A great place for kids. Oh really?

"The true measure of a nation's standing is how well it attends to its children - their health and safety, their material security, their education and socialisation, and their sense of being loved, valued and included in the families and societies into which they are born."

That is the opening credo in the Unicef Innocenti Research Centre's seventh set of international league tables, published overnight in Florence, Italy.

Its previous reports have placed New Zealand second-worst among developed countries in the gap between average achievers and the lowest 5 per cent of children in reading, maths and science, third-highest in teenage births, fourth-highest in the proportion of children in homes earning less than half the median income, fifth-worst on child deaths by injury and sixth-worst on deaths from maltreatment.

Its latest report, assessing "child wellbeing" on six broad "dimensions", again places New Zealand in the bottom half of the list on two-thirds of the measures on which we are ranked.

And once again the other countries at the bottom are the United States and Britain, while the Netherlands and the Scandinavian nations show up as the best places in the world for children.

DIMENSION 1: MATERIAL WELLBEING

On average, 95 per cent of the children in developed countries live in homes where at least one parent is in paid work.

New Zealand fell slightly below the average when these figures were gathered in 2000, with only 93 per cent of children living with a parent in paid work. Only six countries, including Australia and Britain, scored lower.

The consequent dependence on benefits, combined with relatively low benefit rates, helps to explain what is now New Zealand's seventh-worst placing in the proportion of children (15 per cent) living in homes earning less than half the median income in 2001. Britain and the US have the highest proportions in poverty.

New Zealand's rankings on both measures are likely to have improved since these figures were gathered because of a steep fall in unemployment and the Working For Families package. On the other two material measures on which local data are available, New Zealand performs slightly above average. Ninety-four per cent of 15-year-olds live in homes with at least 10 books, and 78 per cent in homes with at least six out of eight educational resources (desk, quiet place, computer, internet, educational software, calculator, dictionary, textbooks).

DIMENSION 2: HEALTH & SAFETY

The number of babies dying before their first birthday has fallen dramatically in New Zealand from 7.6 per cent when the Plunket Society began in 1907 to just 0.6 in this report and 0.5 per cent last year.

But it has fallen even more dramatically elsewhere, so New Zealand has slipped from among the best in the world to fourth-worst among 25 members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Only 0.2 and 0.3 per cent of babies die in the best-performing nations, Iceland and Japan.

One of the Plunket nurses' primary tasks, getting babies vaccinated, has also slipped behind average. Only 82 per cent of Kiwi infants are now immunised against polio by the age of 2, compared with the OECD average of 94 per cent.

New Zealand scores even worse - worst in the developed world - on the number of children under 19 killed in accidents and injuries, including violence, murder and suicide. We lose 23.1 forevery 100,000 children every year,compared with 22.9 in the second-worst nation, the US, 15.1 in Australiaand an OECD average of 14.3.

DIMENSION 3: EDUCATIONAL WELLBEING

New Zealand's highest ranking in the report - sixth - is for student achievement at age 15 in reading, maths and scientific literacy. Compared with OECD averages of 500 points, Kiwi 15-year-olds scored 522 for reading, 523 for maths and 521 for science.

However, we swung from near-top to absolute bottom on the proportion of young people who were still in fulltime or part-time education aged 15 to 19 in 2003 - only 67 per cent against 82.1 per cent in Australia and an OECD average of 82.5.

Far more young people continued in education in this age group in central and northern Europe - 89 per cent in Germany, 90 in the Czech Republic and 94 per cent in top-ranking Belgium.

This may be partly a cultural difference, with higher education rated much more highly in those countries. It may also reflect New Zealand's buoyant labour market, which has sucked young people out of education into jobs in recent years.

But we seem to have about as many young people as elsewhere on the dole. Unicef cites an average of 6.9 per cent of 15 to 19-year-olds outside education or employment in 2003. No figure is given for New Zealand, but 6.7 per cent of our 15 to 19-year-olds were officially unemployed in September.

Slightly more of our 15-year-olds than average aspire to skilled work. Asked "what kind of job do you expect to have when you are about 30?", only 24.5 per cent of youngsters named jobs which did not need further training or qualifications. The OECD average was 27.5 per cent.

DIMENSION 4: RELATIONSHIPS

New Zealand parents do not come well out of this survey. Asked "how often do your parents eat the main meal with you around a table?", only 64.4 per cent of Kiwi 15-year-olds answered "several times a week", compared with an OECD average of 79.4 per cent. Only Finnish youngsters eat with their parents less often.

Asked "how often do your parents spend time just talking to you?", only 51.9 per cent of Kiwi 15-year-olds said "several times a week". The average was 62.8 per cent.

The report also includes league tables on the proportion of children living in single-parent families and stepfamilies. No figures are given for New Zealand, but the OECD average proportion of children aged 11, 13 and 15 living in single-parent families is 12.7 per cent, with a highest rate of 20.8 per cent in the US.

New Zealand's 2006 census showed that single-parent families made up 30.2 per cent of all families with children, a slight drop from 31 per cent in 2001. But the numbers and ages of children in each family are not yet available.

DIMENSION 5: BEHAVIOURS & RISKS

New Zealand's teenage birth rate has now passed Britain's, moving us up from third to second-highest among developed countries with 30 births for every 1000 young women aged 15 to 19 in 2003 - almost double the OECD average of 16.

Australia registered a near-average 18 teen births for every 1000 young women. Only the US was still above us with 46.

No figures are given for New Zealand on other indicators of risky behaviour - smoking, drinking, using cannabis, having sex and not using a condom. But a 2005 survey of our Year 10 students (aged around 14) found that only 9 per cent smoked, against an OECD average of 11 per cent of 11, 13 and 15-year-olds.

New Zealand is also left out of figures on eating habits, physical activity and obesity. But on the data available, Kiwi children may be more overweight than anywhere except the US - 23.1 per cent of our children aged 11 to 14 were overweight in 2002, compared with an OECD average of only 12.9 per cent of 13 and 15-year-olds in 2001. The US figure was 25.1 per cent.

DIMENSION 6: SUBJECTIVE WELLBEING

New Zealand 15-year-olds are slightly less likely than average to agree with the statement, "I feel lonely" - only 6.6 per cent here against the OECD average of 7.4 per cent. Fewer than 11 per cent of 15-year-olds feel lonely in all OECD countries with the remarkable exception of Japan, where the figure is 29.8 per cent.

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