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The happiness and health of children must come first

Posted on Sep 30, 2021

On the state of children’s mental health, your correspondent Mel Wood last week asked why so many children in the UK are deeply unhappy (Letters, 23 September). It’s a question we at the Children’s Society have committed ourselves to answering, and a situation we are determined to change over the next decade.

Over the past 10 years, we have been asking British children and young people about their lives and charting their wellbeing in our Good Childhood Report. Children have been telling us that school, fear of failure, friendships and worries over their appearance are making them feel unhappy with their lives. Teenagers are coming under pressure from so many angles and held to high standards, which appears to be having a detrimental impact on their wellbeing.

These are worrying trends and we report on them every year. Last year, we found that UK teenagers have the lowest levels of life satisfaction across most of Europe (‘Fear of failure’ giving UK children lowest happiness levels in Europe, 28 August 2020). This is not simply teenagers being teenagers; the report demonstrated that we have a real problem in the UK and we need government and societal action to change the story for our children.

Wellbeing is far from a fluffy concept – it affects every aspect of a child’s life. If the government measured children’s wellbeing like they do adults’, perhaps we could understand why they are feeling unhappy and be able to come up with policies to improve their wellbeing. The government is about to set a budget for the next three years. Children should never be an afterthought, so wouldn’t this be a perfect time to put children first?
Mark Russell
Chief executive, the Children’s Society

Re Mel Wood’s letter, in the 1980s, pre-Ofsted, the expectation was that students should work diligently and that the grades achieved from that diligence would be sufficient to go out and find their place in the world. The students I taught at secondary level were generally cheerfully disposed and happy with what they achieved.

In my pastoral role in those years, I never encountered a child who self-harmed. The “examined closely” culture of school performance tables introduced later in the 1980s has pressured children and teachers ever since.

Anything lower than top grades became not good enough, to the point where children were instructed that, as a measure of the quality of their school, they had to be able to utter “what I need to do to get to the next level” to any Ofsted inspector who asked them about any subject.

“Not good enough” became the culture of education at precisely the time in their lives when children should have been discovering what is good enough about themselves to be satisfied in their lives ahead. The government always talks of raised standards, yet turning the screw in education for 35 years has not produced a nation of young geniuses, but some of the least happy children in the developed world.
Mark Lewinski-Grende
Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire

It was good to read your editorial (21 September) on the need for the government to provide focus and funding for the issues affecting children’s mental health and schools. Are there perhaps lessons we can learn from the exemplary speed with which science has been able to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic?

In the same way that the extraordinary history of epidemiology and vaccine science was channeled with speed into monitoring the spread of the new virus, and designing and producing effective vaccines, surely our knowledge of the epidemiology of children’s mental health, and our knowledge of effective child and family psychological treatments (and effective preventive interventions) could also be mobilised with all speed?

Epidemiology of children’s mental health was pioneered in the UK, and British research on the effectiveness of child and family interventions, at home and school, is truly world-class.

Indeed, one of the pioneering achievements of the earliest child mental health epidemiology in the UK, in the mid-1960s, was to examine how children’s emotional and behavioural issues interacted with cognitive and educational special needs. The UK has pioneered psychosocial interventions and high-quality efficacy trials. These areas of science, in which the UK has been a leader for many years, are perhaps less well known than research in general biomedical science.

After so much talk over the past few years about the child and adolescent mental health crisis, and the impact of the pandemic on children’s lives, surely we can act as quickly in this area as we have in the pandemic vaccine response?

It would take political will to not just offer “sticking plaster” funding, but also programmatic cross-agency funding, and to bring together leading child and adolescent mental health researchers and practitioners to learn from the recent Covid-related experience of physical medicine and public health colleagues. Now is the time.
Dr Peter Appleton
Visiting fellow, University of Essex