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Posted 09/01/2011

I forget his name, it was after all 1981, precisely at the time of the last Royal Wedding and I was lucky enough to miss the brouhaha by being in Bombay, but I do remember his story.

He came from a well heeled Parsi family and after university secured a job with Rolls Royce India who recognizing his potential sent him off to do an engineering PhD in Cambridge.

His big surprise was not moving to Cambridge but coming back after four years from Cambridge to India. He could not believe what he saw. He saw at every turn poverty and destitution. Before he left he had no sense that there was such hardship in India.  Now the earth under his feet crumbled, he left Rolls Royce and moved into anti-poverty and development work.

It happens to us all.  If you are too close or too familiar, awareness is a foreign land.

I grew up in Bellshill in sunny Lanarkshire a place with more than its fair share of pubs and Alsatian dogs. I remember around the age of 9 a conversation with my pals. They argued that Bellshill was the best place in the world. I had my doubts but found difficulty in mustering my argument.

Was Bellshill a good place to grow up or the only place we knew? Is Scotland a good place to bring up children or the only place we know?

Fortunately UNICEF has come to the rescue and studied child well-being across the OECD countries. All statistics can be exercises in selective distortion but on this occasion they might just give us an insight. An insight we can’t have, as our nose is pressed too close to our own experience.

Published national statistics were assessed over six dimensions: material well-being; health and safety; education; family and peer relationships; risks and behavior and subjective well-being.  At the top of the table came Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. Down at the foot of the table came Hungary, the United States and the United Kingdom. A colleague did some work on the statistics available for Scotland and carrying out the same analysis led to us being scored just under the UK.

Can we really be as bad as the table suggests? What do the good performers do to achieve their superior child well-being?

Eva Kocovska fled with her husband from soviet controlled Czechoslovakia. She had her first child in Sweden – a wonderful experience.  Her next child was born in Leicester – as dreadful as Sweden was good and has brought up her two children in Glasgow.  “Alan tell me” she asked one day; “ why in Britain do you raise children in the Soviet Communist way?”

Although still struggling to answer that question, I did ask someone else I know from Holland who has spent half her life in Scotland, to explain why the Netherlands did so well on child well-being. “Oh it is easy” she said, “In Holland we love children: in Scotland you tolerate children”.

So why are some countries so good at child well-being and others, like us, so poor? Is this an important question? If we think that well-being is important, then surely with the child being the father (and mother) of the man, achieving child well-being, ought to come out as a an issue at the apex of our concerns. 

What do people do to support parents and young children in countries at the top of the child well-being table? What services are provided to support parents and young children in those countries?

In the next few blogs I intend to give you some of the feeling for the answer to these questions. The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust has been good enough to award me a scholarship to look at early years and parenting in Finland and Holland.  I will visit each country for a two-week period in January and February.

My only regret is that I am not heading out in May.  It is not the cold and dark of Helsinki in January that puts me off, it is more that I would prefer to be out of the country for the next Royal wedding.

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