Ask most parents what they want for their children and the response is “to be happy”. Ask the same parents what “being happy” actually entails and you may get a vast array of responses. What we can all agree on, if we are guided by virtuous set of values, is that we want our children and young people to be contented, safe, healthy, learned and have enough money to live a life free from anxiety to enjoy all that this world has to offer.
Essentially, the human race is quite egotistical. That is why well-being is important to us. We tend to be concerned about ourselves as much as other people, often more so. As parents, adults and carers, perhaps the greatest gift we can give to future generations is to make them value well-being and to understand, appreciate and aspire to the components that make up well-being – for themselves and others. Can we ever truly be “happy” or content if our own well-being comes at the expense of others?
This week UNICEF has announced the findings of their latest research on the well-being of the world’s children and young people.
They categorise well-being into five key dimensions.
- Material well-being
- Health and safety
- Behaviours and risks
- Housing and environment
Apparently, if we as a society get these factors right, then there’s a greater chance of our children being “happy” and for us to have a society that holistically recognises the importance of well-being.
Yet there’s still a lack of definition within these five dimensions of what “happiness” or “well-being” actually means – and let’s remind ourselves that these two words are not the same; happiness is just one component of well-being, yet they are often used interchangeably.
What materials should we have in order to be materially well? Is Internet access to all children and young people part of this measure? Is being healthy merely about infant mortality rates, immunisations and quantitative, measurable outcomes? What of mental health? What does “educated” mean? Is it the freedom to be creative and imaginative or is it purely based on how well someone does in tests and examinations? How much of their childhood should they spend in school? Are risks all about how we behave – whether we abuse our own bodies through indulgence in unhealthy activities or do they include the risks of how we deal with our feelings and those of others? Is the measurement of well-being in relation to housing and environment merely about how many rooms there are in a house or whether our air is clean? Shouldn’t it also include whether we are part of a community, our availability to community services, to space – be it within a home or outside?
Some of these elements are included in the UNICEF survey but many aren’t. As with so many of these reports, there’s an over-emphasis on quantitative data rather than qualitative comments. As the document itself says,
“The second component of educational well-being is the quality of the education received. This key element of child well-being is of course difficult to define and measure on an internationally comparable basis. Ideally, the concept of ‘quality’ in education would embrace a broad range of factors such as the development of social understanding and value formation (including education for citizenship) as well as the opportunity to develop the diverse abilities and potentials of young people. But this lies in the future.”
The point is, it shouldn’t be in the future because this is important now!
What is the point of having the best grades in science, maths and reading if children and young people feel stultified by the education that they’re receiving? What is the point of education if we’re not considering that important aspiration to be “well” as a whole, whereby we afford time, energy and imagination to enable children and young people to learn about the fundamental essences of life – such as caring, compassion, self-worth, self-belief, generosity, responsibility to yourself and others, giving and receiving with consideration? Why aren’t we taking the qualitative nature of education into account when making comments about how well our nations are doing educationally? It’s not impossible to do so.
The quality of education is not merely in knowledge and being able to demonstrate that knowledge, and this report, by its own admission, explains that the quality of education hasn’t really been considered. It talks of the need to look at “social understanding” and “value formation” as well as the recognition of the “diverse abilities and potentials” of our young people. These are big issues that need addressing now.
The UNICEF report is huge, and like so many statistical surveys, is open to wide interpretation. Over the forthcoming weeks, we shall write in greater detail about some aspects of the report and subsidiary work done by UNICEF in relation to wellbeing, particularly referring to the Millennium Development Goals, which asked young people what was important to them in the year 2000 and how this work is progressing.
For now though, we’d like to make a few brief comments about the UK in relation to this report, as it has been reported in the media that success is here, and we are now in a more healthy state as a nation due to our massive rise up this league table of wellness from the lowly position of bottom to our current mid-table mediocrity.
Firstly, we must be mindful that this survey is not new. There was a mild outcry from politicians, social commentators and professionals working with children and young people when the 2009 report was released, placing the UK firmly at the bottom of the pit in relation to well-being We can’t dismiss the possibility that those who were facilitating this survey, whenever and wherever it was carried out, had either a subliminal or direct influence on the responses. When an entire profession is judged on quantitative data such as the teaching profession has, then it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a short aside about “how this survey will show how good we are in relation to others” might have influenced some of the responses.
Secondly, we mustn’t be complacent. Whilst there is some evidence that the UK has a better level of well-being, we must consider two key issues here.
- Some of the positive initiatives that we saw in our schools and other educational settings could have made a difference. The Arts Mark, Creative Partnerships, Healthy Schools and the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy programmes recognised from the outset that it could take 15-20 years to identify a significant impact from such work. It’s possible that some of the positive aspects of these programmes are being recognised in this rise in the “league table”. However, none of these programmes now receives government funding. Preventative work is negligible and we wonder whether the impact of these losses might be felt in the next survey or the one after that.
- This survey was carried out before the impact of the austerity-driven cuts to the public sector had time to be fully established and recognised. The impact of the recent cuts to welfare provision certainly haven’t been accounted for here and it’s an extreme concern of ours that so many of our children are going to be added to that horrendous “below the poverty line” statistic that will certainly impact in subsequent well-being reports
Thirdly, there are still some glaring issues in relation to these statistics. The UK is placed 24th out of 29 for educational well-being – and possibly only in that position due to the UK’s commitment to Early Years Education. Once more, it says nothing about the quality of that provision, only that it exists. The statistics relating to young people not in education or training (NEETs) are very worrying, especially when one considers the wealth of our nation, even in these diminished times. Participation in further education places us at the bottom of the table. One has to ask the question, is this linked to the very questions we asked previously as to what constitutes a good education? Why would young people want to stay in education if what they are offered bears no resemblance to what they want or need, and merely perpetuates a stress-ridden, exam-influenced, content inflicted education? We must start listening to young people and offer them something that is befitting to their needs and the societal needs of the 21st century.
Fourthly, we should look very closely at what other countries are doing and why they are successful. The Netherlands comes in top of the league again. Why? How? Why aren’t we looking at their record on education, housing, health, relationships, freedom and equality? Within this document, Finland again does well on education and only doesn’t come top of the league because they don’t have compulsory education until the age of 7. Even by their own admission, if the question was slightly amended to account for this choice – educationally sound as it is, UNICEF says that Finland would have scored higher.
There are other key issues that we would like to consider in greater detail in later posts on this subject. For example, the report that says whilst there’s been an improvement in relation to young peoples’ use of alcohol, there’s still 20% of under 15 year olds who say they’ve been intoxicated on more than two occasions. Or alternatively, there has to be some question as to why there’s such a significant difference between the responses of young people in relation to they can talk to their mother (83%) compared with their father (67%) – though admittedly this seems to be a world-wide issue. We should also consider the findings from Japan, Australia and New Zealand whose data in the survey wasn’t included due to numbers of participation but whose grey data (included at the end of the tables in some instances) tells its own story. One should also consider, in the light of our recent posts, what this survey might look like with the inclusion of other countries, such as Bhutan or the so-called BRIC nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China as well as South Korea.
“Lies, damn lies and statistics” can be cited but we shouldn’t take these reports lightly. There are indications that are positive and also far from positive that we need to take heed of, and certainly must not fall for the idea that we are an increasingly healthy nation of children and young people whose well-being is being fully considered.
We’re not, and it isn’t.