Children in NI face plenty of problems (part one)

29 Jun 2018 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 29 Jun 2018

The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) has just released a comprehensive report on the problems faced by local children right now. It deserves close attention.

Education in Northern Ireland would have "folded years ago" if it was a business.

Strong words from the Children's Commissioner that made headlines last week.

Koulla Yiasouma said this, and more, as part of her inaugural Statement on Children's Rights in Northern Ireland (SOCRNI).

And more means a lot more. The statement contains a number of strident criticisms identifying "systemic failures in areas including education, poverty and mental health."

The commissioner said: “While it is clear the lack of a Government is preventing improvements being made to the lives of our children and young people, there is also a history of slow progress on children’s issues which pre-date the collapse and add to systemic failures in their lives.”

It seems that not only will this statement become a regular occurrence, it is well set up to track progress on identified issues - and, if this progress is not up to snuff, expect the commissioner's observations to be measured but not shy.

In this first report, Ms Yiasouma continued: "There is insufficient evidence that resources are spent as well as they could be and whether the various education sectors in NI represent value for money.

"We are failing to have the honest and open conversations that set aside vested interests and put all our children at the centre of decision-making."

These observations about education, in particular, coverage in the daily press last week – but the paper has a lot more to say about all manner of difficulties faced by children in Northern Ireland.

In a two-part article, Scope examines what NICCY says in more detail.


One of the key bases for the report is the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and, specifically, the committee's concluding remarks on Northern Ireland (made in 2016 following its latest periodic examination of the UK).

These remarks feature a number of recommendations across different areas of society relating to children and, parallel to the commissioner’s statement, NICCY (using input from NI departments) has created a Monitoring Table to assess improvements and implementations related to the UN committee's observations.

NICCY is a rights-based organisation and thus is duty bound to have due regard of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The bulk of the report is parsed into appraisals of the socioeconomic circumstances of children in NI, which come under the headings of what NICCY has identified as nine "key priority areas of work" (with each area being compared to what is expected under the UN Convention).

This week and next, Scope will go through each key priority area in turn, presenting what is not even a full summary of all the detail raised in NICCY's report but something that will provide a good flavour of the issues being highlighted and, ultimately, the commissioner's recommendations to tackle these manifold (and often interlinked) issues.

Child poverty

In NI, children are more likely than adults to be in poverty and this has "consistently" been the case. Currently around 118,000 children, 27% of the total, are estimated to live in poverty.

Those living in workless houses are, unsurprisingly, more likely to be in poverty (65%) compared with homes where all adults work (11%) but nevertheless most children in poverty actually live in households where at least one parent works.

The impacts of poverty on children's lives are also significant - infant mortality is 16% higher in the most deprived areas than in the least - with knock-on effects into adulthood:

  • Children born into poverty statistically live shorter lives (women -4.4years, men -7.0 years)
  • Children born into poverty statistically have fewer years of good health (women -14.6 years, men -12.2 years)

"Currently the poverty rate for working age adults is 18%, nine percentage points less than the child poverty rates. The gap is even larger between children and pensioners: pensioner poverty is currently 15%, almost half the poverty rate for children.

"It is important to recognise the success of government policy in reducing pensioner poverty, which must be maintained, and it is vital that there is also a concerted effort to reduce child poverty in Northern Ireland...

"While eradicating child poverty was a strong UK government commitment 10 years ago, it is clear that currently there is less of a focus on reducing child poverty. Evidence from across the UK indicates that welfare reform changes have disproportionately targeted families with children."

Calls to action:

1. Meeting the material needs of children, through increasing family incomes, including by ensuring that there are sufficient, decently paid jobs for parents and young school leavers;

2. Allocating resources to mitigate against recent changes in social security benefits, including the Two-Child Limit, ensuring that the social security system is the safety net intended to prevent families falling into poverty;

3. Developing and implementing a comprehensive action plan to eradicate child poverty, including introducing affordable childcare, tackling educational inequalities, social exclusion and homelessness.

Mental health

It is accepted wisdom that we have a mental health crisis. Unfortunately, when it comes to children and young people, the picture is not clear, says NICCY, because of a lack of epidemiological research on prevalence of various conditions.

"There are a range of additional indicators which demonstrate the increasing scale and complexity of mental health problems occurring in under 18’s and points to these issues appearing at an increasingly younger age. Indictors available to us include youth suicide rates, anti-depressant prescription rates for 0-19 year olds, self-harm rates for 0-18 year olds, self-reported poor emotional wellbeing by children and young people and referrals to family support services for emotional and behavioural support. It has been estimated that mental health need in Northern Ireland is 25% greater than England."

So we know there is a huge problem but mostly because of the long shadow it casts.

Mental health provision in general is critically underfunded in Northern Ireland, so it is alarming to read that "services for under 18’s only receives 7.8% of the total mental health budget, this is despite the fact that there is much evidence to demonstrate the growing scale and complexity of mental health problems within this age group.

"There is also strong international evidence that adolescence years is a peak time for the onset of mental health problems, and therefore the child and adolescent years should be the focus for a greater proportion of investment, in order to prevent or reduce problems becoming more complex and deep seated."

Some of the information that is available shows that Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) simply do not have the resources to deal with the current situation and, at the same time, demand is soaring.

Waiting times are not always a great indicator of the quality of a health or social care service but in mental health it is clearly important.

"According to current... targets, no one should have to wait longer than nine weeks for an appointment with CAMHS, however, this target was missed 130 times in 2016.

"Furthermore, this figure represents an increase of 62% on the previous year, and a rise of 136% from 2014. The percentage of referrals “not accepted” at first appointment to step 3 CAMHS has risen from 33% in 2013/14 to 42% in 2015/16 and is significantly higher than other parts of the UK.

"Professionals that work within the CAMHS system or support young people to access CAMHS are working within an environment where demand is out-stripping its ability to respond."

Calls to action:

1. Demonstrating robust strategic planning and investment in children and young people’s emotional well-being and mental health, these are necessary steps in order to embed consistency in the availability and quality of services;

2. Developing robust data monitoring systems to better identify need and direct resources to best effect;

3. Tackling the root causes of poor mental health by applying a ‘health in all policies’ approach to policy making, at all levels, and across all sectors;

4. Delivering on existing CAMHS improvement plans that have identified areas where resources are required. This includes ring-fencing investment to implement actions and which must include robust and transparent oversight mechanisms


Educational inequalities - this was the area that received the most media coverage and this is understandable, because the report is scathing:

"There are marked inequalities in Northern Ireland with regard to attainment in education. Specific groups of children and young people are much more likely to do better or worse in education depending on their characteristics and /or circumstances."

The report points out huge numbers of groups who do less well than the general population when it comes to attainment at GCSE and A level.

This includes looked-after children, those in poorer economic circumstances - using free-school-meal eligibility (FSME) as a proxy - Traveller children, those from ethnic minorities, and boys generally. It also criticises grammar schools' seeming inability to fuel social mobility, pointing out FSME rates are 14% in grammar schools and 40% in secondary settings.

However, it goes further, saying that deeper analysis is difficult because pretty much the only meaningful statistics collected are those with regard to GCSE and A level results.

"It is unclear whether children and young people in Northern Ireland are getting an effective education in line with Article 29(1) of the UNCRC. While data on educational outcomes is available from the Department of Education and other sources, this tends to focus almost exclusively on the educational attainment of young people in GCSE and A level examinations.

“There are no measurements of long term educational outcomes which relate to the development of the personality, talents and abilities of individual children as required by the UNCRC.

“While educational qualifications are important, the achievement of a child rights compliant education system in Northern Ireland requires a broader examination of outcomes in education which encompass the, ‘distance travelled’ by each individual child. This should include a clear focus on the development of the personality, talents and skills of all children in education in Northern Ireland."

NICCY also highlights a looming funding crisis in local education, calling for a structural overhaul of our systems (as big a political football as anything else in Northern Ireland).

Calls to action:

1. Ending the educational attainment gap between specific groups of children and young people;

2. Removing all barriers to every child’s full participation in, and access to, a child rights compliant education system, including supporting LGBT, newcomer, LAC and children with SEN, and addressing the costs of education to families;

3. Ensuring that the focus of education is on the development of every child’s talents, skills and abilities as well as academic achievement; promoting children’s wellbeing and measuring same;

4. Having an urgent debate and consultation on how we fund education in Northern Ireland, and whether resources can be identified, streamlining the education system and reducing duplication, to ensure that all children have access to an effective education regardless of their circumstances.

Part two next week.

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