Why the digital divide matters for children’s future prospects

By Steven McGinty

One of the biggest myths of modern times is that all children and young people are ‘digital natives’. That is, they have developed an understanding of digital technologies as they’ve grown up, rather than as adults. But this view has been heavily contested, with research highlighting that young people are not a “homogeneous generation of digital children”.

In the media, the issue is rarely given attention. Instead, news reports focus on the use of futuristic technologies in the classroom, such as East Renfrewshire Council’s recent announcement of their investment of £250,000 in virtual reality equipment. The less spoken truth is that many children and young people are leaving school without basic digital skills.

In 2017, the Carnegie Trust UK published a report challenging the assumption that all young people are digitally literate. They highlighted that as many as 300,000 young people in the UK still lack basic digital skills, and that although more are becoming digitally engaged, the division is deepening for those that remain excluded.

In particular, the report highlighted that vulnerable young people are most at risk, such as those who are unemployed, experiencing homelessness, living in care, in secure accommodation, excluded from mainstream education, or seeking asylum.

Research by the UK Digital Skills Taskforce has also found that many young people lack digital skills. However, an arguably more worrying finding from their study was that 23% of parents did not believe digital skills were relevant to their children’s future career success. This suggests that digital literacy is as much associated with socio-cultural values as to whether you are Generation X or Generation Y.

Similarly, the CfBT Education Trust examined the digital divide in access to the internet for school students aged five to 15. It found that children from households of the lowest socio-economic class access the internet for just as long as those from other backgrounds, but they are significantly less likely to use the internet to carry out school work or homework. As a result, the report recommended that interventions should not focus on improving access but rather ensuring that students are using technology effectively.

Further research by the CfBT Education Trust found that only 3% of young people did not have access to the internet, and suggested that schemes which provide students with free equipment are in danger of wasting resources.

Many believe digital skills are essential for academic success. This includes the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, who in 2017 recommended that digital skills should be taught alongside reading, writing and mathematics, rather than in specialist computer science classes.

Research, however, is unclear on the digital divide’s impact on educational performance (for example, research has shown that smartphone use has no impact on education attainment). But teachers are concerned about their pupils, and in a 2010 survey 55% of teachers felt that the digital divide was putting children at a serious disadvantage.

However, there are organisations offering hope to young people. For instance, Nominet Trust’s Digital Reach programme is working with leading youth organisations to increase digital skills amongst some of the UK’s most disadvantaged young people. Vicki Hearn, director at Nominet Trust, explains that:

Digitally disadvantaged young people are amongst the hardest-to-reach and we need new models to engage with them to disrupt the cycle of disadvantage and exclusion. Our evidenced approach gives us confidence that Digital Reach will have a tangible impact on the lives of those who have so far been left behind.”

Final thoughts

Whether someone has digital skills or not is often a mix of their socio-economic class, cultural values, and even personality traits. However, if everyone is to prosper in a digital society, it will be important that all children and young people are encouraged to develop these digital skills, so they can utilise the technologies of tomorrow.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

Addressing social mobility through education – is it enough?

School children raising hands. View from behind.

We looked at the issue of social mobility and education last October, highlighting that although there has been continued investment by successive governments, the rate of progress is slow:

“it has been estimated that at the current rate of progress it will take 50 years to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils in England.”

Since then, it seems the situation surrounding social mobility has become even more precarious.

Key priority?

The issue of social mobility is an historic one and it is claimed to be a key priority for the current government, which is working towards addressing the issue through education via its recently published national plan and the work of the Opportunity Areas programme.

However, in December all four board members of the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) resigned over the government’s lack of progress on social justice, and in January, Education Secretary, Justine Greening, who played a key role in both the Opportunity Areas programme and social mobility action plan, also resigned.

The resignation letter of the Chair of the SMC, Alan Milburn, praised Justine Greening for having “shown a deep commitment to the issue”, but noted that “it has become obvious the government as a whole is unable to commit the same level of support.”

The last publication of the SMC, published in November, highlighted the existence of “a stark social mobility postcode lottery” in Britain and substantial inequalities in educational attainment linked to social disadvantage and place. The derailment of the SMC and subsequent loss of an education secretary openly committed to the issue, can therefore only be cause for concern.

Nevertheless, the government continues to stress its ambition of ‘no community left behind’, with a continued focus on initiatives such as Opportunity Areas.

Opportunity Areas

Opportunity Areas are part of the government’s national plan for dealing with social mobility through education.

The programme targets £72 million of funding at 12 areas identified as the most challenged when it comes to social mobility. The first six areas were announced in October 2016, with a further six announced in January 2017. The aim is to bring together schools, colleges, universities, early years providers and employers to improve the life chances of disadvantaged children.

The 12 areas will also have priority access to other government support including the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund worth £75 million, focused on supporting teachers and school leaders in challenging areas to develop. And a new £3.5 million programme will support the creation of a research school for each opportunity area.

While the programme has been welcomed by many, it has also been criticised.

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) has recognised it as a ‘good start’, but highlights that there are numerous other areas across the country that are not covered by the programme where social mobility is stagnating or even getting worse. It also suggests that the system continues to fail to meet the needs of certain vulnerable groups, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, those from Gypsy Roma or Traveller communities, and Black Caribbean children.

Concerns have also been raised over challenges facing the programme, which included capacity, including the risk of overloading the system.

Other concerns that have been recently cited have included school funding cuts, which could effectively cancel out the programme’s funding for some, and the criteria used to select areas, which could be an issue while there is a lack of clarity on the relationship between social mobility and disadvantage.

Education Datalab has argued that targeting through geography alone is inadequate and that both area-based and individual focused policies are needed.

Way forward

Much of the commentary on the social mobility issue has hinted at the need for a national, rather than or in addition to  a local focus. Indeed, the SMC recognised the need for a more wide-ranging government response in its assessment of policies on social mobility published last year.

And in its new report out last week, the Education Select Committee called for greater powers and resources for the SMC to enable it to tackle social injustices effectively. It also suggests, based on evidence from the former members of the SMC, that the government needs to co-ordinate the social justice agenda from the centre to ensure all departments are aiming in the same direction.

The government’s plan for addressing social mobility through education clearly acknowledges the scale of the challenge:

“this plan is only an important step in a long-term process to improve social mobility and spread equality of opportunity… To achieve this will take time, it will take an incredible amount of determination and focus, and it will take an unprecedented partnership. But, together, it is possible.”

But if the government fails to adopt a more wide-ranging response to promoting social mobility, as so many have advocated, perhaps it will take even longer to achieve than previously estimated.


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Youth participation and citizenship: hearing young people’s voices in North Ayrshire

2018 is the year of young people in Scotland. The idea is to inspire Scotland through its young people, celebrating their achievements, valuing their contribution to communities and creating new opportunities for them to take the lead.

Research published by the Scottish Government in 2018, Young people’s participation in decision making in Scotland: attitudes and perceptions showed that while many thought “adults” were good at listening to their views, many other barriers to having their views and opinions heard existed for young people. One of the main challenges was a feeling that young people’s views are discarded because “‘it doesn’t fit with what they (adults) want to hear”.

Hearing young people’s voices

The North Ayrshire Youth Participation and Citizenship strategy is a “unique and transferable” youth-friendly children’s rights engagement process, which informs local policy, corporate priorities and strengthens the voices of young people in local communities.

The framework “values and respects” youth participation as fundamental in the ongoing work to enable all aspects of community life to prosper. The programme of youth engagement undertaken at North Ayrshire saw them awarded a COSLA Gold award in a ceremony at the end of 2017.

The Youth Participation and Citizenship strategy sets out how young people across North Ayrshire can play an active role in their schools and communities. The framework encourages and supports the engagement and participation of young people across a range of areas including:

  • YouthBank YouthBank Scotland is a grant making and empowerment initiative run by young people for young people. It builds on young people’s skills and experiences to enable them to give cash for action, funding young people’s ideas for the benefit of the wider community.
  • Participatory budgeting initiatives  where young people can help to decide on funding applications for local projects.
  • Local participation initiatives – including Youth Forums, Pupil Councils, North Ayrshire Youth Council, Youth Groups, Eco Committees, Sports Leadership and Peer Education schemes.
  • National participation initiatives  the Scottish Youth Parliament, British Youth Council and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) National Youth Council.

In December 2017, North Ayrshire launched its Year of Young People 2018 plan. Activities include ‘Joint Cabinet Live’ which will bring together young people from all over North Ayrshire via a live video link, to interact with the Council’s Cabinet Members on the issues faced by young people living in the area.

Co-production and giving young people a choice

There is a strong focus on co-production, facilitating decisions to be made with, not to young people. There is also an understanding that engaging young people in all aspects of community life, both at a social and an administrative level can have positive consequences for the whole community, not just for the young people who participate.

The council engages with young people to ensure that they know their voices are heard and that council policy reflects their needs and aspirations for the future. It builds the skills and confidence of young people who have the opportunity to participate and can strengthen community engagement and cohesion as more people become involved.

As part of the North Ayrshire participatory budgeting initiative, funding was allocated to youth projects across North Ayrshire, and young people given the opportunity to vote for where they thought the money should be spent. Each young Scot in North Ayrshire, was able to vote for three projects they thought would most benefit from receiving funding (projects varied depending on which North Ayrshire locality they lived in, but were all organised either by or for the benefit of young people in the region). They were able to vote in school, as well as in colleges, local youth clubs, or from home using their Young Scot card number to go online and register their choices. The results were announced on 9 February 2018 and saw funding allocated according to the votes of young people, with almost 7000 young people taking part, almost 50% of those eligible.

Award winning approach

In 2017, the North Ayrshire youth services team were awarded the COSLA gold award for their efforts. The award recognised the work of  the Youth Services team in creating a culture of participation, which allows young people to have a real impact in shaping the services the Council delivers. For example, the Council operates a joint Youth Cabinet, which allows young people to work alongside Elected Members and be directly involved in the decision-making process.

North Ayrshire’s engagement approach has been seen as a blueprint for engagement across the community within towns and cities across Scotland. Three months into the “Year of Young People”, other local authorities are being encouraged to follow suit and rethink how they engage and use the voices and opinions of young people within their communities to support inclusive decision making.

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Exploring Barnahus: a Nordic approach to supporting child abuse victims

Barnahus (which literally means Children´s house) is a child-friendly, interdisciplinary and multiagency centre where different professionals work under one roof in investigating suspected child sexual abuse cases and provide appropriate support for child victims.

Learning from the Nordic countries

Barnahus has assumed a key role in the child protection and child justice systems of many Nordic countries, including Sweden and Iceland. While there are some small differences in definition of the model across these nations, the general principle remains the same: to create a one-stop-shop for services that children can access under one roof. Services range from country to country, but usually include a combination of police, criminal justice services, child and adolescent mental health practitioners, paediatric doctors and social services.

The Barnahus model involves a high level of interdisciplinary working between different teams and allows for a complete package of care and support for a child to be created to reflect their needs. Within the Barnahus centres there are normally facilities including medical rooms, interview rooms, courtrooms, and residential facilities for those young people deemed at risk and who need to be taken immediately into temporary residential care.

Evaluations of areas that use this model of intervention have found significantly better outcomes for child victims and their families because of the multidisciplinary and multi-agency approach. Some discussions have also suggested that creating an adapted model for adult victims could also be a possibility in the future.

Reducing the trauma for victims of child sexual abuse

In England, it is estimated that only 1 in 8 victims of child sexual abuse are identified by the authorities. Children who disclose that they have been sexually abused face multiple interviews in multiple settings to a number of different people, often asking them the same questions. This can be confusing and frightening, as well as traumatic for many children who have to repeatedly recount the story of their abuse. Once the interview process is over, they can also then face long waiting times to access specialist therapeutic support.

The Barnahus model seeks to reduce some of the trauma experienced by victims of child sexual abuse by making the approach child-focused, emphasising the importance of a positive, safe and supportive environment in which to be seen by specialists, give evidence and receive support. For example, within the models used in Iceland children and young people are interviewed and examined within a week of the abuse allegation being made. These interviews are all conducted and recorded in a single location with specially trained officers and medical professionals, and they are then used in court as evidence, avoiding the victim having to revisit court in order to give evidence or testify.

Inside the centre, a specially trained interviewer asks questions, while other parties watch via a video link. Any questions they have are fed through an earpiece to the interviewer. Lawyers for the accused have to put all their questions at this point.

Another benefit to the model is that children who are interviewed are then able to access immediate assistance and counselling; in the current system in England, children may face cross-examination in court months after the alleged abuse, and would have to wait for victim support therapy.

Allocation of funding from government

In 2017, in response to the success reported in the Nordic models, the UK government earmarked Police Innovation Funding of £7.15m to help establish and roll out a similar scheme in London, which would see criminal justice specialists working alongside social services, child psychologists and other services and, it is hoped, pave the way to create a UK-wide Barnahus model in the future.

Building on the existing model in London, CYP Haven, which provides largely clinical, short term care, will provide a multi-agency, long-term support and advocacy service that is expected to support over 200 children and young people each year. Criminal justice aspects of aftercare will be embedded in the service, with evidence-gathering interviews led by child psychologists on behalf of the police and social workers, and court evidence provided through video links to aid swifter justice.


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The kids are all right? Embedding children’s rights in town planning policy and practice

 

A survey undertaken by YoungScot to accompany the Scottish Government’s Places, People and Planning consultation concluded that the majority of young people felt that they should be involved in planning in their local area and that their local councils should look at ways to support children and young people to do this.

The current Scottish Planning Bill contains a number of provisions that aim to do just that – including enhancing the engagement of children and young people in shaping their local areas through the statutory development plans, and the requirement for planning authorities to use methods that will secure the engagement of children and young people.

The right to participate

This focus upon children’s participation in the planning system can be viewed as part of a wider move towards the greater acknowledgement of children’s rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The UNCRC sets out the fundamental rights of all children and young people across the world.  It states that the best interests of the child must be a top priority in all decisions and actions that affect children.  There are, therefore, many aspects that are directly relevant to the planning system.

Indeed, the right to participate in decision-making (Article 12); and the right to participate in play, rest, leisure and culture (Article 31) are particularly pertinent.  These include:

  • The right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities.
  • An environment secure from social harm and violence, and sufficiently free from pollution, traffic and other hazards that impede free and safe movement.
  • Space to play outdoors in diverse and challenging physical environments, with access to supportive adults, when necessary.
  • Opportunities to experience, interact with and play in natural environments and the animal world.
  • Opportunities to explore and understand the cultural and artistic heritage of their community, participate in, create and shape it.
  • Opportunities to participate with other children in games, sports and other recreational activities, supported, where necessary, by trained facilitators or coaches.

Child-friendly cities

Children’s rights are also at the heart of the Child Friendly Cities Initiative (CFCI):

A child friendly city is the embodiment of the Convention on the Rights of the Child at the local level, which in practice means that children’s rights are reflected in policies, laws, programmes and budgets. In a child friendly city, children are active agents; their voices and opinions are taken into consideration and influence decision making processes.”

Four key principles of the UNCRC are considered to be particularly pertinent to the CFCI initiative:

  • Non-discrimination – a child-friendly city is friendly and inclusive for all children
  • Best interests – putting children first in all decisions that affect them
  • Every child’s right to life and maximum development – providing the optimal conditions for childhood, including their physical, mental, spiritual, moral, psychological and social development
  • Listening to children and developing their views – promoting children’s active participation as citizens and rights-holders, ensuring their freedom of expression

Awareness and understanding of children’s rights among planners

However, in her research on children’s role within the town planning system, Dr Jenny Wood found that there was little acknowledgement or understanding of children’s rights under the UNCRC.  Indeed, planners commonly believed that the provision of schools, parks and designated play facilities were all that was required in order to meet children’s needs.

Dr Wood argues that if public spaces and the planning process are to become more inclusive, then planners need to develop a better understanding of children’s rights.  In a separate blog, she sets out five key steps to help embed children’s rights in the everyday work of planners and other practitioners:

  • specific children’s rights training for planners
  • government guidance on, and suggested methods for, engagement with children and young people
  • the creation of a robust and routine feedback mechanism between planners and child participants
  • encouraging networking, collaboration, and skills exchange between planners, play workers, and youth workers
  • the collation of an accessible evidence base on children, young people and their relationship to, and use of, the built environment

Future directions

There are some wider signs of progress – including the introduction of Children’s Rights and Well-Being Impact Assessments (CRWIA), which are now required for all new policy developments in Scotland, and new measures that require specific public authorities in Scotland, including all local authorities and health boards, to report every three years on how they have progressed children’s rights as set out in the UNCRC.

The current reform of the planning system offers an ideal opportunity to further advance children’s rights by encouraging and supporting local planning authorities to involve children and young people in planning as part of their everyday practice.


Feeling inspired?  Why not read our previous blog posts on involving children in the town planning process and the creation of child-friendly cities.   

Idox Information Service members can also download our briefing on Planning a child-friendly city via our customer website.

What makes a city child-friendly?

In 1996, Unicef launched one of the first initiatives to promote a child-friendly approach to urban design – the Child Friendly Cities Initiative (CFCI).  Since then, interest in the design and development of ‘child-friendly cities’ has grown significantly.

In the UK, the CFCI has inspired a number of city-based initiatives that, while not officially part of the CFCI, have adopted its ethos.  Examples include the Bristol Child Friendly City (CFC) movementChild Friendly Leeds and Bath and North East Somerset Child Friendly City and Community.

There is a common perception that the provision of parks and playgrounds is sufficient to make an environment ‘child-friendly’.  However, in reality, many different aspects of the urban environment have significant impacts upon children’s health, wellbeing and development.

What do children want?

According to Suzanne Crowhurst Lennard, Founder and Director of the International Making Cities Liveable conferences:

There are three things that children need in their normal everyday world: face-to-face social interaction with a community of all ages; direct interaction with nature; and the chance to develop independence at every age

Indeed, research has consistently found similar overarching themes.

The role of good urban design

Good urban design clearly has a central role to play in the creation of such environments.  But what does this mean in practice?

One indicator of good urban design is the extent of children’s independent mobility. However, over the past few decades, this has declined significantly.  For example – the number of primary school children travelling home from school alone fell by 61% between 1970 and 2010. High traffic volumes and unwelcome public spaces are partly responsible for this.  These are two areas that planning can directly influence.

Studies have found that a carefully planned mix of accessible green spaces within a reasonably dense structure might provide the most child-friendly environment. A dense urban structure promotes active journeys to school (e.g. walking or cycling), increases independent mobility, and means that locations meaningful to children, such as parks and green spaces, are only a short distance away.

Other child-friendly design elements include:

  • parks, playgrounds and sports and community centres
  • zones with priority for pedestrians, players and cyclists
  • access to landscaped green areas, open spaces and nature
  • affordable and accessible transport options

For children living in poorer areas, opportunities for play in and around the street can be an important alternative to more costly leisure and recreational activities. Indeed, Play Streets where streets temporarily close to enable children to play have been successful in Bristol and London.

Similarly, a key theme to emerge from a report by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) was the importance of making provision for ‘slack space’ within the urban environment that is conducive to spontaneous re-use and re-invention by children and young people.

Ten top tips for building a child-friendly city

Leading child’s play researcher and advocate, Tim Gill, highlights a succinct 10-point checklist for child-friendliness, based on the work of a Vancouver urbanist and writer Jillian Glover. Important factors for building a more child-friendly city include density, family–oriented housing, walkability/bikeability, and access to nature.

Intergenerational interaction

Urban design not only influences the way that children use and access public spaces; it can also facilitate interaction between different generations. Flexible public spaces and community initiatives such as gardening and food-growing projects provide great opportunities for young and older people to come together.

Research by Future Cities Catapult has looked at ways of encouraging better intergenerational encounters in urban areas.  Examples include shared service hubs and ‘accidental’ encounters in public space.  There is a clear crossover between the needs of children and older people in cities.

Designing for teenagers

Of course, children have varied needs across their life course – from babies to older teenagers.  A study by Growing Up Boulder – a child-friendly city initiative in Boulder, Colorado, USA – found that some of teenagers’ most consistently requested features for public space included Wifi, affordable and diverse food options, and lighting and safety features.

A city that works for everyone

As well as addressing the different needs of different groups of children, there is also a need to cater for children and young people with specific needs, such as those on the autistic spectrum or those with disabilities.

As such, child-friendly urban design shares many of its principles with that of other movements, including the design of cities for older people, those with disabilities and those with dementia.  Indeed, many of its principles, such as improved road safety, walkability and accessibility of public transport, are of universal benefit, regardless of age or disability status.

As Peter Madden, Chief Executive of the Future Cities Catapult, has observed::

If a city works well for very old and very young people, it is likely to be a city that works for everyone”.


Keen to make your city more child-friendly?  Why not read our previous blog post on involving children in the town planning process.   

Idox Information Service members can also download our briefing on Planning a child-friendly city via our customer website.

Is technology really the answer to social isolation and loneliness?

Old man sitting on a benchBy Steven McGinty

As we head towards Christmas, the media is filled with images of families coming together and enjoying the festivities. However, the reality is that many people will not be spending the Christmas period with loved ones, and will be spending the festive season alone.

In April, Future Cities Catapult produced a report into the impact of social isolation and loneliness. They highlight that those experiencing social isolation and loneliness have an increased likelihood of developing health conditions such as dementia (1.9 times more likely) and depression (3.4 times more likely). In addition, there is a 26% increased risk of mortality.

The report also included findings from the Mormont Review, highlighting that in emergency situations social networks have a significant impact on recovery.

Individuals who are socially isolated are between two and five times more likely than those who have strong social ties to die prematurely. Social networks have a larger impact on the risk of mortality than on the risk of developing disease, in the sense it is not so much that social networks stop you from getting ill, but that they help you to recover when you get ill.

It’s this substantial impact on people lives’ – and the costs to the health service – which has led to many public bodies looking for ways to tackle social isolation and loneliness.

Technology-based interventions, in particular, are some of the most innovative approaches to addressing the issue that affects over half of all people aged 75 and over who live alone, as well as increasing numbers of young people. Below we’ve outlined some of the most interesting examples.

CogniWin

CogniWin provides support and motivation for older people to stay active and in employment by providing smart assistance and well-being guidance. It helps people to adapt cognitively with their work tasks through their interactions with a system (which collects information using an intelligent mouse and eye tracking software). A virtual Adaptive Support and Learning Assistant then provides feedback, which helps the older person adapt their working lifestyle or have the confidence to take up a part-time job or become a volunteer.

Casserole Club

Casserole Club is a social enterprise that brings together people who enjoy cooking and who often share extra portions with those who may not be able to cook for themselves. Founded by FutureGov and designed in partnership with four local authorities, the service uses its website to allow volunteers to sign up and search for diners in their area (most of which, are over 80 years old). Overall, there are 4,000 cooks nationwide, and 80% of diners highlight that they wouldn’t have much social contact without the Casserole Club.

Family in Touch (FIT) Prototype

The Family in Touch (FIT) prototype was developed by a team of Canadian researchers who noticed that elderly people in care homes and retirement communities often touched photographs in an attempt to connect with family members. Based on this, the team created a touch screen photo frame which sent a message to a relative to say that they were thinking of them. The relative was then able to record a video message, which could be viewed by the elderly person in the photo frame. It was found that elderly people appreciated the simple design and tactile user experience.

Final thoughts

These are just some of the innovative tools being used to tackle social isolation and loneliness. And although technology is not the whole solution, it can certainly provide new opportunities for projects seeking to provide friendship and support to those who feel disconnected.

Individually, we can also make a difference. Even just making a phone call to an elderly relative, sending a message to an old friend, or visiting a neighbour, can brighten up someone’s day.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

Involving children and young people in town planning

By 2050, it is estimated that nearly 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas.  In the UK, this figure is expected to be closer to 90%.   This demographic shift, along with population growth in general, means that more children than ever are growing up in urban environments.

This has a number of implications for the town planning system.  Creating a ‘child-friendly’ environment requires much more than just ensuring there are enough parks and play spaces.

As well as having a fundamental human right to participate in decisions that affect them, there are clear links between children’s health, wellbeing and development and the quality of their surrounding environment.  Particular areas of influence include:

  • housing quality
  • road safety
  • the walkability of an area
  • opportunities for cycling
  • play facilities
  • access to greenspace
  • local amenities such as libraries and community/leisure centres
  • environmental pollution
  • community safety/fear of crime
  • access to healthy food choices

One key way to address this is to involve children in the planning process. As well as helping to create safer, more suitable environments for children to grow up in, involving children in decisions about their local areas has a number of additional benefits.  It helps to build social capital, helps children to form a bond with their home city, and fosters a feeling that they can help to make a change in the world they live in. For planners, involving children can help to provide them with a new perspective on how children use their environments, and highlights issues that adults may not recognise or fully understand – potentially leading to improved design.

Participation methods

Research published in 2011 found that children’s voices had been “notably absent from UK planning and regeneration policies throughout the past two decades”. Children’s participation in planning tended to be focused on services that were designed ‘for them’ rather than ‘with them’, and little attention was given to children’s roles in the wider regeneration agenda.

However, there are some examples of successful involvement.  Methods that have been used successfully range from formal mechanisms such as youth councils, child-led surveys and data collection, to informal ones such as photography, computer-aided mapping, model building and role-play.  Dr Jenny Wood reports that she had success with a delightfully low-tech method, where children were asked to annotate A3 OS maps with a range of stickers, post-it notes and pens, to highlight their likes, dislikes, routes to school and any other information they felt was important about their local area.

At the other end of the scale, some particularly innovative examples capitalise on recent technological advances.  These include the use of mobile phone apps to make traffic reports (see Case Study 1 below), the use of Minecraft (see Case Study 2 below), mapping their local area (Children’s Tracks in Norway) and the use of the SoftGIS methodology in Finland.

Case Study: Traffic Agent, Norway

A new app-based initiative in Oslo, ‘Traffic Agent’, directly involves children in transport planning. It enables children to provide direct feedback on road safety, based on their own experiences.  The app makes use of ‘gamification’ whereby users act as “secret agents” for the city, sending immediate reports on their route to school when they come across, for example, a difficult crossing on the street or an area of heavy traffic.

The project lead, Vibeke Rørholt, illustrates its impact: “I received a telephone call from the mother of a little boy who had reported some bushes that meant he couldn’t see when he was crossing the street. And two days later the bushes were cut. She phoned in saying he’s so happy that he could make this happen.”

Case study: Blockbuilders, England

Blockbuilders is an innovative method of involving communities, and children and young people in particular, in the town planning system.

Using the hugely popular game, Minecraft, the Blockbuilders team create a 3D representation of a local area.  The model is then used as the basis for consultation with the wider community, and can be interacted with and played with to enable communities to help design and shape their local areas.  Projects have included the development of Lewes Neighbourhood Plan, the development of a family-friendly park by Brighton and Hove City Council, and an interactive map of Brighton and Hove.

Common success factors for children’s effective participation

There is no one definition of ‘good’ or ‘effective’ participation practice – the most suitable method depends on the age of participants and the nature of the decision that they are being involved in. However, in their review of children and young people’s participation, the Ecorys project identified a number of common ‘success factors’ for children’s effective participation in planning and regeneration. These include:

  • Official recognition of children’s fundamental rights
  • Partnership working, e.g. planners, local government, academics, NGOs, community organisations and residents
  • Involving adults with knowledge and experience of young people’s participation
  • Utilising a range of diverse participation mechanisms
  • Understanding participation as a ‘whole’ process of learning and change
  • Openness and reciprocal learning between children and adults
  • An incremental and realistic approach to goal setting and developing trust/confidence
  • Visibility in the results
  • Embedding at different levels and spatial scales

Challenges

Despite the compelling arguments in favour of children’s participation in the planning system, a number of barriers exist.

There is a general lack of awareness of the purpose, benefits or skills required for facilitating young participation among planners.  Children are often viewed as being incapable of engaging in a meaningful way, despite research concluding otherwise.

Children’s participation in planning is frequently still viewed as ‘special’, rather than as part of general community engagement processes.  It tends to be focused specifically on children’s services, rather than the wider range of universal services, and takes the form of consultation, rather than proper involvement in every phase of the decision making process.

A number of political and structural barriers also limit children’s potential influence – such as competing interests within the planning system and the short timescales often required for decisions.  This can mean that even when the intentions are there, planners themselves may have limited time or influence over the decision making process.

Future steps

However, these challenges are not insurmountable.  As we have seen, through its influence on the design of the urban environment, the town planning system has a huge impact upon the wellbeing and development of children.  By involving children in the design of their local environment, it can help create environments that support children to reach their fullest potential.

Children who are involved and interested in their local environment will hopefully grow up to become adults who are involved and interested in their local environment.  The town planning system is in a unique position to help facilitate this.  And as Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia has said:

If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people”.


Keen to make your city more child-friendly?  Next month we look at the characteristics of child-friendly urban design. 

If you can’t wait, why not download our briefing on Planning a child-friendly city – available to Idox Information Service members via our customer website.

The rhetoric of social mobility continues… yet disadvantaged pupils continue to fall behind

skills gap

By Heather Cameron

Despite continued investment to improve social mobility, it has been estimated that at the current rate of progress it will take 50 years to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils in England.

Recent analysis of government data shows the gap between the most disadvantaged pupils and their non-disadvantaged peers has actually worsened over the past decade.

The research, conducted by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), found that while there has been some progress in closing the gap for disadvantaged pupils (those eligible for the Pupil Premium), this has been slow and inconsistent. The gap has also been shown to vary between areas.

And, perhaps most worryingly, for pupils described as ‘persistently disadvantaged’ (i.e. those that have been eligible for free school meals for 80% or longer of their school lives), the gap has widened – leaving these pupils over a year behind their non-disadvantaged peers at the end of primary school and more than two years behind at the end of secondary school.

Widening gap

The attainment gap is evident in the early years, continuing to grow throughout school.

Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were found to be 19.2 months on average behind their peers at the end of Key Stage 4. While this represents a narrowing of the gap by 2.7 months since 2007, this is not consistent across the board. And the gap for ‘persistently disadvantaged’ pupils increased by 2.4 months over the same period.

The EPI analysis indicates that the disadvantage gap grows by five months between Key Stage 1 and 2, and by 10 months between Key Stage 2 and 4.

Persistently disadvantaged pupils are shown to fall even further behind at all phases. For them, the gap grows from six months at the end of Key Stage 1, to 12 months by the end of Key Stage 2 and 24 months by the end of Key Stage 4.

It is argued that the differential rates of progress pupils make need to be tackled to stop the gap from growing throughout the stages.

Indeed, the issue can’t be solved with a one size fits all approach, particularly as there is significant variation across the country.

Variation

The disadvantage gap between local authorities ranges from no gap to seven months in the early years, five to 13 months at the end of primary school and one month to over two years at the end of secondary.

The gap is generally smaller in London, the South and the East at around 16-18 months at the end of secondary. In comparison, the East Midlands and the Humber, the North and the South West experience a much larger gap of 22 months. The largest attainment gap was found on the Isle of Wight, where disadvantaged pupils were 29 months behind their peers on leaving secondary school.

The gap was also found to become worse in rural areas. In Cumbria and Northumberland, for example, the gap widens from nine months at the end of Key Stage 2 to over 25 months by the end of secondary.

But there is also evidence of particularly good performance and notable improvements made in recent years. In Newham, disadvantaged five year-olds perform as well as non-disadvantaged five year-olds nationally, on average. And in Richmond-upon-Thames and Windsor and Maidenhead, the gap for disadvantaged secondary school pupils has closed by over six months since 2012.

This would suggest that there is certainly potential for dramatic improvements in reducing the gap in other areas.

Government action

As an historic problem, successive governments have taken action to address it via investment and targeted interventions. The current government is also working to address the issue, including through Opportunity Areas.

The EPI suggests that while this may be a good start, there are other areas across the country that are not covered by these where “social mobility is stagnating or even worsening”. And it also highlights that the system continues to fail to meet the needs of certain vulnerable groups, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, those from Gypsy Roma or Traveller communities, and Black Caribbean children.

In addition, recent commentary from the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, raised concerns over schools focusing on exam results at the expense of the curriculum, leading to many disadvantaged children being shut out from acquiring a rich and full knowledge:

“It is a risk to social mobility if pupils miss out on opportunities to study subjects and gain knowledge that could be valuable in subsequent stages of education or in later life.”

It has been suggested that government pressure to improve performance has led to a focus on exam and test results. But Spielman argues that this is a mistake on the part of school leaders as it should “not be taken as read that higher scores for the school always means a better deal for pupils”.

Final thoughts

Clearly, while it shouldn’t be forgotten that progress has been made, a lot more needs to be done if the disadvantage gap is to close any time soon.

As the EPI concluded: “If we carry on at this pace, we will lose at least a further three generations before equality of outcomes is realised through our education system.”


If you enjoyed reading this post, you may also like our previous blogs on education-related topics.

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Are smartphones damaging young people’s mental health?

by Stacey Dingwall

Last week saw the launch of Universities UK’s #stepchange campaign – a framework that aims to help universities support the mental wellbeing of their student populations. In their case for action as to why the framework was needed, the organisation noted that recent years have seen an increase in the number of student suicides in the UK and the US, as well as an increase in the number of students reporting mental health issues.

Both countries rank in the top 10 in terms of smartphone users across the world, with close to 70% of each country’s population being smartphone owners. And within that percentage, 18-24 year olds are the highest using age group.

Smartphone dependence and its impact

Earlier this year, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) released a report that looked at the impact that the ubiquity of smartphones is having on young people’s mental health, focusing on their social media activity. Some of the headline figures from the report include the fact that over 90% of the 16-24 age group use the internet for social media, primarily via their phones. It is also noted that the number of people with at least one social media profile increased from 22% to 89% between 2007 and 2016. Also on the increase? The number of people experiencing mental health issues including anxiety and depression.

Can rising anxiety and depression rates really be linked to increased internet and smartphone use? The RSPH report notes that social media use has been linked to both, alongside having a detrimental impact on sleeping patterns, due to the blue light emitted by smartphones. This point came from a study carried out at Harvard, which looked at the impact of artificial lighting on circadian rhythms. While the study focused on the link between exposure to light at night and conditions including diabetes, it also noted an impact on sleep duration and melatonin secretion – both of which are linked to inducing depressive symptoms.

So what’s the answer? Smartphones aren’t going away anytime soon, as seen in the excitement that greets every new edition of the iPhone, a decade on from its launch. With children now being as young as 10 when they receive their first smartphone, parents obviously have a role in moderating use. This inevitably becomes more difficult as children grow up, however, and factors such as peer pressure come into play. And it’s also worth acknowledging that heavy smartphone use isn’t restricted to the younger generation – their parents are just as addicted as they are.

Supporting children and young people

In February Childline released figures which stated that they carried out over 92,000 counselling sessions with children and young people about their mental health and wellbeing in 2015-16 – equivalent to one every 11 minutes. Although technology clearly has its impact – the helpline has also reported a significant increase in the number of sessions it carries out in relation to cyberbullying – the blame can’t be laid completely at its door. Although the world has gone through turbulent times in the past, it’s been well documented recently that today’s young people have it worse than their parents’ generation, particularly in terms of home ownership and job stability. Others have pointed towards a loss of community connections in society, and children spending less time outdoors than previous generations – not only due to devices that keep them indoors but also hypervigilant parents.

In fact, perhaps we hear more about mental health issues experienced by children and young people because smartphones and social media have given them an outlet to express their feelings – something previous generations didn’t have the ability to do. What we should be focusing on is how to respond to these expressions – something we’re still not getting right, despite countless reports and articles making recommendations to governments on how they can do better in this area.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other articles on mental health.