How can we help this country’s children become happier?

18 March 2019

Back in 2016 The Guardian[1] cited the following reasons as responsible for the impressive progress recorded in tackling past high levels of teenage pregnancies in this country: “political support at all levels, long-term commitment and changes to social norms”.

Success achieved in combatting underage drinking and drug use has also benefitted from steadfast, cross party-political support[2]. The reduced prevalence of smoking among children and young people too, with NHS Digital data registering a steady decline in the 20 years between 1996 and 2016[3]. Clearly then, we as a country have the capacity to overcome seemingly intractable social problems.

Good, as British children are both unhappy and underperforming at school. For proof of the latter you can look towards the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 2016 “PISA” tests on 15-year olds, which have the UK continuing its long-term slide down the rankings for attainment in both literacy and maths[4]. Not exactly inspiring for the world’s fifth largest economy.

Why is this?[5]

Pro Bono Economics Trustee and interim Chief Executive Officer at the British Medical Association Belinda Phipps suggests we look abroad for clues. “In Finland school starts later and children are much happier there” while a “lack of outdoors time, early gender stereotyping and too much screen time” from all seemingly play their part.

If that is the case, what can be done?

An over-used but still apposite quote here comes from former US Attorney General and one-time Presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy. Speaking to a University of Kansas audience back in 1968 he said that Gross Domestic Product – all the stuff in the economy essentially – measures “everything except that which is worthwhile”. This remains true today, but the pursuit of it (directly or not) is still the norm now just as it was 50 years ago.

What should we be measuring, and in turn targeting then? To quote from Her Majesty’s Treasury’s Green Book – guidance issued periodically regarding how to appraise domestic policies, programmes and projects – health, relationships, security and purpose[6]. In short, wellbeing.

Policymakers and we in wider society need to get our arms around wellbeing as something that you can measure, rather than just a nebulous and fluffy catch-all notion[7]. A greater understanding of the drivers of wellbeing in Government will inevitably better inform policymakers to develop measures that can get effectively target the multitude of factors to blame for poor levels of happiness and educational performance among children.

Pro Bono Economics is doing what it can here, collaborating with the domestic champion of both enhancing and measuring wellbeing in the UK – What Works Wellbeing – on a fascinating new project in this regard. Its aim is to shine a light on how public spending priorities might change in the context of the prospective Comprehensive Spending Review, if raising societal wellbeing was the Government’s overriding goal.

Just as important, this project represents one of Pro Bono Economics’ first experiences with wellbeing as a measure too, output from which we hope to publish in the next few months.

We will be looking to share the findings of such work far and wide, to the betterment of wider society’s appreciation and hence pursuit of the things in life that really are worthwhile. Armed with that, the UK can rise to the significant challenge encapsulated in The Good Childhood Report 2018 from The Children’s Society, which shows that children’s happiness in this country is today as it was 20 years ago[8].

Stay tuned.

 

[1] The Guardian (2016) How the UK halved its teenage pregnancy rate - https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jul/18/how-uk-halved-teenage-pr...

[2] UNICEF (2013) Child Well-Being in Rich Countries – A Comparative Overview - https://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/rc11_eng.pdf

[3] NHS Digital (2018) Statistics on Smoking – England, 2018 - https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/sta...

[4] OECD (2016) PISA 2015 Results (Volume I) - Excellence and Equity in Education - http://www.oecd.org/education/pisa-2015-results-volume-i-9789264266490-e...

[5] At the outset, we should set aside glib notion that drinking, smoking, and drug use at a young age leads to happy and motivated children.

[6] HM Treasury (2018) The Green Book – Central Government Guidance on Appraisal and Evaluation – P.16 –  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploa...

[7] See here: https://whatworkswellbeing.org/

[8] The Children’s Society (2018) The Good Childhood Report - https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/good-childhood-report

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Simon Burns

Director of Public Affairs

Simon joined PBE in November 2018. He started his career working in reputation management on behalf of the offshore financial services industry in 2010, before joining the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association two years later, first as an Executive on and then Manager of the Policy Team.

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