Former children's commissioner Sir Al Aynsley-Green on why the UK is failing its children

The North East-born doctor is back in the region to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Children's Foundation

Sir Al Aynsley-Green
Sir Al Aynsley-Green

One of the region’s best-loved charities is this week celebrating its 25th anniversary. Children’s Foundation founder Sir Al Aynsley Green is proud of its legacy but tells Ken Oxley that the UK is lagging behind other countries when it comes to childhood health and wellbeing.

He may have a knighthood and countless other accolades to his name, but miner’s son Sir Al Aynsley Green also takes great pride in his Northumbrian roots.

Sir Al was born in Northumberland and spent the first 10 years of his life here, and though he moved away, he has strong links with the region and has returned often.

Today the former children’s commissioner – and president elect of the British Medical Association – will be a guest of honour in Newcastle as 25 years of the Children’s Foundation and its Yellow Brick Road appeal are celebrated.

It was Sir Al’s vision that gave birth to the charity and whilst he hasn’t lived in the region since a spell working at Newcastle University, he remains in touch with the charity’s key staff.

Its mission – to help children have happy, healthy, safe lives – has not changed. However, the challenges it faces to realise its goals have. And when it comes to discussing those challenges, Sir Al pulls no punches.

“The evidence shows that the UK – and England in particular – is one of the most child-unfriendly countries in the developed world,” he says.

“If you look at all the aspects of children’s lives and examine the hard data for health, education, social care and their experiences in the youth justice system, you will find we have some of the worst outcomes.

“The inconvenient truth that needs to be spelled out is that whilst we have countless wonderful children and young people, all is far from well for too many of them compared with those in neighbouring, equally wealthy countries.”

This will come as a shock to many. But Sir Al’s experiences travelling the world and examining how political and social values differ make him ideally placed to draw such conclusions. He is not alone, either and indeed much of what he is saying is backed by the British Medical Association’s recent report, Growing Up in the UK.

Sir Al cites the lack of awareness of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (FASD) as an example of how the UK is lagging behind other countries over child health.

He says: “In Canada, they are totally persuaded that exposure to alcohol before birth is the single most important preventable cause of learning disabilities, brain damage, poor behaviour and even criminality – and are spending huge sums of money on prevention and supporting mothers and children.

“But here in the UK, we are simply not doing enough to raise awareness of the dangers of consuming alcohol when pregnant or doing enough to support mothers-to-be to help them make informed choices.

“And I am afraid that is all part of a culture in which children’s issues are not deemed to be important.”

An issue even closer to home for Sir Al is the “patchy at best” provision of services for children coping with bereavement in the UK.

He lost his own father – unexpectedly following complications during a routine operation – at the age of 10, just one year after the family had uprooted and moved to Surrey.

At the time, the young Al was also having to cope with playground bullies poking fun at his “funny accent”.

Against the odds, he got into grammar school and was determined to become a doctor, motivated by a desire to save lives so that other children would not have to go through the trauma he endured at so young an age.

He believes that it is because he has first-hand experience of childhood bereavement and bullying that he is able to relate so well to today’s children facing the same issues.

He says: “My plea is for us to understand the pressure on children and to listen to what they have to say. Our politicians must be made aware of the impact their policies have on children, and they must be encouraged to direct resources to support them.

“I am patron of the National Child Bereavement Network, which works with 200 groups across the country, and I can tell you that every 20 minutes in the UK a child loses a parent.

“That’s quite a challenge for any organisation, but it does amazing work – and these are the sorts of organisations we need in this country if we are going to take the wellbeing of children seriously. At the moment, we’re just not doing that.”

Many of the problems Sir Al is so keen to highlight have always been there, as his own experience demonstrates.

“But I think the pressures on children’s emotional health are much more serious now than they were 20 or 30 years ago,” he says.

“We live in the internet age, and it’s a fantastic development. But it also has a dark side and cyber bullying is just one of the nasty problems today’s children have to deal with.

“We are also living in a hugely consumerist society and we know that companies invest billions of pounds in marketing to target children.”

He speaks of a recent visit to Finland where headmasters were appalled to learn about our politicians’ obsession with Ofsted reports, SATS testing and league tables – something they don’t have, and don’t want to have.

“Finland is one of the best countries in the world to be a child,” he says. “Children don’t start formal education until they are seven. Before then they go to nurseries that are at the heart of their communities, where they are looked after and taught by highly-trained staff, all graduates, most of whom also have masters degrees.

“It’s a country that allows parents generous leave – they are concerned about promoting the family, whereas in the UK we are more concerned about getting mothers back into work.”

The UK’s failure to tackle children’s mental health issues is also stoking up problems for the future, he warns.

“The situation in this country in relation to child and adolescent mental health is a scandal,” he says.

“The evidence is stark – we understand that one in 10 children has a diagnosable mental health challenge or emotional difficulty. And the data suggests less than a quarter of those children are able to get access to the services they need.

“We need to address this situation as a matter of urgency because we need today’s children to grow up to become healthy, educated, creative and resilient adults capable of supporting our ageing population.

“This is because the old age dependency ratio – the number of working adults per pensioner – could drop from four to one to as little as two to one in the not too distant future.”

On the 25th anniversary of the Children’s Foundation, Sir Al added: “The charity is needed now more than ever to be a beacon of hope in reminding society that children and young people – especially those who are sick, disadvantaged and voiceless – deserve the very best of facilities and resources to meet their needs.”

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