Not such a good childhood?

Ella Rhodes reports on worrying findings for young people in England.

Children in England show some of lowest levels of happiness with their school lives, compared with 14 other countries surveyed by The Children’s Society. Bullying seems a particular problem with more than half a million 10 and 12-year-olds having been physically bullied each month.

The Good Childhood Report surveyed 53,000 children aged 10 and 12 in Algeria, Poland, England, Colombia, Turkey, Spain, Estonia, Germany, Nepal, Norway, South Africa, Ethiopia, Romania, Israel and South Korea. Children in England were found to be unhappier with their school lives than those in 11 other countries – only faring better than children in Germany, South Korea and Estonia. In terms of happiness with life in general, they only fared better than those in South Korea.

This work, which marks a decade of the society’s work on children’s well-being in collaboration with the University of York, also found that more than a third (38 per cent) of 10 and 12 year olds in England had been physically bullied in the last month, and half (50 per cent) had felt excluded. Children in England who were bullied frequently were six times more likely to have low well-being in general.

As well as showing unhappiness with school life, the study showed that children in England were notably dissatisfied with their appearance and body confidence. Girls in England ranked bottom in terms of happiness with their body confidence, appearance and self-confidence compared to girls in every other country surveyed, with the exception of South Korea. Girls in England were more than twice as likely as boys to say they were unhappy with their bodies and perhaps surprisingly this gender difference was not found in many other countries.

The Children’s Society have urged the Government to make it a legal requirement for schools in England to provide counselling to pupils to bring it in line with Wales and Northern Ireland. ‘We would like to see independent and qualified counselling professionals available in all schools to support young people with low well-being and those who have emotional needs. The provision of school-based counselling should be flexible and should take into account local demand, demographics and existing structures and services in the local area. Young people should also have the ability to self-refer to a school counsellor to make it easier for them to get help when they need it.’

Dr Sue Whitcombe, Communications Lead for the British Psychological Society Division of Counselling Psychology, has worked in schools with children, young people and school staff. She said the trends highlighted in the report were concerning, but added ‘they are unlikely to come as a surprise to those who work with children and young people on a daily basis.’ Dr Whitcombe told us that although there is increasingly a focus on programmes in schools to increase wellbeing, there were concerns among practitioners about delays and extended waiting times for therapy when referrals are made to CAMHS services. She added: ‘It is important to grasp that staff well-being is a key factor in whole school functioning and individual pupil experience.  Some of our colleagues are now engaged to provide therapeutic support or professional supervision to staff in schools. Counselling Psychologist colleagues are employed or contracted to provide a range of services for which our relational approaches and understanding of system dynamics are particularly beneficial.’

Chartered psychologist Marc Smith, who is also a teacher and PhD student at the University of York, said in a blog for the Huffington Post that during ten years of teaching he had seen growing numbers of young people suffering anxiety and stress related to exam pressure. He added: ‘While we all want our young people to do well, our measure of success is a rather narrow one, being based almost entirely on exam grades… The Children’s Society call for counselling to be more widely available and programmes to promote positive mental health in schools are certainly laudable and positive steps… but as the emphasis on high-stakes testing and material success increases, such interventions will need to run even faster to catch up.’


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