Why are British schoolchildren the least satisfied?

We explore the reasons why British youths are so unhappy, and how schools can help change that

According to The Guardian, research released in December 2019 showed that schoolchildren in the UK are some of the unhappiest in the world. An OECD study highlighted the fact that British children are more likely to be miserable or depressed, and think more negatively about their self-worth than children in many other countries.

OECD asked 15 year-olds a number of questions about how they feel about their lives and their education, and found that teens in the UK experienced the biggest decline in general satisfaction since the last survey in 2015; barely half of these children said that they were satisfied with their lives.

Children in 79 countries were quizzed, with British teens ranking 69th. Boys, in particular, appeared dissatisfied. More than a quarter of British pupils reported being bullied at least a few times a month, which was higher than the OECD average. “The fact that we have seen the largest fall in life attitudes for all countries should be a wakeup call,” said Dr Angela Donkin, the chief social scientist for the National Foundation for Educational Research.

A growing crisis

“This isn’t just down to the education sector alone to solve but, for the sector to be able to help, we need to ensure that mental health provision is properly funded,” Dr Donkin continued.

YoungMinds.org.uk provides many resources surrounding how schools can help children in developing their sense of self, wellbeing and happiness; its ‘Wise Up: priorising wellbeing in schools‘ report explains exactly why this is necessary and how we can make a change.

According to this report there is a growing mental health crisis in UK schools, with at least three children in every classroom having a diagnosable mental health problem. ‘Young people today have to navigate a complex and ever-changing world, facing challenges and pressures in numerous aspects of their life’ the report states. ‘In fact, 90% of school leaders have reported an increase in the number of students experiencing anxiety or stress over the last five years. Concurrently, referrals to specialist mental health services nearly doubled between 2010-11 and 2014-15. As a result, NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) are overwhelmed. Currently just one-in-four children with a diagnosable mental health problem gets access to the treatment and care that they need. Despite improvements since Future in Mind, waiting times remain too long, and high thresholds for access to care are causing an unnecessary escalation of need. To reduce the burden on the NHS there needs to be a greater focus on prevention through early identification and intervention’.

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What can schools do?

This is where schools come in. Children spend over 7,800 hours at school, which makes it the ideal environment for promoting good emotional wellbeing and identifying early behaviour changes. ‘The social and emotional skills, knowledge and behaviours that young people learn in the classroom can help them to build resilience and set the pattern for how they will manage their mental health throughout their lives,’ the report goes on. ‘Emotional wellbeing is a clear indicator of academic achievement, success and satisfaction in later life.’

Evidence has shown that mental health and wellbeing programmes in schools can lead to significant improvements in children’s mental health and social and emotional skills, but there is still a problem with too much emphasis on academic attainment and not enough focus on promoting the wellbeing of students. The report states that 80% of young people say that exam pressure has significantly impacted on their mental health.

However, teachers and other school staff have proven more than happy to help. YoungMinds’ data showed that 82% of teachers said focus on exams has become disproportionate to the overall wellbeing of students, 73% of parents would prefer to send their child to a school where children are generally happy even if previous exams results have not been good, and 81% of young people said they’d like their school or college to teach them more about looking after their own mental health.

The YoungMinds report goes on to recommend that the government makes wellbeing a fundamental priority of schools. Until this happens, it’s up to schools themselves to make sure their pupils are happy as best they can.

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