Children in England are unhappier with their school life than those in almost every country featured in a major new international survey by The Children’s Society, with more than half a million 10 and 12-year-olds having been physically bullied each month, causing huge damage to their happiness, and with many more feeling left out.

The Good Childhood Report 2015 (summary), which closely examined how happy 10 and 12-year-old children are in 15 diverse countries, found that children in England are unhappier with their school experience than those in 11 other countries including Uganda, Ethiopia and Algeria — only faring better than children in Germany, South Korea and Estonia.

The report, which marks a decade of work on children’s well-being in collaboration with the University of York, found that more than a third (38%) of  and 12 year olds in England had been physically bullied in the last month, and half (50%) had felt excluded.

The research showed the profound impact bullying can have on children’s lives, with children in England who were bullied frequently being six times more likely to have low well-being than children who have not been bullied.

On average, two children in each classroomare dissatisfied with aspects of their school life, with their main concerns being their relationship with their teachers, the things they learn and the other children.

The study also showed that children became unhappier as they hit their teens, around the age of 13 or 14. Children in year six were much more likely to say they liked going to school compared to those in year eight (61% vs 43%).

In a bid to clamp down on the negative impact of bullying and other major issues affecting children in schools, The Children’s Society is urging the Government make it a legal requirement for schools in England to provide counselling to pupils to bring it in line with Wales and Northern Ireland. It is also calling on schools to help children’s well-being by reducing bullying and promoting physical exercise. 

As well as being unhappy with their school life, the study showed that children in England were particularly dissatisfied with their appearance and body confidence – with girls being most affected.

Girls in England ranked bottom in terms of happiness with their body confidence, appearance and self-confidence compared to girls in every other country surveyed, with the exception of South Korea. Girls in Colombia topped the league table as being happiest with their bodies.

Girls in England were more than twice as likely as boys to say they are unhappy with their bodies (18% vs 8%). This gender difference was not found in many other countries.

Overall, children in England are unhappier with their lives than those in 13 other countries including Israel and South Africa – only faring better than those in South Korea.

The research shows that how children feel about their own happiness is related to their mental health, with those scoring low on both areas being less likely to flourish.

Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society says: “It is deeply worrying that children in this country are so unhappy at school compared to other countries and it is truly shocking that thousands of children are being physically and emotionally bullied, damaging their happiness. School should be a safe haven, not a battleground.

“Despite a long period of austerity, we are one of the richest nations in the world yet the happiness of our children is at rock bottom. They are unhappy at school and are struggling with issues around their appearance and self-confidence.

“We know that this is related to their mental health and can prevent them flourishing. We need to urgently find a way to make young people feel happier about their lives to avoid storing up problems for the future. That’s why we’re calling for the Government to make it a legal requirement for schools in England to provide counselling and to allocate children’s mental health funding to promoting children’s well-being, rather than just dealing with mental health problems after they occur. Giving children a happy childhood should be our top priority.”

Professor Jonathan Bradshaw from the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at York, whose research is supported by The Jacobs Foundation, says: “This study builds on a decade of work at the University of York on child well-being in collaboration with the Children’s Society. Although we know from previous work that most children in England are positive about their lives, these comparisons show where we could be doing better for our children.

“Children are our future. Their well-being matters to us all. As a nation we pay enormous attention to the well-being of our economy, the state of the weather, sporting league tables, the City and the Stock Market. Indicators of these take up pages of the media every day. We need to make more effort to monitor the well-being of our children and we need to devote more resources to understanding how they are doing and to ensuring that their childhood is as good as it can be.”

The Children’s Society, which campaigns for and supports children and teenagers on issues such as poor mental health, poverty, abuse and neglect, is also calling for questions about how happy children feel to be included in the Department of Health’s nationwide survey into children’s mental health.