Children in the UK have the lowest levels of life satisfaction across Europe, with “a particularly British fear of failure” partly to blame, according to a major report into childhood happiness.
More than a third of UK 15-year-olds scored low on life satisfaction, the annual Good Childhood Report from the Children’s Society found. They also fared badly across happiness measurements including satisfaction with schools, friends and sense of purpose compared to children in other European countries.
The UK has also seen the sharpest drop in childhood life satisfaction in the past five years, according to the report, which compared the UK to EU countries for the first time in 2015. It was 19th out of 21 countries in 2015 with a score of 6.98, just above Italy (6.89) and Greece (6.91). But while there was a slight increase in life satisfaction in these two other countries, in the UK it fell substantially.
The rise in UK child poverty and school pressures were cited alongside the fear of failure as reasons why only 64% of UK children experienced high life satisfaction – the lowest figure of 24 countries surveyed by the OECD. Fifteen-year-olds in the UK had the greatest fear of failure across 24 European countries assessed by the OECD’s Programme for International Assessment (Pisa).
The report adds that UK has some of the highest levels of school work pressure reported by 15-year-olds, according to data from the 2017-18 Health Behaviours in School-Aged Children Survey (HBSC). England came third out of 45 countries, with 74% of girls and 62% of boys reporting feeling pressured by schoolwork.
“Children and young people talk a lot about the pressure that get placed on them to do well,” said Richard Crellin, one of the authors of the report. “We reflected this could be linked to a pressure in British society to take things on the chin and have a stiff upper lip. Young people across the UK told how they feel judged if they don’t succeed first time.”
Mark Russell, chief executive of the Children’s Society, added: “As a society we can’t be content with children in the UK being the most unsatisfied with their lives in Europe. It has to change...Even before the pandemic, which we know has taken a huge toll on our children’s wellbeing, many felt their life didn’t have a sense of purpose. We believe it is not only a fear of failure – which in previous research we found was higher amongst those living in poverty – but also rising child poverty levels that could partly be to blame,” said Russell.
Prof Tamsin Ford, from the faculty of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the report’s findings were very worrying, particularly as 2020 had been especially distressing for lots of children.
In July a survey by the Children’s Society found that nearly one in five children aged 10-17 in the UK – the equivalent of 1.1 million – reported being unhappy with their lives as a whole during the coronavirus lockdown, up from an average of 10-13% over the last five years.
Between 2015 and 2018, the UK had the largest increase in relative child poverty – around 4 percentage points, while average levels of child poverty fell by around 2 percentage points across the 24 countries.