Global UNICEF report reveals shortcomings in delivering on children’s well-being in Australia – Pandemic creates urgency to improve for the future

Thursday 3 September 2020 – Despite being a high income country with some good national conditions for child wellbeing, including a globally well-ranked economy, Australia is falling short in delivering consistently good health, education and social outcomes for children, according to UNICEF’s new ‘World of influence: understanding what shapes child well-being in rich countries’ report.
 
“As the economic, educational and social fallout of the pandemic continues to take hold, without concerted effort, there will be a worsening, devastating impact on the well-being of today’s children, their families and the societies they live in,” said Gunilla Olsson, Director of UNICEF Innocenti. “But these risks do not have to become the reality, if governments take decisive action now to protect children’s well-being.”
 
The UNICEF international report card, produced annually, ranks Australia in 32nd place among OECD and EU countries when it comes to pre-COVID data measuring children’s mental and physical health and academic and social skillsets. On these indicators, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway rank as the top three places to be a child among wealthy countries. New Zealand is ranked 35th and the United States 36th.
 
The report concludes suicide, obesity, and poor social and academic skills are far-too-common features of childhood. Among these rich countries, Australia ranks:
 - Suicide rate per 100,000 adolescents aged 15–19 years – Australia is 37th at 9.7; Greece lowest at 1.7
 - Mortality rate per 1,000 children aged 5–14 yrs – Australia is 22nd at 0.84; Luxembourg lowest at 0.36
 - Obesity: Percentage of young people aged 5–19 years who were overweight – Australia 33rd with 34%; Japan has the lowest rate at 14%
 - Basic proficiency in reading and mathematics - percentage of children aged 15 years – Australia 21st out of 39 (64%); Estonia has the best achievement at 79%
 - Early childhood learning - Percentage with experience of organized learning one year before starting school – at 86.4%, Australia is well below average (94.7%), ranking 38th out of 41; Austria performs best (100%), UK second best (99.9%)
 - Weeks of paid parental leave available in full rate equivalent – Australia (8.6 weeks) ranks 37th well below the average of 36 weeks; Romania ranks 1st (97.1), Japan 2nd (66.1)
 - League table of conditions (policies and context) for child well-being – Australia ranks in the middle third at 18th out of 41 countries; Norway is 1st, NZ 20th, UK 27th and USA 29th.
 
In the first half of 2020, most of the countries covered in the World of influence report kept schools closed for more than 100 days while strict stay-at-home policies were implemented[1]. The report notes that loss of family and friends, anxiety, stay-at-home restrictions, lack of support, school closures, the balancing of work and family life, poor access to healthcare, combined with the economic loss caused by the pandemic are catastrophic for children’s wellbeing, affecting their mental and physical health, and their development.
 
The report calls on countries including Australia to improve COVID-19 policies that support families with children and ensure budgets that support child well-being are protected from cuts to social spending.
 
“We are fortunate in Australia that measures put in place by governments – including social protection and mental health investments – along with the community’s hard work, have helped us manage the current pandemic better than many other countries,” said UNICEF Australia Program and Advocacy Manager, Juliet Attenborough. “At the same time, young people have been telling UNICEF Australia[2] that the impacts of the pandemic are exacerbating many of the mental and physical health, education, social issues and inequalities that existed beforehand.”
 
The World of influence report recommends that countries take action to invest in quality mental health services for children and adolescents, an area where Australia ranked poorly in 35th place. Additionally, it recommends countries take decisive action to reduce income inequality and poverty and ensure that all children have access to the resources they need.
 
“Our ongoing research shows that mental health and wellbeing are critical concerns for young people, particularly over this challenging past year,” Ms Attenborough said. “Our work with those affected by drought[3] highlights the need to equip young people with skills and support through approaches that are strengths-based, community-driven, accessible and well-funded and managed by all levels of government,”
 
In line with the report’s recommendations, UNICEF Australia has called on the Australian Government to:
 - Take action to protect children against poverty by ensuring adequate social protection measures including a permanent and adequate increase to jobseeker and the youth allowance 
 - Remove barriers to accessing quality and affordable early learning and care, especially for disadvantaged families
 - Continue to invest in improving mental health and wellbeing for children and young people and the effectiveness of services designed to support them
 - Support parents and caregivers through family inclusive workplace policies 
 - Recognise children and young people as stakeholders and create opportunities for them to participate in decision making at all levels. 

“In times of crisis and calm, families need supportive governments and workplaces in order to raise the next generation of happy and healthy citizens,” said Fayaz King, Deputy Executive Director at UNICEF. “An investment in children is a direct investment in our future.”
 
“World of influence is a stark reminder that we entered 2020 with an uneven performance in ensuring children’s wellbeing,” Ms Attenborough said. “As we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and our national recovery, we need to keep investing in children’s wellbeing and address these shortcomings so that all children and young people in Australia achieve their full potential.”

The report is available here.
 
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About the UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti
The Office of Research – Innocenti is UNICEF’s dedicated research centre. It undertakes research on emerging or current issues in order to inform the strategic directions, policies and programmes of UNICEF and its partners, shape global debates on child rights and development, and inform the global research and policy agenda for all children, and particularly for the most vulnerable. Please visit: www.unicef-irc.org
 
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For more information, please contact:
Brinsley Marlay, UNICEF Australia, 0403 604 182, bmarlay@unicef.org.au
 

[1] https://ourworldindata.org/policy-responses-covid
[2] https://www.unicef.org.au/about-us/media/may-2020/unicef-australia-covid-survey-results
[3] https://www.unicef.org.au/about-us/media/august-2020/-treat-us-as-stakeholders-not-mascots-%E2%80%9D-young-p