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19 May 2016

Why English schoolchildren are so unhappy

With more testing than ever and increased waiting times for child mental health services, what can be done to alleviate the pressure on England's young people?

By Tim Wigmore

Earlier this month, around 2,000 six- and seven-year-olds were instructed to play truant by their parents. The children were due to sit their year two Standard Assessment Tests (SATs), exams their parents argued led to stress and sleep deprivation. Over 49,000 people signed a petition that read: “We want our kids to be kids again.”

English children are among the most tested in the world. They are subjected to far more exams than those in the devolved education systems of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. “I’m not aware of any country that has nationally designed tests dominating so many years of school from five to 18,” says Warwick Mansell, the author of Education by Numbers: the Tyranny of Testing. “We put more pressure on children, without bothering to see what the impact will be. It’s scandalous, really.”

Last year, a report by the National Union of Teachers found that 76 per cent of primary and 94 per cent of secondary school teachers felt that exams caused pupils to suffer from stress-related conditions. Natasha Devon, appointed in August 2015 as the government’s first ever champion for mental health in young people, warned: “Children are tested rigorously from the age of four, with little or no creative outlet for their emotions in the form of sport and arts.” On 4 May, the new role was axed, to be replaced by a cross-government mental health champion. Devon has suggested that her criticism of regular testing played a part in her dismissal.

Children’s Worlds, a global research survey, last year ranked 15 countries according to the well-being of eight-to-12-year-olds. England came 14th for life satisfaction, beating only South Korea, a country that rivals England for the frequency of tests and its tough examination culture.

The adverse impact of testing was only one conclusion of the survey. Children’s Worlds also placed England second last for the quality of relationships between students and teachers. Contact between classmates also scored badly. Half a million ten-to-12-year-olds said they had been physically bullied and 50 per cent said they had been excluded. Thirty-eight per cent said they had been hit by a classmate in the past month.

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More worrying still, the number of under-16s in England hospitalised because of incidents of self-harm has risen by 76 per cent over the past five years, according to the Health and Social Care Information Centre. In 2015, ChildLine carried out 85,000 counselling sessions for minors with mental health concerns – one every six minutes.

“This issue is more serious than ever,” says Peter Wanless, the chief executive of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). “Far too many of the nation’s children seem to be struggling. There is a desperate shortage of appropriate support for children and young people.”

The NSPCC has found that one in five children has been turned away from local child and adolescent mental health services because their case was not deemed severe enough. In a recent survey by the charity stem4, 83 per cent of English GPs described provisions for 11-to-18-year-olds who self-harm as poor or totally inadequate. “It’s only when these children, including those who have suffered abuse, reach rock bottom that services open up to them,” Wanless says.

Child and adolescent mental health services are also “a postcode lottery, with unacceptably long waiting times in many areas”, says Nick Harrop of the campaign group YoungMinds. During the 2010-2015 parliament, overall funding for mental health services were cut in real terms by 8.25 per cent.

In part, poor mental health often goes unnoticed because English children are more likely to spend time alone, away from their parents, than in any other country surveyed for Children’s Worlds. Britain suffers from a paucity of outdoor spaces: 41 per cent of those questioned said they had leisure activities less than once a week or never.

The rise of social media does not appear to have provided an antidote to loneliness. An Action for Children survey revealed that parents find it harder to limit technology-based activity than any other behaviour. This is not unique to England but is particularly acute here: of the 15 countries surveyed for Children’s Worlds, England ranked third for time spent watching TV and fourth for time spent using a computer. The survey also found that English boys were the second most unhappy about their appearance, while English girls were the unhappiest among boys or girls anywhere. “Girls in particular are dissatisfied with their appearance and are struggling with issues around self-confidence,” says Matthew Reed, the chief executive of the Children’s Society.

The data paints a gloomy picture but it’s not all bad for English children, almost 90 per cent of whom said that they felt satisfied with their friends. Belatedly, the government seems to be considering quality of life alongside the usual economic indicators. The ONS’s annual Life in the UK report has been measuring “national well-being” since 2012. The government has also promised an additional £1.4bn for child and adolescent mental health services over the next five years. Reed suggests it could go much further, making it mandatory for schools to offer counselling to pupils.

Having fewer exams would help ease aspects of well-being but it would be no panacea. The parents behind the “kids’ strike” believe more should be done to safeguard the happiness of children in England. Perhaps most crucial of all is the need to place good mental health on a par with academic success. 

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This article appears in the 18 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster