Westminster Befriend a Family

Putting Children First


Putting Children First

Westminster Befriend a Family is supporting the campaign to have a Cabinet Minister for Children and Young People.

The Children First campaign asks for the Government to put children at the heart of all its decision-making. This is because children’s needs cannot be confined to a single issue or policy. Children will always elude being pigeon-holed.

Though there is currently a junior Ministerial post for children, the position does not have the weight of authority to drive forward integrated cross-departmental responses to the challenges faced.

In creating the campaign, Children First identified five 21st century challenges hindering healthy development in today’s children.

  • Obesity and Physical Inactivity: Over one third of our children are overweight or obese, according to the Department of Health ISCIC, Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet. Children growing up in low income groups typically live in neighbourhoods with a denser supply of fast food outlets; less availability of fresh fruit and vegetables and fewer safe places for physical activity. Fruit and vegetables can be 30-40% more expensive in poor neighbourhoods (‘Going hungry: the struggle to eat healthily on a low income’: NCH, The Children’s Charity, 2004).

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences: The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that 3.5 million children (one in four) will be in absolute poverty by the end of the next Parliament (‘Bridging the Social Divide,’ March 2015). In 2015 to 2016, around 1 in 4 children resided with at least one parent reporting symptoms of emotional distress (Gov. UK March 2016).

  • Rising mental health issues: Almost 19,000 children were admitted to hospital after harming themselves in 2015 – a 14% increase over three years. Over half of all mental ill health starts before the age of 14 (Local Government Association, February, 2018). One in ten children and young people have some form of clinically diagnosable mental health disorder. This equates to around 850,000 children and young people with a diagnosable mental health disorder in the UK today (ONS, 2016).

  • Dominance of social media and screen time influence: The Persil/Unilever Project ‘Dirt is Good’ campaign found that most primary school age children spend less time in outdoor play than prisoners are required to have by law. According to the Association of Play industries, which submitted Freedom of Information requests, 112 playgrounds were closed in the 2014-15 financial year, a further 102 were closed in 2015-16. Councils revealed 80 more closures in 2016-17 followed by at least 51 more closures planned for 2018.

  • Socio-economic disadvantage and cultural/ethnic divide: There are now constituencies in the UK where more than half of the children are growing up in poverty. Among the 20 parliamentary constituencies with the highest levels of childhood poverty, seven are located in London. Statistics from the Race Disparity Audit (Race Disparity Audit Summary Findings from the Ethnicity Facts and Figures, Oct 2017, updated March 2018) says: “Asian and Black households and those in the ‘Other’ ethnic group were more likely to be poor and were most likely to be in persistent poverty.”

Find out more about the campaign and how to support it on the Children First website.



“Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world”

Education should be the backbone of our society.

It should shape our youth, provide them with opportunities, and help them take control of their lives. It should provide them with the chance to compete on an equal playing field, where success is determined by merit, rather than by circumstances outside their control. Most importantly, it should provide young people with hope: hope that they can make a place for themselves in the world, hope that they can change the way things are, and hope that they can play a part in creating a better future.

But that is the ideal.

This is the reality:

Household income, geographical location, and ethnicity are all factors outside a youth’s control; nevertheless, they are all factors that have been linked to educational attainment. Social Market Foundation (2016) has found that family income is a strong predictor of educational performance, regional disparities in education have increased over time, and there are significant disparities in educational attainment across ethnic groups. Young people from less privileged backgrounds also tend to have vastly different experiences in the education system: they are more likely to feel a lack of control towards their learning, are less likely to experience as rich a set of experiences in the classroom, and are much more likely to have their confidence undermined through their experiences at school (Hirsch, 2007).

But the picture does not have to be so dismal. Research has also shown that access to higher education increases social mobility, and that it may be effective to work with less advantaged youths to help them increase their sense of confidence and help them take control of their learning process (Iannelli & Paterson, 2005; Hirsch, 2007). What this means is that it may not be enough to simply place less advantaged young people in the education system and hope that it turns out for the best; some may need extra attention to get them past these hurdles and onto a better track that will bring them towards their long-term goals.

It is for this reason that Westminster Befriend A Family has recently launched a Broadening Horizons project to provide academic and vocational advice to young people aged 13+. The goal of this project is not to be yet another voice telling less advantaged youths what to do. Instead, the aim is to empower youths, help them develop a sense of confidence in their own abilities, and reveal to them just what they are truly capable of achieving. It is a partnership where trained mentors will guide, motivate and support the young person to formulate and put into action plans for education and careers. Mentors may, for instance, bring the young person to visit a university campus, or they may help the young person explore other routes to employment such as learning a trade or applying for an apprenticeship. Our goal is to open up possibilities and help youths to discover just what they can achieve, despite the many challenges posed by an often hostile environment.

The attainment gap created by our country’s education system is growing. Many young people feel let down and disillusioned by the opportunities available to them. There is no easy or quick fix to readdress this balance. A great amount of work is needed to reform policy and improve the education structure in the UK. However, this also means there is a current need for improved educational services from within the third sector. The fact that the education system is imperfect means that it is all the more important that we persevere in trying to remedy this situation. Services must grow to ensure that every young person has a fairer shot at making their own aspirations a reality. Through this education can go a long way in helping to shape a better future for our society.



Hirsch, Donald. 2007. “Experiences of poverty and educational disadvantage.” Joseph Rowntree Foundation, ref 2123.

Iannelli, C. & Paterson, L. (2005). “Does Education Promote Social Mobility?”

Social Market Foundation. (2016). “Educational Inequalities in England and Wales: Commission on Inequality in Education.”

Title of the article is a quote from Nelson Mandela.

#UncoverWestminster – Housing

Buck Palace housing

It is a well-known fact that London is an expensive city to live in, but what is lesser known is that the rents in the capital are increasing faster than anywhere else in the country. In London, the average age of a first time buyer is now 38 years old, which is higher than the national average.

In Westminster there is a chronic housing problem, caused by a lack of affordable housing. This has led to 30% of housing in Westminster being overcrowded, as defined by the government. This is the third highest rate of overcrowding in the country and is significantly higher than the London and England averages of 17% and 7% respectively.

In 2011 the average cost of renting a 3-bedroom property in Westminster was £700 per week, while the Housing Benefit for a 3 Bedroom property was capped at £340, meaning those without alternative sources of income or financial aid cannot sustain regular affordable rent payments.

The number of families accepted as “homeless” by Westminster council has increased by 86% between 2010/11 and 2012/13. Even so, only half of applications made were accepted in 2012/13. This is put down partially to applications that do not provide enough supporting evidence, demonstrating that applicants need help with applying.

Our befrienders offer services to alleviate stress that a family may be experiencing in terms of housing, alongside offering support with filling in housing benefit applications which is especially useful for those whose first language is not English.

Although the London housing crisis is not unknown, the severity of it is often underplayed so we need to #UncoverWestminster to raise awareness of the struggles that poverty presents in terms of housing and continue to build affordable homes throughout London so that every adult, child and family has somewhere that they can call ‘home’.

#UncoverWestminster – Education

Big Ben education


Only 27% of 16-year-olds on free school meals achieve A* to C grades at GCSE, compared with 54% of their peers. This suggests that the over one million children who are eligible for free school meals because their family income is £16,040 or less, are more likely to do worse at school. These children are also less likely to go into further education; in 2007, only 6% went on to do A-levels, and out of 80,000 15-year-olds who claimed free school meals in 2002, only 45 made it to Oxbridge.

Westminster is particularly affected by child poverty, so it is no surprise that 34% of 19-year-olds in the borough lack level three academic qualifications, for example a-levels. In Westminster 40% of secondary school pupils receive free school meals. That is over twice the England average of 15% of pupils in all state secondary schools in 2011.

There is a cycle in which poverty as a child leads to lower educational achievement and lower educational achievement then leads to poverty as an adult. However, children who receive positive early education are less likely to experience the negative impacts of having parents out of work. Problematically though, children in low-income families are less likely to receive an early education. It has been found that families are the most important factor in determining a child’s educational achievement, which suggests that it is crucial for families to have access to the support needed to help them improve their children’s education. This support will improve children’s’ educational attainment, and then go on to improve future employment opportunities and quality of life. This is why at Westminster Befriend a Family we offer practical help with schoolwork and problems at school, as well as supporting parents; to try and break this cycle so that no more children, or adults, have to live in poverty.

In Westminster 71% of primary school pupils first language is not English, this is over four times the average in England. There is a clear agreement among education and linguistic experts that teaching in the language that children have used from birth, their mother tongue or first language, offers the best chance of educational success. This is why at Westminster Befriend a Family we offer children, and their parents, the chance to socialise in English through a range of weekly community-based sports, arts and educational projects. Evidence has been produced to indicate that where school language is not used in children’s daily lives, it can tip the balance towards total exclusion from learning; so we are aiming to help include English in their everyday lives so that every child can effectively make use of their right to an education and to end the poverty cycle.

This begins to show the importance of breaking the poverty cycle and the shocking impact that education can have on children from disadvantaged families. We need to #UncoverWestminster to raise awareness of these issues and to make sure every person, adult and child alike, has the chance to reach their full potential during their education through receiving a positive education experience and being provided with the support they need to achieve their goals. Poverty is not just about a lack of money but also about a lack of opportunity.

#UncoverWestminster – Health

Traf Sq Health 2


England is known for its National Health Service. It is the largest and the oldest single-payer healthcare system in the world and with one fifth of its budget being spent on providing health care in London alone it would be expected that every person living in London is in equal good health since the service is available to every UK citizen and legal immigrant.

But in Westminster this is not the case. Although the average for those who feel they were in bad or very bad health in Westminster 2011 was 6%, only 1% higher than the London average, there is huge variation within the borough that affects this average, for example in the Church Street ward this number rises to 11%, which is significantly higher than the London and Westminster averages. In 2013, Church Street ranked 537 out of 625 London wards on the GLA Well-being index which looks at a number of measures including health. This gives the Westminster ward one of the worst 25% of wellbeing scores in London. This huge inequality in health is also reflected in life expectancy in Westminster. The gap in life expectancy between the most and least deprived 10% of the Westminster population is 16.6 years for men (the largest gap in England) and 9.9 years for women (the fourth largest gap in England).

There are strong links between poverty and health, as children in poor families are more likely to suffer from both physical and mental health problems which can be long-term and affect them throughout their lifetime. These children are also more likely to be injured or killed in an accident.

Further, Westminster is the worst borough in the country for childhood obesity. The percentage of pupils, 5-16 years old, participating in physical activity in Westminster is 74.76, while the average for England is 83.36. At Westminster Befriend a Family we offer weekly community-based sports programmes, such as swimming and martial arts classes, to help to improve health. 64% of parents of children in our swimming classes ‘strongly agreed’ that they had noticed an improvement in the physical health of their child since they started the lessons. These classes not only have this amazing positive impact on the health of children but they also have many other benefits that have been outlined in previous posts in this series.

Research also suggests there is a significant link between poverty and its contributing factors, and mental health. People in the lowest quintile of household income are nine times more likely to suffer from a psychotic disorder than those in the highest quintile. Suicide rates are much higher among those who are unemployed. There are key areas in which Westminster struggles with regards to health. Mental health appears to be an on-going problem. Inpatient admissions for severe and enduring illnesses are 59% higher than the national average.

At Westminster Befriend a Family we offer coffee mornings for parents using our services, which have many benefits and emotional support, and counselling was outlined by more than 50% of coffee morning users as one of these. The coffee morning is “like a therapy”, one respondent informed us, a space where clients can go and share their experiences.

I meet so many people coming from different groups. Every time that I have problem in any different subject I go there

We need to #UncoverWestminster to raise awareness of the inequality of health throughout London and particularly the borough of Westminster, as no one deserves to suffer in silence.