Working together to secure the best possible future for every child – regardless of where they live
ARCs from across the North collaborated on an influential piece of work which has been backed by MPs, highlighting the challenges and inequalities that children living in the North of England face, compared to their peers in other parts of the country.
The ‘Child of the North’ report has been jointly produced by the Northern Health Science Alliance (NHSA) and leading academics from the NIHR Applied Research Collaborations for the North East and North Cumbria, North West Coast, Greater Manchester and Yorkshire and Humber. It was part-funded by Research England and the N8 Research Partnership.
Its lead authors hosted a parliamentary launch in March 2022, alongside N8 Partnership colleagues, who co-funded the research.
In the lead up to the launch, MPs discussed the Child of the North Report in a Westminister Hall Debate, led by Liz Twist, MP for Blaydon, Tyne & Wear – where she described the work as a ‘major new report’ and explained that it shows the many ways that regional inequality blights the lives of children and adults, including through higher levels of poverty, poorer educational attainment, higher levels of infant mortality, lower life expectancy and worse mental health outcomes.
Her comments were supported by several MPs including Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne Central, Debbie Adams, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, and Catherine McKinnell, MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne North.
More than 15 MPs attended the launch
More than 15 MPs attended the launch event, and pledged to become ‘Child of the North Champions’ – by advocating for a fairer future for children in the North of England, sharing the report widely, tabling Parliamentary questions and joining a new Child of the North All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG).
The report’s lead authors Professor David Taylor-Robinson (ARC North West Coast) and Professor Kate Pickett (ARC Yorkshire and Humber) spoke about its key findings, including the troubling picture of child poverty in the North compared to the rest of the country and how this has worsened during the pandemic.
They urged MPs to amplify the findings of the report and work together to drive real change, calling on policy makers to invest in young people now or else have society as a whole face the consequences in years to come.
Attendees also heard from 13-year-old Alyssa Cole, from Liverpool Youth Advisory Group – a charity which provides mental health and emotional wellbeing services for Liverpool’s children, young people and families.
Professor Clare Bambra from the ARC North East and North Cumbria, said:
“For too long, a lack of investment in key services in the North have meant that our children have suffered disproportionately. They are more likely to suffer ill health, to have lower educational attainment, and to live in care or poverty. The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened these inequalities and it will cast a long shadow across generations unless we act now.”
Professor Kate Pickett from the ARC Yorkshire and Humber added: “Levelling up for the North must be as much about building resilience and opportunities for the Covid generation and for future children as it is about building roads, railways and bridges. But the positive message of this report is that investment in children creates high returns and benefits for society as a whole.”
Professor David Taylor Robinson from the ARC North West Coast said: “Children growing up in the North of England get a bad deal. Due to poverty and lack of investment, their outcomes are worse across the board – from risk of death in childhood, to obesity, mental health, and education, and the pandemic has made the situation worse. The stark inequalities exposed in our report are preventable and unfair. Levelling up must begin with better policies for children.”
Dr Luke Munford from the ARC Greater Manchester added: “The report shows us that without significant, properly-funded measures to tackle the entrenched inequalities experienced by children in the North of England, from birth, there will be no levelling up in the country.”
What does the report cover?
The report looks at a wide range of factors, from child poverty to children in care, to build up a picture of The Child of the North. It sets out 18 clear recommendations that can be put in place to tackle the widening gap between the North and the rest of England.
It shows that:
- Children in the North of England’s loss of learning, experienced over the course of the pandemic, will cost an estimated £24.6 billion in lost wages over lifetime earnings.
- Children in the North are more likely to be obese than a child elsewhere in England. At Year 6 (age 11): 22.6% in the North compared to 20.5% in the rest of England.
- Children in the North have a 27% chance of living in poverty compared to 20% in the rest of England.
- They have a 58% chance of living in a local authority with above average levels of low-income families, compared to 19% in the rest of England.
- Compared to children in England as a whole, they are more likely to die under the age of one.
- They missed more schooling in lockdown than their peers elsewhere in England. Only 14% received four or more pieces of offline schoolwork per day, compared with 20% country-wide.
- The mental health conditions that children in the North developed during the pandemic could cost an estimated £13.2 billion in lost wages over their working lives.
- Children in the North are significantly more likely to be in care than those in the rest of England. Of the local authorities with more than 100 children per 10,000 in care, 21 of 26 are in the North.
- Pupils in the North East and Yorkshire and Humber lost 4-5 times more learning in primary maths compared to areas in the South (4.0 and 5.3 months’ learning loss respectively, compared to less than a month in the South West and London).
- During the pandemic children in the North were lonelier than children in the rest of England. 23% of parents in the North reported that their child was ‘often’ lonely compared to 15% in the rest of the country.
- Their parents and carers were also more likely to have often been lonely during the first lockdown: 23% in the North compared to 13% in the rest of England.
- Prior to the pandemic, the North saw much larger cuts to spending on Sure Start children’s centres. On average, spending was cut by £412 per eligible child in the North, compared to only £283 in the rest of England.
- More than one in five children in the North are from an ethnic minority. These children are more likely to live in a deprived area than children from an ethnic minority in the rest of England.
Recommendations from the report
The report authors have set out recommendations to tackle the inequalities suffered by children over the course of the pandemic. They include:
- Increase government investment in welfare, health and social care systems that support children’s health, particularly in deprived areas and areas most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Tackle the negative impacts of the pandemic in the North through rapid, focussed investment in early years services, such as the Health Improvement Fund. This should include health visiting, family hubs and children’s centres – as supported in the Leadsom review – but with investment proportional to need and area-level deprivation adequately accounted for.
- Commissioners of maternity and early years services must consider the impact of pandemic-related service changes on inequalities in families and children’s experiences and outcomes. This must shape service delivery during the recovery.
- Take immediate measures to tackle child poverty. Increase child benefit by £10 per child per week. Increase the child element in Universal Credit and increase child tax credits.
- We must feed our children. Introduce universal free school meals, make the Holiday Activities and Food Programme scheme permanent, and extend it to support all low-income families. Promote the provision of Healthy Start vouchers to all children under five and make current government food standards mandatory in all early years settings.
- Government should prioritise support to deprived localities by increasing the spending available to schools serving the most disadvantaged pupils in England. This requires a reversal of the current approach to resource allocation: the new national funding formula will deliver 3–4 percentage points less funding to schools in poorer areas relative to those in more affluent areas.
- Support educational settings to initiate earlier interventions. Teachers and early years professionals see many of the first indicators of children’s risk and vulnerabilities. Prioritising strong pupil and staff relationships and collaboration with parents/carers will ensure a firm foundation for meeting children’s needs, and for a return to learning.
- NHS England and the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities should adopt a public mental health approach that includes a focus on mental ill health prevention early in the life-course, recognising the importance of early detection and prompt access to professional treatment.
- Government should invest in and develop a place-based monitoring system for understanding the longer-term mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and parents. Targeted support should then flow to families where needed, including outreach services more closely tailored to the needs of vulnerable parents.
- Area-level measures of children’s physical and mental health should be developed to better understand place-based inequalities.
- More National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) research should be undertaken into the relationship between child health and economic performance, in particular in understanding the likely causal pathways between these in order to identify entry points for policy.
- Government should reinvest in services that tackle domestic abuse, recognising the part domestic abuse plays, not only in children entering care, but also in high conflict divorce and separation cases, which also feature disproportionately in the North.
- Address the uneven geographic distribution of children’s residential care, including secure provision, in order to reduce the disproportionate burden on the North.An impact assessment of the disproportionate costs to a range of services in the North due to the number of children with complex care and support needs, is needed and long overdue.
- Embed Equity Impact Assessments in all COVID-19 recovery and other policy processes relating to socioeconomic deprivation at national, regional and local levels.
- Use Children’s Rights Impact Assessments to anticipate and evaluate the specific impact of COVID-19 recovery strategies on children and young people. Collect, disaggregate and publish relevant data so that the impact of the pandemic on children can be routinely evaluated.
- Promote and expand the Race Disparity Audit, sharpening the focus on children and drawing on disaggregated data by region. Ethnicity should be included in all national public health data collection systems, including child and maternal health datasets.
- Increase the representation of ethnic minority staff within public services and in decision-making processes with specific recruitment targets, recruitment campaigns and greater transparency on the percentage of ethnic minority staff. This should be particularly in leadership positions, in order to reflect the populations served.
- Local COVID-19 recovery strategies must be grounded in internationally recognised human rights-based values and principles, notably those contained in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989.
The report was initially launched in December 2021, and achieved widespread national media coverage and commentary, including Sky News, The Mirror, The Daily Mail, BBC News online and Press Association. It also achieved extensive regional coverage across Northern media including broadcast, print and online.