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Why are children so unhappy?

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  • Schools
  • Social brain

‘Why are children so unhappy’ trumpets the Independent front page today. The question and the accompanying article creates the impression of a younger generation more disturbed, dysfunctional and depressed than ever before.

The concerns are real enough and the main point in this post is about what we should do. But a word of caution first. When making sweeping and alarming statements it is important to be clear what is being claimed. In particular we need to separate the existence of issues that are worrying from the implication that they are getting worse. To take one example it is, of course, true that we have a big problem with childhood obesity. However, to recognise this is not the same as saying that children are becoming less healthy. Indeed as the RSA Report on Risk and Childhood pointed out last year, on most indicators today’s children are healthier and safer than ever.

The reason we encourage the media to turn specific and important set of problems into a more pervasive message of social pessimism may be twofold.

Firstly, it is disturbing to realise that unhappiness co-exists with plenty. Although the poorest children are the least healthy (in mind and body) it is clear that even those laden with consumer gadgets and treats can be one or more of sad, unhealthy, anxious, aggressive.

Second, and related, we no longer see childhood problems as the unfinished business of progress (as  it felt when people were abolishing child chimney sweeps, eradicating polio, providing free school meals etc). We see today’s childhood discontents and traumas as the flip side of progress.

But, anyway, on to solutions. There are many and as I said we need to get behind the hype to develop specific solutions to specific problems. However, for the RSA a high priority is enabling schools to be intelligent communities.  The great work of schools like Wellington College (headed by Anthony Seldon) or schools using the Opening Minds curriculum demonstrate the benefit of working directly with these issues.  Still, overall, too many feel like exam factories, in which hearing the pupils' voices or addressing issues like individual and collective well-being are seen as low priorities. Schools are a public institution unlike any other. Young people have a long term relationship with a single institution from which they will emerge with many of their life choices and life chances clearer and more circumscribed (a key paradox of schooling is that it is both about opening up and narrowing down possibilities for students).

Making schools the kind of places where youngsters can individually and collectively overcome the kinds of problems modern life throws at them is vital. It is something I talk about in speeches - such as the one I gave last week to the Association of School and College Lecturers – and I’m sure it will be an important theme in the work of our emerging RSA Future Schools Network.

Thanks for the comments on the last blog. I agree with Bob and Susie. There are still challenges to be addressed to have more user public services. I think, Bob, the Government remains signed up to user empowerment and contestability in service provision. That is certainly the direction of travel, for example, in employment, and there was an interesting reference to a more radical user driven approach in the recent drugs strategy. And thanks Matt for a very interesting article.

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