The anxiety epidemic: Why are children so unhappy?

Teachers are to take the extraordinary step of calling for an independent Royal Commission to investigate why so many of Britain's children are unhappy.

The unprecedented move by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers follows a welter of evidence highlighting the fragile states of mind of many of the country's seven million primary and secondary school pupils.

A motion to be debated at the ATL's annual conference in Torquay next Tuesday says: "Conference notes with deep concern that many children in our schools appear unhappy and anxious." Over the next two weeks, ATL members will discuss several topics relating to the mental health of primary age children and the pressures they face in modern society. Another motion on the ATL's agenda warns that "social dysfunction and family breakdown are damaging the educational attainment of children and the performance of schools and colleges", while a third speaks of the growing number of pupils being driven to suicide by "academic, social and peer pressure". The recent spate of teenage suicides in Bridgend, South Wales, is symptomatic of the unease felt by today's children, delegates will hear.

Dr Mary Bousted, the ATL general-secretary, said yesterday: "There is rising concern that more and more children are coming to school unable to learn because their lives are so dispirited and they are under stress."

Numerous recent studies have identified a growing malaise among children, particularly in primary schools. In February 2007, the United Nations Children's Fund reported that British pupils were the unhappiest in the western world because of the lack of social cohesion in the UK.

That was followed by the most in-depth study of primary education for 40 years, which claimed that 3.5million younger children were affected by a worrying "loss of childhood".

The inquiry, led by Professor Robin Alexander of Cambridge University, said primary schools were engulfed by a wave of "anti-social behaviour, materialism and the cult of celebrity".

A separate report blamed this anti-social behaviour on the Government's rigid system of testing and its constant drive to meet targets.

Many pupils felt alienated at school because lessons were boring and their teachers spent too much time "teaching to the tests", the study said. Just before Christmas, the National Association of Head Teachers accused ministers of presiding over the death of fun and play in the primary school curriculum.

The ATL, in its call for a Royal Commission, will blame homework for heaping further pressure on children and making them "unhappy and anxious".

As a first step towards easing the problem, conference delegates will be asked to back the scrapping of compulsory homework for the nation's three-and-a-half million primary pupils, as well as stricter limits on the amount set by secondary schools.

Dr Bousted added: "I think a lot of homework is a waste of time. It puts a huge amount of stress on disadvantaged children. Middle-class children can go home and get help from their parents to do their homework. Disadvantaged children do not necessarily have the extra learning support that the middle-class children have and consequently it doesn't tell you much about the relative abilities of different children."

The motion to be put to the ATL conference next week says: "Children should be able to explore, experiment and enjoy their learning without feeling pressured. Homework has become an increasing pressure placed on children in primary and secondary schools."

The proposed motion also expresses "deep concern" about the situation.

The pressure to set more homework came soon after Labour's election to power in 1997, when the party's first Education Secretary David Blunkett for the first time published Government guidelines on the amount of homework to be set for children between the ages of four and 16.

These recommended 20 minutes a night for four- and five-year-olds, increasing to 30 minutes for six- and seven-year-olds and between 90 minutes and two hours for 16-year-olds studying for their GCSEs.

Dr Bousted argues that teachers feel under more pressure to set homework because of the Government's rigid targets and testing regime – which culminates with league table of the performance of all primary schools, highlighting their results in the national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds. The union's move comes after a series of reports – notably from the Cambridge-based review of primary education (the biggest inquiry into sector for more than 40 years) – warned that today's children are more stressed than their predecessors and bored with lessons constantly focussing on teaching to the tests. As a result, standards have declined, the review has argued.

To combat pupil stress, Dr Anthony Seldon, the headmaster of Wellington College independent school, has introduced lessons in "happiness" for his pupils.

Last night, a spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "Homework is not compulsory but we do encourage teachers to set children work to do outside the classroom.

"A good, well-organised homework programme helps children and young people develop the skills and attitudes they will need for successful, independent lifelong learning."

He rejected claims by the union that today's youngsters were "unhappy and anxious", saying: "Research shows that, for most children, 2008 is a great time to be a child.

"Most children are happy, most are achieving to a higher level than ever before, enjoying better health, more opportunities to travel, to engage in sport or cultural activities than was the case for any previous generation."

Unhappy times for children

*Global Report on Child Welfare and Happiness by UNICEF

Just over a year ago, this report by Unicef, the UN children's agency, revealed the results of a survey which showed that UK schoolchildren were the unhappiest of 21 countries surveyed in the Western world. The report blamed a lack of social cohesion and poor parenting for its findings.

*A Review of Primary Education by Professor Robin Alexander

Two reports from this Cambridge-based review of primary education – the biggest inquiry into the sector for 40 years – highlighted similar concerns. One revealed a worrying "loss of childhood" among today's youngsters. This, it said, had led to schools being engulfed by a wave of "antisocial behaviour, materialism and the cult of celebrity". The second warned that constant interference by politicians in the primary school timetable with the stress on tests and league tables had put pupils off lessons and damaged their learning.

*An Inquiry into Testing and Assessment by the National Association of Head Teachers

After taking evidence from a range of academics and writers, it said that ministers had presided over the death of fun and play in the primary school curriculum. It, too, argued children's education had been damaged by putting them off learning through too much repetitive teaching for tests.

News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
peopleReports that Brand could stand for Mayor on an 'anti-politics' ticket
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
News
Voluminous silk drawers were worn by Queen Victoria
newsThe silk underwear is part of a growing trade in celebrity smalls
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Candidates with surnames that start with an A have an electoral advantage
newsVoters are biased towards names with letters near start of alphabet
Arts and Entertainment
Isis with Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Senior Research Fellow in Water and Resilient communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: Our team of leading academic...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£60 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Special Needs Teaching Assistants...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?