It's a disinterested human indeed who does not like to have her own prejudices confirmed, and since I've been convinced for some years now that Britain is serving its children particularly badly, I have to admit to a predisposition to believing every word of the contents of the Innocenti Research Centre's report on child well-being in rich countries.

In it, Britain emerges as simply one of the worst countries in the OECD to be a child, coming near the bottom on most of the measures used to gauge quality of early life, and right at the bottom on a significant number.

As already amply illustrated in the widespread denial that greeted the publication of a letter in the Telegraph last September, in which experts from different disciplines voiced similar concerns about "toxic childhood", there is a huge desire in this country to ignore or even ridicule any evidence that we are failing a generation of children. But the contents of this document make devastating reading for the UK, and it is time to start asking if all of its warnings can really be dismissed so airily.

The report makes a good case, for example, for the most profound indicator of childhood misery being the rate of teenage pregnancy. "To a young person with little sense of current well-being - unhappy and perhaps mistreated at home, miserable and underachieving at school, and with only an unskilled and low-paid job to look forward to - having a baby to love and be loved by, with a small income from benefits and a home of her own, may seem like a more attractive option than the alternatives."

Britain, sure enough, has the third-highest rate of teenage fertility among 24 OECD countries, with only New Zealand and the US doing worse than us. Further, it scores badly on all of the factors mentioned by the authors that may prompt a girl to opt for early motherhood.

Children were asked to indicate their own current sense of subjective well-being, and Britain came out worst by some distance on this measure, behind Poland. The Netherlands came top. Britain comes bottom, too, in the section measuring family and peer relationships, behind the US and the Czech Republic. Italy comes top.

We were fifth from bottom also on numbers of children aged 15-19 not in training, education or employment - the Neets about whom we worry so much. And we were fourth from bottom on the number of 15- to 19-year-olds in full- or part-time education.

Britain is among just six countries that report a child poverty rate of more than 15 per cent, alongside Portugal, Spain, Italy, the US and Ireland. As is indicated by the prevalence of child poverty among these six countries, no obvious relationship between child well-being and GDP per capita was found.

Among other refutations of perceived wisdom, the report found that single-parenthood was not necessarily a clear indicator of child poverty. The country most robustly refuting this seemingly sensible idea is Sweden, which comes second after the Netherlands overall, despite having a single-parenthood rate beaten only by the UK and the US.

Unsurprisingly, Britain did spectacularly badly in the section that looks at risky behaviour. We won by miles on rates of intercourse under 15, ahead of our nearest competitor, Sweden. We romped home on drunkenness, leaving a yawning gap between us and Finland. We had the third-highest incidence of under-16 dope smokers, and the fifth-highest of under-16 fag smokers. Stuff like gun and knife use, eating disorders, psychological disturbance or self-harm didn't even make a showing in the report, which is probably a blessing.

Deborah Orr

Published: 14 February 2007