You need to agree that we have failed, because if we are incapable of recognising that we have failed, what hope is there for this country?

Danny Dorling speaking for the proposition – Cambridge Union, Nov 24th 2016

What I would like you to think about is the motion ‘This House Believes That The Government Has Failed Britain’s Youth’ and I want you to think about the extent to which you don’t agree with that. It isn’t about other British governments. My friend here’s point [referring to someone who intervened earlier].

My first point is that many of Britain’s government have failed Britain’s youth over the course of much of my lifetime, but just because other British governments have failed does not excuse this one for its failures. The way we measure whether the British government has failed is to compare its record with that of governments in other similar Western European countries. And if in other similar countries’ children and young adults fair better, then we can say that this government has failed.

The failure actually begins very early on. It begins before children are born. This government allows young people, adults who are about to become parents, to live in circumstances that are so much more stressful than is the case in most of Western Europe that children are born more often damaged than is normal. So the failure is not just about young people, it’s also about what government does for their parents.

The most dramatic statistics are to do with death. We have the highest death rates of under five children in Western Europe. In Northern Ireland infant mortality can only be matched by Romania. Now if that is not a failure of government, what is a failure of government? If you want to claim that government has nothing to do with infant mortality or child health or – god forbid, if you want to claim that somehow this is good because it is survival of the fittest, you may. But given the appalling record of this government and previous governments, they have failed.

Over the mental health of young adults later on in life there are numerous World Health Organisation sponsored surveys that show a correlation that is getting stronger year by year of those countries with the highest rates of economic inequality having the highest rates of clinically diagnosed depression and anxiety amongst 15 year olds, and in particular 15 year old girls. And we will collect more and more data on that over time, but you know this to be true.

You know in your own lives, you know in your own colleges in this university, I know because I teach in Oxford – the levels of fear and depression and anxiety there are amongst those children that have done best; amongst those children who have actually passed the tests and succeeded. And if the worry is so high here, just think what it is like outside. About what is going to happen to you.

Is somebody going to give you a job? Will it be one of those awful jobs that they force you to take so that they can claim to have achieved such low unemployment rates. The “greatest” achievement of this government, when it was in coalition in 2013 was to sanction over one million people: take away their basic benefits, their ability to feed themselves – mainly young people. And the amount of money taken away in sanctions in that year (this is the year in which Sarah Teather resigned in tears because she had a soul), the amount of money taken away in sanction in 2013 was more than the entire fines imposed by every magistrate court in England and wales and very Sheriff’s court in Scotland combined – and mainly from the young. That is how you get unemployment low. You force people to take any job that they can possibly take. This is not an achievement – getting unemployment low – it is a sign of extreme bullying.

On education, we rank the lowest in Western Europe by achievement in numeracy, literacy and problems-solving by the age of 24. We might well treat our teachers better than when I was at school, and we may pay them a bit better than when I was at school, but the end of result of how we make teachers teach puts us at the bottom of the pile in Western Europe for what we actually achieve.

We segregate our children in a way that they are not segregated anywhere else on the mainland of Europe. This is because the mainland of Europe does not have anything like so many private schools on which we spend up to a third of our entire spending on secondary education – on just 7% of children. This is a remarkable situation. A situation we are used to, but it is a failure. There are OECD countries where governments spend more per head on children who are doing worse at school – not on the children who have passed entrance exams to enter into schools!

I have so many examples of how we fail that I know I am going to run out of time. I don’t want to depress you, but our record is abysmal compared to most of Western Europe. However it is not abysmal when compared to the United States, which also does badly. But compared to countries like Germany and the Netherlands and Denmark and Finland and Sweden and Japan; in terms of the mental health of children, in terms of their wellbeing, in terms of what happens to them when they leave places like this and have to pay back those loans for the highest fees in the world. And this is because somehow we have decided that education is a commodity that you have bought so that you can then go and sell yourselves – which the rest of the rich world doesn’t do.

What happens to you when you leave and going to go out and have to pay rent? So that somebody like me can buy a buy-to-let home and guarantee that my pension will be even better in my old age so that I can have five cruises a year, because that is who your landlords are. And what is going to happen when you have to pay back the Private Finance Initiative deals that we have taken out? All of the loans that we have taken out when we mortgaged your future because, to be honest, people of my age want a nice retirement for our generation?

We haven’t just failed you. We completely took the Micky. And the interesting thing, the thing that gives me hope, is that we have taken the Micky so much that it isn’t just poor children, and it isn’t just average children, its children who go on to became young adults at Oxford and Cambridge who are going to enter a world in which their own life chances have been so altered by our belief that only a few great people should rise to the top and the rest can just struggle that we think it is fine if you are going to have to pay these high rents, if you pay £100,000 back for your student loans. On the incomes that you are going to get in your jobs, you’ll be paying back £100,000 pounds for having borrowed £27,000.

Other countries don’t do this. Other countries: Germany, Denmark, … {Interruption from the audience – “Question Do more people go to university in this country or in Germany and Denmark?”} Answer – more people go in the USA and there will be huge numbers going in this country in future – £9000 a time – we will let them in! And of course they are going to come, but the US have even more and their graduates are often in deeper poverty and vote Trump.

You can get as many people to university as you like if you have for-profit universities. In the US for-profit universities spend more on advertising about how ‘good’ their courses are than they spend on their on teaching. It is no achievement getting the number of people into university up. That is dead easy. All you have got to do is allow universities to charge people £9000 a year and give those students the right to borrow money. It’s dead easy. And that is why enrolment in Scotland is lower because Scotland doesn’t do that. Which is why Scotland does it better. Which is why – in the poorest parts of Scotland children are better educated than in the poorest parts of England. Scottish society has a degree of solidarity and people care about each other, which is why Scotland is talking about leaving this god-awful United Kingdom.

Now, I really would like you to vote for the motion as you can tell. But I don’t think it needs to be this way. It is possible to improve this. Somebody has to be at the bottom of the league table in Western Europe in terms of how they treat their children; how they deal with their children; how they help their children; in terms of their health – the physical health – the death rates we can measure – and the mental health which we can diagnose. Unfortunately that somebody is us, but the only way we can move in that league table now is up.

To give you an idea of the difference between us, and the places at this at the top for children, if I was in Oslo with you now then I would be telling you congratulations for having the lowest rate of child poverty in the world! Congratulations on having a brilliant education system where it doesn’t matter which school you go to because they are all good. Congratulations on the good mental health of your young people because they are the soundest, calmest, and least like to cut themselves. Congratulations on what you have created. But the response you would be giving me in Oslo would be “how dare you say that, we are not yet good enough, one in ten of our children are still poor”, because they care. And this is why, in Norway and in other similar countries, they have achieved what they have achieved.

Here in the UK one in four children live in poverty. It is seen as inevitable: “it’s a global race, its their lack of talent”. We’ve got to get out of this way of thinking. It is terrible that we have got into this way of thinking. We have got into it, and we’ve got to get out of it. You need to agree that we have failed because if we are incapable of recognising that we have failed – what hope is there for this country? I will end there rather than depress you any further.

Final statement for the proposition by Danny Dorling, Cambridge Union Debate, Cambridge, November 24th 2016, following two earlier statements made for the motion by Natasha Devon and Lizzie Crowley. The motion was carried.