Children and Social Policy in Europe: What Progress?

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy.  Click here to access the article.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has its 30th birthday this year. By any standard it has been enormously successful; it is commonly agreed that in terms of speed of signup and national ratification it is one of the most successful UN conventions ever (the USA along with Somalia and South Sudan are the only countries in the world not to have signed up). We also have considerable policy engagement from the EU. The European Parliament’s 2015 commitment to a child guarantee – which the incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has just endorsed – is novel and ambitious. The guarantee follows a rights-based approach, aiming to ensure that “every child in Europe at risk of poverty (including refugee children) has access to free healthcare, free education, free childcare, decent housing and adequate nutrition”.

These kinds of development suggest that we are well on our way to becoming a child-centred society. In this article I question not only whether that is the case but how we would know whether it is the case. What is a child-centred social policy and what are the obstacles towards achieving it? These are vital questions. The article is an attempt to think through and investigate some of the complex issues involved and crystallise the meaning of ‘child-centredness’ from a policy perspective, as well as progress in that regard. The examination of relevant developments across the EU over the last 10 years or so indicates that child-related provision is prominent in policy reform – consider the expansion of early childhood education and care and the growth of parenting-related leave – but we are a long way off from a child-centred social policy.

That said, the complexity involved in social policy from a child’s perspective is huge. It is not just because children are minors and hence need to be protected; or because the age span of 0 to 18 involves a universe of difference in capacities. It is also because we are accustomed to not seeing children in their own right; they are usually ‘hidden’ in families or adult institutions which we reconstruct as or assume to be ‘child friendly’. Hence, a major cultural shift is involved: putting in place a child-centred social policy has the power to upend many of the things we take for granted.

But our analytical frameworks also need to be up to the challenge of identifying the significance of different approaches to children. In this article I develop a tripartite framework, differentiating between policies that are family-centred, childhood-centred and child-centred. The analytic categories that differentiate these approaches include whether adults or children are the primary focus, whether the engagement with children is direct or indirect, the exact entitlement and the desired outcomes. In the latter regard for example, policy could conceive of child-centredness in terms of guaranteeing sufficiency of family income, aiming for a well-resourced and serviced childhood, recognising and resourcing children in their own right or, indeed, empowering children as citizens.

The analysis of policy that I pursue in this article shows that most of our child-related measures are family-centred, targeted indirectly at children through parents and family (for example child benefit or child tax credits). The only exceptions are when ‘children’ aged 16 and over receive cash allowances to stay on in school or other educational facility (such as the education maintenance allowances in Wales and Northern Ireland or similar benefits in Sweden). Social policy, then, continues the tradition of relating to children though mediating institutions. At root is the patriarchal nature of policy and society which is part of the reason why it is such a huge jump to consider children autonomously. Of course young children need protection and so family appears a natural repository of child-oriented measures. My point is not that these do not benefit young children and are to some extent necessary but, rather, that policy clings to them far longer than is necessary.

There are I suggest at least two other – more direct – ways in which policy is and can be child-focused. To see the nuances involved we need to recognize the rather fine differences between policies targeting childhood from those focused directly on children as rights holders.

Childhood-oriented social policies seek to resource childhood as a phase of the life course. The most obvious expression of this is in early childhood and education and care services. This type of provision is becoming the sine qua non of a good policy on childhood, driven especially by philosophies about social investment and the gains from early child intervention which promote the role of the welfare state in developing human capital, even that of very young children. This is the root of much social policy development in relation to children in recent years. While this is of course a benefit to children, it is substantially different to an approach that focuses on the child as a person with agency. A key difference lies in valuing children as ‘beings’ – treating children as of inherent value as individuals and seeing children as a valued social group in society – rather than for what qualities and achievements they may display when they become adults if we invest in them now. Children are more than a source of capital valued for its future yield.

This brings us to the third suggested lens through which to interrogate policy: the extent to which the child as a person and/or children as a social group or category of actors are foregrounded by policy. While difficult to disentangle, the essence is whether policy recognises children in their own right (rather than locating them within the family) and how far policy extends to granting children resources and enabling their agency (as against imbuing them with capacities because they are part of a life course generation). Agency, one of the most complex concepts in the social science lexicon, needs to be pinned down in relation to children who are generally seen as having only limited capacity for agency, especially when very young. To pin it down, it is helpful to think of agency as something as achieved (rather than as a state or property) and as requiring from policy certain resources. The possible resources include: access to income, services, and opportunities for participation that enable their autonomy.

We have seen that social policy today provides children with little or no direct access to income but that services for children are growing, especially in the educational sphere. The notion of children’s participation – which is one of the principles of the UN Convention approach and is prominent in some of the rhetoric around children and gets at the idea of children having a say and being given more power – has seen limited progress. In regard to children’s participation in play and other recreational/cultural activities for example, a recent report assessing developments across the EU since the 2013 Recommendation on Investment in Children found that only seven countries had improved their relevant provision, with the situation in the majority remaining unchanged.

Greater progress is reported on children’s participation in matters to do with their welfare, with nine member states considered to have strengthened their policies and practices in relation to children’s participation in decision-making in areas that affect their lives (especially by putting in place children’s councils or advocacy and consultative measures for children). And nearly all EU member states have some form of participatory structures for children and young people at a national level; most commonly national youth or children’s councils (in all member states) or children or youth parliaments (in 12). Participation by teenage youth is what is targeted most widely here however and younger children remain more or less outside the power structures. Overall then, when we look at the extent to which policy across EU countries is relating to children as individual people, my assessment is that progress is slow and limited.

Some will say that progress is slow because the task is complex. I agree that complexity is certainly part of the challenge. But it is not the only reason for slow progress. I suggest that we have not made the necessary transition to seeing and recognizing children in their own right and being committed to hearing their voices, understanding their standpoints and resourcing them as valued members of society in their own right. The pattern overall is that the family and adult institutions remain the preferred ‘go to’ problem solvers. It is time we rethought this and considered how we can better recognize and integrate children as citizens and peers.

 


About the author

Mary Daly is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Oxford.

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