The UK is facing a crisis in children’s wellbeing. The life satisfaction of our children has been declining since 2011/12 and an international survey from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked the wellbeing of the UK‘s children 71st out of 74 participating countries. The UK needs to find solutions that can help reverse this trend and improve outcomes for young people.

Having a relationship with a trusted adult has been shown to be one possible solution. Evidence has shown that having an adult who can listen without judgement and support a young person in a positive way helps to reduce the impact that adverse childhood experiences have on young people’s lives. It can reduce the risk of low mental wellbeing as well as other negative health outcomes such as smoking, high alcohol consumption and poor diet.

Young people can find trusted adults in a range of settings, including in their local youth club, at school, in their extended family or in places of worship. However, they cannot simply be “assigned” to a young person - it is essential that young people have independently chosen to trust them. They are defined by their characteristics rather than their role. Young people have highlighted that they typically come with no expectations of what young people will achieve or how they will behave, they are non-judgemental and refrain from trying to “fix” a young person. They are good listeners – allowing young people the space to open up, helping young people to work through issues in their own way. Importantly, they need to be reliable – a consistent presence that the young person can rely on.

Yet many of the children who need this support most do not have access to a trusted adult. Data from a representative sample of people in Wales suggested that around 20% of people did not have a trusted adult during childhood. This problem was greatest amongst those children who experienced more adversity. If this is representative of the rest of the UK, it would imply that there are more than 800,000 children in secondary school today who do not have a trusted adult to support them. This leaves these children without the support they need to help navigate the challenging years before adulthood.

This report evaluates the impact of an intervention from Football Beyond Borders (FBB) to provide a trusted adult for young people who may not otherwise have one. The intervention provides support within secondary schools, particularly targeted towards those at risk of exclusion, such as those with poor behaviour records, who have suffered adverse childhood experiences or who have Special Educational Needs. The programme uses sport to build trust, combining this with one-to-one mentoring and group work to help develop children’s socio-emotional awareness. Students involved in the programme highlight the impact this experience can have on helping them better manage their emotions, improve their confidence and have a more positive outlook towards education. Furthermore, a study from the University of Manchester using data from the #BeeWell programme has demonstrated that the FBB programme protects “at risk” young people from declines in wellbeing. The difference in wellbeing between those supported and a comparison group was substantial - roughly the same as a UK adult experiences when they go from being unemployed to employed.

These wellbeing improvements delivered by FBB are estimated to have significant value to society. The average student involved in the programme in 2022/23 benefited from improvements in wellbeing worth around £2,300, based on HM Treasury’s approach to valuing wellbeing improvements. This means that the programme as a whole delivered more than £5.5 million of benefits to society from the 2,401 students who participated in that year. This is the equivalent of around £150,000 of benefits per trusted adult practitioner.

The FBB programme is likely to offer good value for money. Based on the short-term wellbeing impacts alone, the FBB programme is estimated to deliver £2.20 of benefits for every £1 spent. And this is likely to be an underestimate of the true scale of benefits from the programme. Sensitivity tests that include plausible impacts on academic outcomes highlight that the return could be closer to £4 of benefits per £1 spent. In addition, some estimates for the economic costs of permanent exclusion are so high that FBB would only need to prevent seven young people per year, out of a total cohort of 2,401, from being excluded for the benefits of the programme to outweigh its costs.

Investing in new solutions to improve UK children’s wellbeing will be critical to tackling the current crisis. The FBB programme provides a great example of this – highlighting the role that social sector organisations can play in providing trusted adults to make a difference within schools.

It is also a great example of the importance of having the right data and infrastructure in place to measure and compare wellbeing outcomes for children. While this is partly about good data collection practices from charities like FBB, without #BeeWell’s investment in high-quality wellbeing data for the Greater Manchester area it would not have been possible to deliver the same quality of analysis. An expansion of wellbeing data collection for children across the country would have a profound impact on the potential evidence base available to inform future policy decisions.

Ultimately, this is about improving the lives of individual children – helping them to flourish in school environments that care as much about the child’s wellbeing as their academic outcomes. As the analysis of the FBB programme shows, more consistently understanding and incorporating the economic benefits of wellbeing improvements in the appraisal and evaluation of interventions for children could make a material difference to which policy options are prioritised in the future.

Read the full report