England is the second worst nation in the world for child happiness, according to a recent study from the Children’s Society, coming second only to South Korea. Why is this? Is it the fault of parents, our government, or are schools simply failing in their own right?
The answer is our government. It has failed to deal with bullying – especially homophobic bullying – and allowed teenagers to become obsessed with body image. Although the statement that ‘England is the second worst nation in the world for child happiness’ is problematic, as the study was only conducted on 15 countries and English children were actually more happy than others with some aspects of life, the issues raised in the survey still need to be addressed.
The government treats the education system like a factory, producing excellent prototype students who are prepared for university or the world of work (but often destined for further education). This factory fails on many levels to actually focus on the individual talents and needs of children. After all, schools are judged by league tables, rather than individual students’ talents or pupil welfare.
When faced with reports of child unhappiness due to bullying a Government spokesman stated that:
Bullying of any kind is unacceptable. That is why we are providing more than £7m to help schools tackle bullying head on.
When will the government learn that just throwing money at something is not the way to solve an issue? There are loads of organisations out there to tackle these issues which are well funded. However funding is not the issue. The problem is that teachers, and schools in general, don’t know how to confront bullying. Stonewall’s 2012 schools report states that only half of schools teach that homophobic bullying is wrong, even less in faith schools at 37%, and three in five gay students say teachers who witness homophobic bullying never intervene.
Meanwhile 99% of gay students report hearing homophobic remarks in school, and 55% experience homophobic bullying, of which 46% have experienced symptoms consistent with depression as a result. In fact, since 2007, homophobic bullying has actually become the most severe type in schools, even ahead of bullying related to weight or race. New schemes of training and awareness need to be implemented; teaching is not just about delivering a lesson in History or English, but rather moulding individuals.
Many schools fail to tackle bullying and many do not even include it within their PSHE syllabuses. If the government is failing to implement active measures against bullying, then schools are left in the dark. The government just pushes money at the issue and hopes someone else will solve it. They need to take a more proactive approach; they could, for example, make education about bullying compulsory within the PSHE syllabus and mandate that more time in teacher training be spent on ensuring teachers are able to teach ‘values’ as well as ‘skills’ and are able to deal with bullying. We cannot blame schools when the government is not doing enough to reform the education system and help schools tackle the bullying problem.
Bullying aside, the report also looked at body image. I remember watching Tyger Drew Honey’s (who plays Jake in Outnumbered) BBC3 Documentary on this issue. What it showed is that obsession with body image (ranging from arm muscles, fashion and shaving genitals), has caused much child unhappiness, as many children who don’t fit this ‘image’ feel inadequate and unwanted. In May 2015, the Daily Mail reported that children as young as eight are unhappy with their bodies due to this obsession with body image. Why are we creating this idea that what someone looks like on the outside is more important than who they are on the inside? I myself have met some not so nice people who fit the ideal look and many excellent individuals who do not fit such an image. The ‘perfect’ person is not clean shaven, with Calvin Klein boxers, a Topman shirt, chinos and an 11-stone toned physique.
There is no link between someone’s image and their personality, or ability to be a good friend. Yet we make people who don’t fit this image feel inadequate. We need to stop the obsession. Yet, once again, the government does nothing. It fails to regulate media and fashion outlets that promote the ‘perfect‘ image, and consistently fails to address the issue with PSHE syllabuses by its continued conspicuous absence (even though the 2013 Young Minds Enquiry established clear links between body-image pressure with both depression and eating disorders). The government could put forward new regulations on advertising outlets in order to promote diversity in their selection of models, yet they do not, even though recent studies, including one conducted by the University of Kent, have shown that ‘average-sized models‘ could be better for business.
The final issue – perhaps the most crucial of all – is that the government is promoting ‘exam focused’ education, where all that is important is gaining 5 A*-C at GCSE, including English and Maths, and then AAB at A-Level for a Russell Group university place. From my personal experience, those who are excellent at, for example, art or music but struggle with maths are often made to put their talents to one side. Equally, those achieving top grades have stress piled on, to ensure that schools keep their places in league tables. My old school had a motto plastered on its roof, saying this: ‘These are the best days of your life, make memories’. Sadly, however, the current schooling system piles on stress and pressure, making these ‘memories’ far from idyllic. I remember sitting A2 exams and feeling constantly stressed for months. The education system’s focus on producing good grades is putting students’ well-being at risk. The individual needs of pupils are not catered for; indeed PSHE and RS are not even compulsory on some school syllabuses. As the Young Minds 2013 Inquiry stated:
Mental health and emotional well-being are generally not covered very well, if at all, in PSHE lessons.
In a race to reach the intellectual level of the top-performing nations, the government has forgotten children and sacrificed their well-being for grades. What a shame.
So what can be done? The government needs to wake up and smell the roses. They must take a more active approach to bullying, tackle the ‘body image’ phenomenon and introduce more social elements into mainstream education. Until they do, the UK’s problem with bullying and children’s self-confidence will remain.