English eight-year-olds are less happy than those in Algeria, Poland and Romania, researchers have found.
Working alongside researchers in 16 countries, the University of York’s Social Policy Research Unit (SPRU) took part in a major study to gain a fresh perspective on how children around the world feel about their lives.
It examined a range of measures including their family and home life, friendships, money and possessions, school life, local area, time use, personal well-being, views on children’s rights, and their overall happiness.
Children here ranked 13 out of 16 countries when it comes to life satisfaction - with only South Korea, Nepal and Ethiopia faring worse, an international survey found.
Children surveyed in England also came low in the rankings when it comes to being satisfied with family life, with Catalonia in Spain coming top and Nepal bottom.
Most children aged eight in all 16 countries were happy with their lives as a whole but a minority (around 6 per cent of children) had low well-being. The percentage with low well-being varied from below 3 per cent in Colombia and Romania to over 9 per cent in Ethiopia, South Korea and England.
More than two thirds of English children said they feel safe at home.
On friends, England came mid-table when young people were asked if they are satisfied with their relationships.
Of all 16 countries, England did not rank any higher than eighth place for any of the questions.
When it comes to material possessions, almost all English respondents said they had access to good clothes, compared to 85 per cent in Ethiopia - and 88 per cent of British children indicated they have access to the internet, compared to just 6 per cent in Nepal.
Asked about bullying at school, a fifth of children in England said they had been hit by fellow pupils more than three times in the last month, compared to almost a quarter in Estonia and 6% in South Korea.
Looking at issues around how young people see themselves, children in England came in the bottom five when asked about their appearance and body. Colombia and Romania came top.
Gwyther Rees, of the SPRU at the University of York, which carried out the research in England, said: “There are some quite troubling messages from England and the picture is quite similar to what we found with older age groups.
“Children are happy at home and with friends but less happy at school where there seems to be an issue around bullying and being left out.”
Lisa Bradley, from Hepworth near Holmfirth, is mother to Tommy, eight, and Oscar. She found the research “so upsetting”.
“More than anything else such as academic success or achievement, all parents want is for their children to be happy,” she said. “I worry constantly about my children feeling happy and safe.
“They do have a lot of worries these days, so every night after stories, Tommy and I talk about the things that made us happy that day. Even if it’s been a bad one. On the whole, my son is a very happy little boy who adores school and knows his rights. But I am sure this isn’t the case for everyone.”
Simon Sommer, head of research at the Jacobs Foundation, which funded the work, said the project is “groundbreaking”, revealing information from the eight-year-olds’ own perspectives.
He said: “The Jacobs Foundation continues to support Children’s Worlds, because we are convinced that it will deliver unique information valuable for everyone who is interested in understanding and improving the lives of children and youth.”
Professor Asher Ben-Arieh, one of the study’s principal investigators and co-chair of the International Society of Child Indicators, said: “For the first time ever we are able to hear from almost 20,000 eight years old children from 16 countries what they do, feel and want. This remarkable achievement teaches us first and foremost that children know better than anyone else about their lives and that any effort to improve it needs to be inclusive of their voice”.
Sam Royston, Policy Director at The Children’s Society, said: “It’s deeply worrying that eight-year-old children living in England are less happy than children living in a wide range of other countries across the world. Many of these children say they don’t like school and also report being bullied. If primary age school children in England are lagging behind those in other countries then tackling this challenge should be a priority for the British Government – as well as for schools – in the coming months.
“As a step towards this, the Government should consider making it a legal requirement for schools in England to provide counselling and to allocate children’s mental health funding to promote children’s well-being, rather than just dealing with mental health problems after they occur. Giving children a happy childhood should be a top priority.”
A Department for Education spokesman said there was less bullying in schools, citing recent figures showing 30,000 fewer children in England now face the fear of bullying compared with 2005.
The spokesman added: “We are also promoting greater use of counselling in schools, improving teaching about mental health, and supporting joint working between mental health services and schools. This will ensure children can thrive both inside and out the classroom.”
Some of the key findings from the report are:
Worried about money
Over a third of the children surveyed said that they ‘often’ or ‘always’ worried about how much money their family has. The levels of worry were highest (over 30 per cent of children saying that they ‘always’ worried) in Israel, Colombia, Spain and Nepal. In South Korea and Germany the figure was less than 10 per cent.
Most children in the survey said that they felt totally safe at home, at school and in their neighbourhood. However 4 per cent of children did not agree at all that they felt safe at home, 4 per cent did not agree that they felt safe at school, and 9 per cent did not agree at all that they felt safe when out and about in their neighbourhood. While these percentages are small they still add up to large numbers of children in each country.
Liking going to school – differences for girls and boys
Most children (62 per cent) totally agreed that they liked going to school. This is much higher than in our surveys of 10-year-olds (52 per cent) and 12-year-olds (42 per cent). Children in Algeria and Ethiopia were most likely to like going to school and children in Germany, South Korea and England the least likely. In some countries - including Israel and six European countries – girls were much more positive about school than boys, but in other countries such as Nepal and Ethiopia there was no difference between girls and boys.
Being bullied at school
Many of the children said that, in the last month, they had been left out by classmates (41 per cent) and that they had been hit by other children at school (48 per cent). These experiences were more common among children aged eight than in the older two age groups in the survey. The percentage of children who had been hit was highest in Estonia, England and Germany and lowest in South Korea. The percentage who had been left out was highest in England and Romania and lowest in South Korea and Ethiopia.
Knowledge of children’s rights
Almost half of children (46 per cent) said that they knew about children’s rights. This is lower than for older children aged 10 and 12 (58 per cent). Children in Colombia (73 per cent) were the most likely to know about children’s rights, and in Turkey, Ethiopia, Romania and Norway over half of children also answered ‘yes’ to this question.