The gap between British children from wealthy and disadvantaged backgrounds is growing because of a failure by the government to tackle inequalities in child health, education and income, according to a new Unicef report.
Warning that the UK is trailing behind a range of other developed countries by failing to reduce inequality in child well-being, the UN’s children’s rights body directly criticised the government by predicting that its ambitions to eradicate child poverty were unlikely to materialise in the near future.
Among key areas of concern, Britain was also ranked bottom out of 37 countries for the disparities in healthy eating between children from differing social and financial backgrounds.
The study, Report Card 13, which is published on Thursday, is the latest highly critical view of the UK from the UN and follows interventions such as the 2013 call by the body’s special investigator on housing for the scrapping of the bedroom tax.
“We must be more ambitious for our children, Britain can and must do better,” said Lily Caprani, Unicef UK’s deputy executive director, who called on the government to urgently adopt a childhood obesity strategy that promotes and supports healthy lifestyles for low-income children.
“It must also act to further reduce income inequality, which includes protecting social transfers.”
Identifying a disparity in healthy behaviours among children as one of its key areas of concern, the report said that the UK had the largest difference among all the countries studied in the levels of healthy eating (consumption of fruit and vegetables) between children from low and high socio-economic status. This was accompanied with with one of the largest gaps in the levels of physical activity.
Inequality in education was also flagged, with the UK being ranked 25th out of the 37 countries – behind Slovenia, Poland and Romania – in reading, maths and science.
Denmark was ranked first in the report’s findings, while Israel and Turkey were found to have the highest levels of child inequality. The UK was ranked 14th overall, tied with Germany, Greece and Hungary.
Aside from the criticisms, Unicef said that the UK performed better on the measure of income inequality, where it sits seventh overall.
But it said that social transfers – such as working tax credits – nearly halve the relative income gap.
“Without the significant contribution of social transfers, it is estimated that the income gap would be among the highest in Europe,” the agency added.
“The lack of progress means that ambitions to eradicate child poverty in the UK are unlikely to be realised in coming years.”
The children’s commissioner Anne Longfield said in a reaction to the report that while children and young people in Britain had “great opportunities”, the report report highlighted the difficulties faced by up to a million children who continue to fare worse than the majority.
“We know from other research that there has been progress in some areas – rates of teen pregnancy and alcohol consumption have decreased – but it is critical struggling families and children get the support they need, particularly in early childhood, before problems take hold,” said added.
It was because of this that Longfield said she was backing proposals for an early years indicator to measure disadvantage, as well as encouraging local authorities to “revolutionise” support provided to the most vulnerable children by applying for a share of recently announced government funding.
A government spokesperson said: “We’re working to eliminate child poverty and improving life chances for children and there are now 300,000 fewer children in poverty.
“We know there’s more we can do and that’s why we’ve introduced ‘the national living wage’, which is increasing the incomes of the lowest paid.
“All infant pupils can now get free school meals – meaning 1.3 million more children get a nutritious free meal at lunchtime, saving families hundreds of pounds. And we continue to spend £80bn a year to provide a safety net for those who need extra support.”
The study is part of a Unicef’s Report Card series, which focuses on the gap between children at the bottom and those in the middle of societies.
Report Card 13 examined inequalities between children during a period spanning the global financial crisis and recession.
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