Children and young people in Northern Ireland are being failed in key areas such as education, poverty and mental health.
In her inaugural ‘Statement on Children’s Rights in Northern Ireland’ report, Northern Ireland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, Koulla Yiasouma, has highlighted a number of “systematic failures” and said the lack of a devolved Assembly is preventing improvements being made that would benefit children’s lives.
And raising concerns about the education system here, she says if it were a business “it would have folded years ago”.
The Statement assesses how government and their statutory agencies have performed in a number of vital areas of children’s lives. It also looks at how recommendations, made two years ago, by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, have been progressed.
“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,” the commissioner said.
Highlighting the government’s failure to address the issue of educational underachievement, she said: “If the education system in Northern Ireland were a business it would have folded years ago, 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. Our children cannot continue in a system where, how well you do in education, relies on your gender, religion, race, sexuality or whether you are ‘rich’ or ‘poor’. Statistics are telling us that all of these things impact children’s ability to achieve academically.”
The report also demonstrates how children with special educational needs are not being identified early enough and have to wait too long to be assessed and have their needs met.
“Whenever I visit a school, particularly a primary school, children with special educational needs is the number one issue raised with me. This is also being reflected in the calls coming through to my office,” the commissioner said.
On the issue of poverty, the commissioner said children remain the most likely age group to be in poverty in Northern Ireland, adding that this has an adverse impact on their educational achievement, mental and physical health and has been the case since 2002/3 when data was first published.
The commissioner said: “27% or 118,000 children in Northern Ireland are in poverty and changes to social security are likely to increase this. So not only are we failing currently we are set to take major backwards steps.
“It is concerning that a lack of government in NI has meant there has been no consideration of any mitigation packages for the ‘Two Child Limit’ which is projected to affect 2,518 children and their families in Northern Ireland this year and 11,870 by 2020. This will cost families £2,780 per child or £7m across NI this year and £33m by 2020.”
The commissioner’s report also highlights the historical under-investment in children and young people’s mental health, saying the percentage of the mental health budget allocated to children and young people remains at “an unacceptably low 8%”.
She explained: “This is despite evidence that demonstrates the growing scale and complexity of mental health problems among our children and the fact that adolescence is a peak time for the onset of mental health problems.
“The system is under extreme pressures as a result and we are not meeting the needs of our young people, I look forward to sharing my review of mental health services for children and young people in the autumn.”
Koulla concluded: “At a time when Northern Ireland is at the centre of ‘Brexit’ negotiations, it is more than disappointing that we don’t have a Northern Ireland voice informed by young people here, to discuss how future rights, the ‘border’, funding and child safeguarding arrangements will be protected.
“The lack of government can no longer be used as an excuse for lack of progress.”