On 7 February the Department for Education published a report on the wellbeing of UK children and young people, aged five to 24, over the academic year 2021 to 2022.
Here, Centre Associate Richard Crellin explores the report’s key insights and discusses next steps.
There is huge public interest in the state of our children’s wellbeing, particularly as a result of Covid-19. Yet answering the question “how are our children doing?” is surprisingly challenging in the UK.
Earlier this month the Department for Education published the fourth instalment of its annual reports looking at the state of the wellbeing of the nation’s children. These reports bring together a range of the best-available sources on children’s wellbeing to draw out key trends, areas of concern, and positive developments across a range of domains of wellbeing including: personal wellbeing, mental and physical health, education and skills, relationships, “what we do” and “self, society and the future”.
Covid-19 impact and recovery
This year’s report, focused on the 2021/22 academic year, examines a period during which children emerged from the pandemic with their school and social lives finally returning to something almost resembling ‘normal’. Schools and colleges returned to full-time face-to-face teaching and formal examinations resumed.
One of the report’s key findings is that children’s wellbeing in 2022 appears to have bounced back from its lowest point during the pandemic in 2020, to a level more closely resembling the pre-pandemic period.
There are, however, some concerning findings that puncture this good news. The latest national data from schools suggests that at both primary and secondary level children’s anxiety is higher than it was in 2020/21. NHS Digital’s survey of the prevalence of mental ill health among children and young people has also reported a worrying increase in probable mental health conditions among 17- to 19-year-olds from one in six in 2021 to one in four in 2022.
These findings should cause pause for thought. While many children and young people may have bounced back from the pandemic and, overall, the majority of children are happy with their lives, there are still too many who struggle.
Even placing the pandemic aside, as The Children’s Society regularly reports in its Good Childhood Report, the latest 11 waves of data from Understanding Society covering 2009/10 to 2019/20 tell a story of slow, steady, but statistically significant decline in the average happiness of 10 to 15-year-olds with their lives as a whole. Changes in wellbeing at a population level can be difficult to read, but the downward trend in our children’s wellbeing should be of concern.
The state of the nation report offers an opportunity to reflect on the complex drivers of children’s wellbeing and the important question of what society should be doing to improve it. The pandemic drove increased levels of attention and concern around children’s wellbeing as young people were cut off from friends, family and school. It is crucial that as the initial shock of the pandemic subsides we do not lose sight of the wider challenges facing our children.
Shifting the dial: consistent measurement
An important, but technical, reflection centres on how difficult it is for us to build a picture of how children feel about their lives in near real time. The state of the nation 2022 report examines last academic year and must draw on multiple data sources to do so. It is published halfway through the current academic year. Any meaningful change might not be implemented until next academic year.
There are also significant challenges in understanding the experiences of specific groups of children, like those with Special Educational Needs, receiving Free School Meals, or from different ethnic backgrounds. Not only are the samples of these groups often small and difficult to compare, but different questions are used across the different surveys making things even more challenging. For example, some of the sources used ask for household income, while others use Free School Meal eligibility as a proxy for low income.
Without good consistent measurement of children’s wellbeing in the first place it makes it even more challenging to work out what actually works to shift the dial and address some of the concerning trends in children’s wellbeing we face.
Next steps: national or local-level action?
From a policy perspective, the outlook is uncertain. Given the importance of family relationships in children’s wellbeing, the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care provided an important opportunity to reset our approach, calling for a two billion pound investment in early help for families who are struggling. The final strategy, published in May 2022, made total financial commitments, across the whole of children’s social care, of around £200 million. While important improvements may come from the new strategy for children’s social care, the financial size of the commitment seems dwarfed by the scale of the wellbeing challenge.
With significant interventions unlikely this side of a general election, local initiatives may be a more effective and sustainable way of improving children’s wellbeing. Many schools now regularly measure wellbeing, and initiatives like #BeeWell in Greater Manchester provide the data required to stimulate and inform action across whole city-regions.
The What Works Centre, has been keen to encourage such local action. In partnership with The Children’s Society, the Centre has developed a framework to measure the subjective wellbeing of children and young people. The database of measures and user guide provide a one-stop-shop for charities, community groups, and professionals working with children to find relevant, robust and consistent measures of subjective wellbeing for children and young people in the UK. Using measures like these is a crucial way of evaluating the impact of support for children.
Further available resources:
And as a result, while answering the question “how are our children doing?” nationally remains a tricky business, there is no reason why organisations cannot confidently say that the children they support are feeling better about their lives as a result of their important work.