The recently released Good Childhood Report, published by The Children's Society and compiled with the help of researchers at the University of York, paints are rather bleak picture of childhood in England today. This is the fourth of such annual reports, the purpose of which is to provide the most up-to-date picture of the lives and wellbeing of our children and provide a comparison with children in other countries.
It didn't surprise me to discover that children in England are some of the unhappiest in the world (England came 14th out of the 15 countries surveyed - only South Korea fared worse). Nowhere was this more apparent than when children were asked about their experience of school, with children in England amongst the most unhappy with school life due, in part, to bullying and exclusion from their peer group. Happiness levels dropped significantly once children started secondary school, with 43% of secondary school pupils saying that they are unhappy.
Furthermore, girls in England came bottom in terms of happiness with body confidence, self-esteem and appearance. On the whole, children in England have low levels of satisfaction with four major aspects of life - relationship with teachers, their body, the way they look and their self-confidence. On a positive note, children in England rate high on other aspects of life including relationships with friends and local police.
These findings arrive on the back of several other studies that have found rises in self-harm, depression and other diagnosable mental health problems amongst UK children. While these issues might not be directly related to the school experience, it's interesting to view the rise in mental health problems as part of a much larger picture.
I know that the reasons for our children's unhappiness are complex and numerous, but I can't help feeling that the school system plays a major role. During more than ten years of teaching (and just as many as a single dad) I have witnessed a growing number of young people suffering from anxiety and stress related to exam pressure and the ever-growing expectations to succeed academically. 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. At the same time, schools are judged by the same measure, leading to the real possibility that wellbeing is being sacrificed for league table rankings.
I want my own son to be happy and feel that his life has real purpose and meaning - anything else is a bonus. I'm lucky in this respect because he is a happy teenager who likes school and involves himself in activities he loves, but I also know that many children struggle with school, friendships and the ever-present pressure to succeed in a culture that values the material above and beyond anything else. Parents feel the pressure as well, and we mustn't exclude them from the conversation. I raised my son on my own following the death of his mother (he was four at the time) and my anxieties over being a good parent are ever-present (as I'm sure they are for all parents).
Providing sticking plasters in the form of wellbeing interventions (as Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner has suggested) might paper over the cracks, but they don't provide long-term sustainable solutions. Similarly, The Children's Society's call for counselling to be more widely available and programmes to promote positive mental health in schools are certainly laudable and positive steps towards improving our children's wellbeing, but as the emphasis on high-stakes testing and material success increases, such interventions will need to run even faster simply to catch up.
Being a teenager seemed so much easier when I was young.