Measuring the well-being of children

It may sit at the heart of the government’s agenda for improving children’s services but well-being seems too nebulous a notion to measure. Of course, children may have their own yardsticks by which they measure well-being the availability of jelly babies and Transformer toys may feature strongly. But the government is more interested in the efforts councils, police authorities, primary care trusts, youth offending teams and others make in relation to achieving the Every Child Matters green paper’s five outcomes for the nation’s children (see “The five outcomes”).

Put simply, well-being is an individual’s experience of the quality of their life what they think about their lived experiences rather than the quality of the conditions they live in. It encompasses economic well-being, social well-being and environmental well-being as these factors all influence an individual’s experience.

According to Nic Marks, founder of the Centre for Well-Being at independent think-tank the New Economics Foundation, children can understand what their own well-being is from about age nine.

Marks, who will address a session on well-being at Community Care Live Children and Families next month, says: “Once children reach the age of nine they are capable of reflecting on their lives rather than just living them. Under-nines still have well-being, but tend just to live life rather than think about what they have done.”

He describes well-being as an intangible, sensitive issue which can be problematic to measure: “You can’t measure the beauty of a picture, you can only ask someone how beautiful they think it is. The measurement tells a human story, whether it’s a child’s or an adult’s story, and to try to be precise and prescriptive about it is dishonest.”

But Children’s Society policy director Kathy Evans insists that, although the concept of measuring well-being is tricky, it is crucial for all those working with children.

In September 2006, the children’s charity launched the UK’s first independent national inquiry into a good childhood with a focus on six themes: friends, family, learning, lifestyle, health and values. It received evidence for two months from interested parties and its final report and recommendations are due to be published in late 2008.

Evans says: “Looking at well-being is legitimate as a concern in order to see whether we are making children’s reality worse or better. We need to be able to discuss it to base policymaking on it.”

Dennis Hayes, head of the centre for professional learning at Canterbury Christ Church University and joint president of the University and College Union, disagrees. He argues that focusing on well-being as a state that professionals can help a child achieve is unrealistic. “You only make yourself happy when you are doing something, when you are achieving something. When you just try to be happy you can’t achieve it.”

Hayes says the government’s push to improve children’s well-being makes the situation worse because there is an element of blame: “It’s about services saying ‘we want children to be happy and they aren’t, but it’s not because we don’t have the services for them, it’s about the children themselves’.”

Many agree, though, that indicators can be used to break down a child’s experience and attitude to their own well-being despite the somewhat intangible nature of happiness. These indicators include their health, educational attainment, their own self-assessment of how happy they are, and whether they exhibit any behavioural issues.

Earlier this year, using these and other indicators a Unicef report on children’s well-being ranked the UK bottom of 21 industrialised countries. Bill Jordan, professor of social policy at Plymouth, Huddersfield and London Metropolitan Universities, says the UK’s ranking could, in part, be because the children are brought up to be “highly competitive and materialistic”. “All the evidence shows that this is not what makes adults happy,” he says. “So why should it make children happy?”

A child’s environment is also thought to affect their well-being. A report from the Sustainable Development Commission last month criticised poorly designed housing. Waheed Saleem, commissioner for young people at the commission, says it is often forgotten how a child’s physical environment can affect their sense of well-being and happiness. “Despite a lot of rhetoric about the importance of children in our society, we tend to ignore them when planning growth and housing. What would our streets and neighbourhoods look like if we put our children first?”

The challenge for services is to help improve the well-being of children living in their area. Evans believes this depends on interacting with children in a way that creates relationships that may help them learn or improve their behaviour.

She adds that it is important for services to encourage children to be more emotionally articulate. “In this country we can be particularly bad at talking about feelings and we don’t do well at encouraging children to develop their vocabulary,” she says.

The government plans to address this by extending to secondary schools the social and emotional aspects of learning (Seal) programme that has already been implemented in many primary schools. The aim is to teach pupils social and emotional skills, including conflict resolution, anger management and coping mechanisms.

Jordan says a cultural shift in services – and society overall – is needed. “There is something wrong with the culture of social services being too concerned with specific outcomes and behaviours, and not nearly enough about improving their relationships with children.”

Children’s well-being may be difficult to measure, but improving it is clearly high up the government’s agenda and here to stay. A good start for any organisation working with children must be to place the five Every Child Matters outcomes at the core of what it does, and to communicate effectively with the children who use its services.

➔ Essential information from

Children Act 2004
Every Child Matters
An overview of child well-being in rich countries
Every Child’s Future Matters

The legal duty

The Children Act 2004 placed a duty on bodies, including local authorities, primary care trusts, police authorities and youth offending teams, to co-operate to promote children’s well-being. Schools were not covered by this duty.

However, under an amendment to the Education and Inspections Act 2006, schools are now also required to work with other agencies to promote children’s well-being.

The five outcomes

● Being healthy.
● Staying safe.
● Enjoying and achieving.
● Making a positive contribution.
● Achieving economic well-being.

Contact the author
Anabel Unity Sale

This article appeared in the 20 September issue under the headline “Getting the me asure of  well-being”

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