This year’s Good Childhood Report continues to tell a story that should provoke serious concern, and crucially action, from all of us working with children and young people. Year on year, our research shows that the children of this country are becoming less and less happy with their lives.
As school governors and trustees we need to take these findings seriously. Children’s well-being is linked to their academic attainment but in this year’s report we also found that poor well-being in early adolescence is linked to serious mental health challenges even by the age of 17. This shows how vital these early teen years are for children and how important it is to protect their well-being at this age. If we are to support our schools to thrive and to provide the holistic and positive education we all aspire to, we must do our part.
So what’s going on?
Children’s well-being is complex – it isn’t just about mental health and it isn’t just about education. Children’s well-being is influenced by a range of factors and we must look at their lives as a whole. That said, the best data available should make us pause for thought.
Alongside declining happiness with life as a whole (for 10-15 year olds) since 2009, we also report on declining happiness with appearance, with friends and, crucially with school. There is a strong argument that improving our children’s happiness at school could be an important key to unlocking greater overall levels of happiness among our children.
Research into children’s well-being tells us all sorts of things about their school experience. We know, for example, that whilst happiness with school has fallen, happiness with the work children are doing at school hasn’t fared the same – generally speaking, children are as happy with their school work as they were back in 2009. We do know however, that by 15, children in the UK have the greatest fear of failure and lowest overall happiness with their lives across most European countries.
When we are out and about talking to children they often talk about school culture – about the pressure to look right, to conform to school rules and policies. Some of them describe schools that feel more like prisons than places of education. They talk about the pressure school puts on friendship groups and a very small number of children tell us they don’t feel safe at school. Too many of our children just don’t find the school they go to a very nice place to be.
And what can we do?
Schools have increasing responsibilities towards the well-being of pupils and as governors and trustees it important to hold schools to account and support your school’s leadership to do the very best they can. The Department for Education has introduced the new RSE curriculum and soon every school will receive training for a new Designated Senior Lead for Mental Health. Some schools are lucky enough to have support from the new Mental Health Support Teams being piloted, but every school should be developing a ‘whole school approach’ to well-being of both staff and pupils.
Your governing board might want to consider appointing a lead for well-being, just like you might already have a safeguarding or finance lead. And there are important questions you can ask your leadership – for example, is your school actively measuring children’s well-being? Particularly in secondary schools, the measurement of well-being can be an important way of identifying challenges, driving forward positive change, and holding school leadership to account.
But remember that schools alone cannot turn this trend around on their own. So you might also want to consider how you work with partners like social care, the NHS, police and the community and voluntary sector to ensure that you are collectively supporting children to the very best of your ability.
As governors and trustees, you play an important role in setting the tone and culture of your school. And so, if you too are concerned about this worrying decline in the well-being of our children remember that you have a unique role to play. Everything you do provides an opportunity to improve a child’s educational experience and the changes you make might just help turn around the toxic trends we see in modern childhood today.
Read the Good Childhood report 2021
Key findings of the Good Childhood Report 2021
An estimated 306,000 10-15 year olds (or about 7% of that age group) in the UK are unhappy with their lives.
Roughly a quarter of a million children did not cope well with changes during the pandemic.
Young people are particularly unhappy about school and appearance – 1 in 9 children are unhappy with their school. The proportion of children unhappy with their school lives has risen from 1 in 11 ten years ago to 1 in 8.
70% of 10-17 years olds were optimistic about the future.
Resources for governing boards
Well Schools: a community of educational professionals and stakeholders committed to improving wellbeing in schools - register for free to share resources, support each other and celebrate the impact of your Well School.
Making pupil mental wellbeing a priority: information, webinar and podcast