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A+ (but unhappy)

Emotional wellbeingWhat matters most in life? Achievement or happiness? What should we encourage in our children, and what should schools and policymakers prioritise? NPC’s new data, released last week, highlights the drop in children’s well-being as they hit their teenage years, particularly for girls.

Although both genders become more dissatisfied with their lives between the ages of 11 and 16, girls’ satisfaction drops more rapidly. Girls’ self-esteem also falls away, while boys’ remains relatively stable.

Does this simply describe that inevitable moody teenage phase? Or can we, and should we, do something about it?

The attention given to well-being is inconsistent across different areas of policy. In 2010, David Cameron launched the Office of National Statistics’ Measuring National Well-being programme. But in 2012, changes to the Ofsted inspection framework saw the removal of references to health and emotions, with Education Secretary Michael Gove emphasising the need for inspectors to concentrate on “rigour” and academic excellence. Meanwhile, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has recommended a greater focus for local authorities and partner organisations on children’s well-being. The Commission on Well-being and Policy, chaired by Lord Gus O’Donnell, argues for a focus on well-being for all policymaking, including an explicit role for schools in teaching life skills.

Well-being is not only important for its own sake; research shows that children with better emotional well-being make more progress and are more engaged at school. Emotional capability is also one of the factors that contribute to young people finding employment.

The evidence points to a need for schools to be supported to address (and monitor) well-being as well as academic achievement, and for parents and practitioners to be supported too (The Children’s Society shares good advice on this). The differences in gender also need to be taken into account. Here, schools have tended to focus on the lower academic achievement of boys and what can be done to support them to improve their grades; the same focus should be placed on girls in relation to well-being.

And what of the causes? What role does technology and digital bullying play in the decline in well-being? What impact does insidious sexism and easy access to pornography have on girls’ well-being, and boys’ ability to form healthy relationships?

The Education Select Committee is currently conducting a welcome inquiry into Personal, Social, Health and Economic education, as well as Sex and Relationships Education in schools. But it is not only schools and practitioners who have a role in improving children’s well-being. Policymakers need to respond to concerns raised about the role of culture, media and the web. Happiness matters; everyone knows that. It’s time it should be properly prioritised.

This blog was originally published by Children & Young People Now here.

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