people missing education at any time across England.

Many of these children and young people were recorded as ‘whereabouts unknown’; the local authority did not know why they were not in school or where they were. This is particularly concerning because a child missing education is at significant risk of failing academically and being out of education, employment or training in later life, as well as at risk of harm or neglect. Such children are amongst the most vulnerable in society.

As well as attracting nationwide interest, these findings also sparked the attention of NCB’s Research Centre who were keen to understand why some children and young people were missing education and give a voice to those who had personal experience of this.

We approached Lankelly Chase, who want to bring about lasting change in the lives of people facing multiple disadvantage. With their support, we will be involving three local authorities and 18 families in this research project. We want to understand the pathways that lead to children missing education as well as find out what children and their families think would support their children to remain in or return to education. Our findings will be used to improve systems and develop an evidence base to improve policy and practice in this area.

We are currently in the early stages of our research project and are very interested to hear your experiences of children missing education and policy and practice surrounding this. If you, or someone you know or work with, has experience of missing education or you feel you can contribute to our research in any way, please get in touch via email rryder@ncb.org.uk or call us on 020 7843 6811.


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Children and the police

by Richard Newson December 9, 2015

One year on from a major inquiry into the policing of children and young people, there is still much to be done, says Kerie-Anne Ivory from NCB’s policy team.

We know that children’s first encounters with the police can have a lasting effect on how they view the police and go on to engage with them as adults. Getting the relationship right from the start can help reduce the criminalisation of children and young people.

But often that relationship is soured because of rules governing how the police respond to crime-related behaviour.

Take for example, the case of a 12-year old boy at school who gets involved in a playground fight and then is found with a small penknife in his pocket afterwards. The police are called and the boy is charged with violent behaviour but police don't know he is a child who is deeply troubled due to being bullied by his friends and abused by parents. Are the best interests of the child being served by him being burdened with a criminal record?

This was one of the concerns raised by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children’s (APPGC) inquiry into children and the police (which is clerked by NCB’s policy team). The group’s latest report highlights the progress that has been made in the last year to strengthen the frameworks that govern police forces’ work with children and young people.

It is has been heartening to see real changes that will help ensure that all children and young people under the age of 18 have their rights promoted in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  A National Strategy for the Policing of Children and Young People, which has the potential to transform policing practice for the benefit of children, young people and wider society, has also been launched.  These, and other improvements, will go a long way towards ensuring that every person under the age of 18 is treated as a child, first and foremost, in all interactions with the police.

However, more still needs to be achieved.  Unfortunately, vulnerable children and young people are needlessly being drawn into the criminal justice system because police cannot use discretion over what information they record. The APPGC report highlights the case of a 14-year-old who was added to the local police database for sexting with a peer. The APPGC is calling for the introduction of a new crime recording category which allows police forces to record low-level crime-related behavior in a way that protects children from obtaining a long-term criminal record whilst making sure that they are referred to a welfare agency for support and intervention.

A change in the way crimes are recorded would also benefit children in care, who the inquiry found are at particular risk of being criminalised. Currently, the police must formally record minor incidents when they are called to children’s homes, even those that would usually be dealt with by parents if the child was living at home.  Schools have a protocol for dealing with minor incidents, where head teachers are supported to use their discretion over whether an incident should be reported to the police.  The APPGC is calling for the way incidents are dealt with in children’s homes to mirror the approach taken by schools, so that children in care will not be left with a criminal record unnecessarily. 

One year on from the APPGC inquiry, a lot has been achieved. We hope that all agencies involved will continue to work towards making the recommendations of this latest report a reality. If we are mindful of children’s needs and vulnerabilities we can prevent children from being needlessly drawn into the criminal justice system and allow them to grow up with a more positive attitude to the police. But the police can't bring about these changes alone, especially if their hands are tied by inflexible regulations and the lack of a clear vision for sustaining outreach work with children and young people.

‘Building Trust – one year on’ is available from: www.ncb.org.uk/appgcpolice


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The vision is to give every child the best start in life. But where’s the plan?

by Richard Newson December 3, 2015

The Autumn Statement provided little help for local authority services aimed at vulnerable children, argues Anna Feuchtwang.

For those of us expecting a very sombre occasion last Wednesday, the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement and Spending Review provided some surprises. Rather than giving in to the NHS call for an additional £4bn, the chancellor gave the health service £6bn. Rather than just alleviate the pain of tax credits cuts for working families, he reversed the plan completely (although the cuts will still hit down the line under Universal Credit). This was all welcome for those who depend upon a national health service struggling to meet rising demand and for the families who were expecting to have to cope with a sudden average cut of £1,300 to their yearly household income.

However, the lack of any clear vision or investment plan for children's services in the Spending Review was a real blow for children’s well-being, and for society as a whole.


Too many young children are starting life on the back foot – one in ten children starting school are obese and four in ten do not reach a good level of development at age five – and the gap between rich and poor and between the English regions persists and is unacceptable. We know that demand for children's services is increasing, with the number of children in care at a thirty year high and similar increases in child protection cases.


In this context NCB had hoped to see additional investment for children in care and child protection services, action to help local authorities protect early intervention services that families need and a sign of real commitment to building up public health service provision. Disappointingly, our expectations were not met.


Commitments around social care spending were focused firmly on adults, with a power for local authorities to increase council tax to raise funds for adult social care and an increase in the Better Care Fund, promoting greater join-up across health and social care. There is no equivalent fund to enable services to work together around the needs of children. And it is not clear whether these measures, along with the ability to retain more of their business rates, will help local authorities address the funding gap left by a 24 per cent cut in the central government grant.


Funding for public health – now sitting with local authorities – will be reduced by 18 per cent by 2020-21, which NCB estimates equates to a cut of over £500 million per year, putting pressure on health visiting, school nursing and sexual health services – support that has the potential to make a permanent reduction in demand on NHS care. An announcement that gained little attention was the planned £600 million cut to the Education Services Grant, funds that go to local authorities to provide education welfare support and health-related services through schools, important for keeping children on track when they are growing up in complex circumstances or with additional therapeutic needs.  This is on top of cuts of more than 50 per cent in government funding for local authority early intervention services over the last five years.  


So while Wednesday’s news was better than had been trailed by the Chancellor, the implications for children and families continue to be a cause for serious concern. NCB will continue to call on government to transform services for children so that we can intervene early to stop problems becoming crises. Otherwise, I fear, at Spending Review 2020, we’ll still be talking about an underfunded NHS and adult social care services struggling to cope with demand. 


Read NCB’s statement in response to the Spending Review at: http://www.ncb.org.uk/news/ncb-statement-on-the-spending-review-and-autumn-statement


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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: www.ncb.org.uk/ictandme


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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 www.eyto.org.uk



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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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