England not named world's second worst nation for child happiness

19 August 2015
What was claimed

England has been named second worst nation for child happiness.

Our verdict

The research only shows England's performance compared to 14 other countries, not worldwide. Other surveys tell a different story.

"England named 'second worst nation' for child happiness"

Independent, 19 August 2015

Other outlets, such as the BBCIndependentGuardian, Mail and Times, reported pupils in England were "among" the most unhappy in the world. The Telegraph made a more restricted claim, that "England's pupils were 'unhappier than children in Ethiopia but happier than the Germans'". These claims all refer to a survey of 10 and 12 year olds in 15 countries, conducted by The Children's Society and the University of York.

The countries were selected in order to provide a diverse view of children's well-being in different types of countries. Countries were classified according to a system developed by academics which takes into account different welfare systems. So it tells us how England compares to particular countries deemed different to it, but not how it compares to every other country in the world.

Compared to the 14 other countries in the survey, England's children were some of the least happy on specific aspects such as their relationship with teachers and self-confidence. On other aspects, such as other people in their family, the local police in their area, and their friends, they ranked between the middle and top out of the 15 countries.

The Independent comments that the research refers to 15 countries in the body of its article. Taken alone though, its headline could be interpreted as meaning England was second worst in the world.

The report doesn't tell us English pupils were the second most unhappy in the world 

The countries selected to take part in the survey were picked in order to study children's well-being "within different contexts" and so to provide "as diverse a range of countries across as many continents as possible".

It did this based on a system of classifying countries according to their social welfare, developed by academics. For example, England was picked as a "liberal country", Germany a "conservative country", and South Korea an "Asian, productivist welfare state".

The report tells us how England compares to these other 14 countries, but it doesn't tell us how England compares to other similar countries (which weren't included in the research). If we assume that children in similar countries have similar levels of happiness, we can say that England's pupils were among the most unhappy in the world on certain indicators. But we can't say that England was the second worst country globally on these indicators.

We can say English children had relatively low satisfaction in terms of relationships with teachers

As widely reported, English pupils were the most likely to have experienced being left out by their classmates in the past month. Though for the children that did experience this, they experienced it less frequently per month than was the case in other countries. They also ranked in the middle of the 15 countries for being hit by another child.

The report notes that just comparing countries' mean scores for each question has its limitations. For example, children may (due to their culture or language) have a tendency to respond less positively about their well-being in some countries compared to others. So it also identified areas where the happiness of English pupils was particularly high or low compared to their happiness across the survey topics as a whole.

On this basis, children in England were most satisfied with relationships with family members who they didn't live with, money and possessions, friendships, and local police.

What they were relatively unsatisfied with was relationships with their teachers, their body, the way they look, and their self-confidence.

Pupils' school experience wasn't always the worst performing in the rankings: England also came 10th out of 15 for pupils' opinions on their "life as a student".

Other pupil surveys suggest English children are happier than average

In 2012, 84% of 15 year olds reported they were happy at school in the OECD's international PISA survey, compared to an average of 80% in the 34 OECD member countries looked at. This asked more of an overview question about happiness and satisfaction at school rather than the specific aspects asked about in The Children's Society survey.

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