English children are among the unhappiest in the world – we are failing them

As someone who has worked in more than two hundred UK schools, I know that vital conversations surrounding both physical and mental health are simply not happening

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Last week, the Children’s Society released a global survey of 10-13 year olds, revealing that English children are ninth in a league of eleven in terms of happiness and wellbeing– behind their counterparts in less economically developed countries such as Algeria, Romania, South Korea and Uganda. It seems that money really can’t buy you happiness.

Body image concerns were cited as one of the main reasons for English children’s feelings of anxiety and misery. Jo Swinson, former Minister for Equalities, invited me to sit on the board that advises the All Parties Parliamentary Group on Body Image back in 2010, when her party (the Lib Dems) came into power. The direct and devastating impact body image related problems have on children’s exam results, employability, physical and mental health has been known to the powers-that-be for some time.

Yet, the most commonly used approaches for tackling the problem over the past four years have only served to exacerbate it. Which is why, whilst I’m saddened by the results of the Children’s Society’s poll, I can’t say I’m surprised.

With a third of children now classified as overweight or obese, well-meaning but ultimately futile ‘nutrition’ lessons are being delivered in primary schools to five year olds. With no critical facility to properly process what they are being told, children simply learn ‘fat bad, thin good’, ‘chips bad, fruit good’, as they lay down the irreversible programming through which they will understand their worlds. No wonder one in ten of them will go on to develop an eating disorder before they reach twenty five. No wonder body image related bullying, both on and offline, is at a historical high.

Meanwhile, the current government have completely cut the budget for PSHE (Personal, Health and Social Education) in state schools, meaning vital conversations surrounding both physical and mental health are simply not happening. Former Secretary for Education Michael Gove also refused to sign a mandate which would have ensured state school children did a minimum of two hours’ physical education per week.

 

As someone who has worked in more than two hundred UK schools, for me it is crystal clear what young people need. They need to be less sedentary and to be encouraged to exercise for reasons not related to their weight (and therefore not accompanied by a hefty dose of guilt and shame which might, ironically, cause them to seek solace in junk food). The government could begin by re-opening the huge swathes of sports centres they have shut down during their current term and giving schools more funding and time within the curriculum for PE.

Children also need coping mechanisms to deal with the culture we have created for them. The increasingly visual, instant, bully-friendly, judgment-making world of social media and all the accompanying advertising and constant stimulus is making them both vulnerable and miserable.

They need to be shown how to eat healthily, not told.

Finally, they need to know that they are valued for more than the sum of their parts. The solution to lack of body confidence is, in many cases, to draw attention away from the body. We need to start praising children when they are brave, when they are kind, funny or perceptive. If we do not, we condemn them to live in a terrifying global pecking order, determined by how closely they match an increasingly narrow and extreme beauty paradigm.

Inevitably, there are those who will argue that all of the above should fall under the remit of parents, not already-overstretched-teachers. In an ideal world, this would be the case. However we must acknowledge that many adults are just as confused by all the conflicting information on health and body image as their offspring. Furthermore, we cannot control what goes on in every British household. What we can control is what happens in our schools. Targeting via the education system is the easiest way to ensure young people are given what they need to survive and thrive.

Archaic organisations like the ever-sanctimonious ‘Campaign for Real Education’ will tell you that traditional academia is more important than any of this. Yet ask most parents what their primary ambition for their children is and they will say “I just want them to be happy”.

This latest survey proves that they are not. A change of focus, attitude and priority is what is needed to fix that.

READ MORE:
Of course seven-year-olds should be taught ‘age appropriate’ sex education  

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