Despite recent reports to the contrary, virtually all children say that they are happy, healthy and cared for by their families. They are enjoying their childhood and are increasingly well-educated. Most are engaged, motivated and making a positive contribution. There is much to be proud of about the experiences and opportunities for children and young people in England today" (Ed Balls DCSF 2007). Discuss.
With his primary focus being the children in education, Ed Balls asserts an optimistic premise that most children are basically content with the core aspects of their life, not solely relating to their time spent in the classroom, but at home and within society. Indeed, he posits "for most children things are good". However while there may be greater "opportunities for children and young people" to follow different routes towards success in their future, it may be challenged as to whether all children are sufficiently motivated to take advantage of these opportunities, particularly during their time in education. Although the statement by Ed Balls encompasses a general appreciation that children in our society are enjoying their childhood, it may be argued that he underestimates the impact negative experiences in just one aspect of life have on the individual, for example family troubles, which will have tremendous and inevitable implications on one's overall happiness. Specifically, as education is a significant part of childhood, this review will primarily focus on the factors affecting childhood experience in education, and will evaluate whether Mr. Balls overlooks some crucial features, such as bullying, the pressure of academic achievement and social interactions within schools which can have significant and long-term effects on a child's happiness.
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The report, from which this title is taken, was sourced from over a 100 research studies into the lives of children and young people in England. Subsequently, results from these studies were then used to make up the current government's 10-year 'children's plan'; a plan to make lives of children and young people in England "the best place in the world" (DCSF, p 5, 2007).
Every Child Matters framework which requires schools and other authorities working with young people, to have regard for five outcomes, which were themselves derived from consultation with young people: be safe; be healthy; enjoy and achieve; make a positive contribution; achieve economic well-being. (DfES, 2004). All of these outcomes provide opportunities for student consultation, in particular, make a positive contribution, encourages student involvement to decide and democratically improve their own future. Consequently, it is imperative that students should not only be asked by their schools what will help them achieve academically, emotionally and economically, but that their voices should be heard in deciding how best to make the necessary advances in policies.
The report states that bullying and peer rejection is common. In 2005 Childline's most common problem were issues with bullying - interpreted by chart 2.2 of the report a contradiction that virtually all children say there happy. Roughly 31,000 children -including those who had enough courage and were aware that this service was available to them - contacted Childline (DCSF, 2007). Also, more worryingly, recent surveys in this country have shown that one in four primary school pupils and one in 10 secondary school pupils are being bullied (RC PSYCH, 2010). There has been, and still is, an increase in awareness of how bullying at school can have a damaging output on young people's engagement with learning (DCSF, 2008a), and "many young people" (Hayward et al, 2008, p 45) note that being a victim of bullying was a popular cause in their lack of engagement in learning. In addition, Stone et al (2000) gives evidence that disengagement from education from having been bullied is a significant factor in young people becoming classified under the government as NEET (not in education, employment or training). Fact: bullying can affect anyone. However, it is more often certain individuals that are the victims. Socio-economic status plays an important part in how safe a young person feels about school. Those who are 'middle-class' are more likely than young people from 'working class' to feel both physically and emotionally safe at school. NEET young people and those who have a disability are considerably less likely than average to feel physically and emotionally safe (Equality of human rights commission, 2009). It comes as no surprise that bullying has a damaging effect and potentially long term impact for the young person. This influences their perceptions of schools and college, which possibly leads to a lack of involvement from learning later in the young person's academic life (DCSF, 2007). For example, LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) are a highly targeted group that are more likely to face discrimination and bullying as a regular part of their life. Half of teachers let homophobic language occurs in the classroom and 30% of lesbian and gay pupils say that professional staff members are responsible for homophobic incidents in their school (Stonewall, 2007). As another example, evidence supported by Mencap (2007) found that 82% children with a learning disability are bullied leading to negative post percussion such as social exclusions and hinders that person's well-becoming. A chart representing 15-year-olds who have been bullied by others at school at least twice in the past couple of months across the HBSC countries showed that England scored 8% for girls and 9% for boys (HBSC, 2005/6). The average percentage of boys and girls was 11% and 8% respectively. With respect to the other countries England has not got a significant problem but there should still be efforts made to lower this further. One strategy is to make sure young victims know where they can turn for help. Anti-bullying campaigns extend awareness of this problem to caregivers who may be oblivious to the signs of their children being bullied, but more direct support internally from within school should be offered.
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It is compulsory for schools since September 1999 (Ofsted, 2003) to have an anti-bullying policy in place to discourage all forms of bullying. The DCSF supports schools in designing their anti-bullying policies and implementing their strategies by providing up to date resources. The Government issued two guidance documents on anti-bullying on 15 April 2009 (TeacherNet, 2010). Fortunately, the Government is doing its best to eradicate bullying in schools. Why it is such an important factor in my opinion is because the concept of them being a victim or susceptible to being bullied is installed into the minds of young people who will inevitably carry this with them into their adult careers. This may be an underlying factor of bullying also occurring within a professional environment. This definitely cannot be tolerated and the sooner it is addressed, the better the situation will become.
On recent years there have been great improvements on the number of students achieving 5 GCSE's at grades C and above data interpreted from chart 4.6 of the report, and hence helping on a child's well-becoming; giving greater opportunities for those from all social backgrounds. Also according to the report, children are increasingly well educated with significant improvements in attainment for primary and secondary school pupils and there is a rise in the number of students that keep on studying post-16. This is definitely a great achievement but what remains is to maintain an increase in the number of pupils reaching this achievement. It is advocated within the report that England still has a lot to do to reach world class attainment levels. Nationally, regarding the education up to the age of 16, England are in no doubt improving. However relative to an international scale, which must be considered if the ambition is for England to have world class education, there is not a observable difference in standards with other nations and are certainly not, as of yet, world class. Education can play a critical role in reducing inequality and decreasing the stigma associated with child poverty something strongly advocated in the notorious Blair's 'education, education, education' speech. However in the current education system there seems to be a great emphasis on achievement. In order to achieve one must work towards targets and this induces stresses onto children. Children feel increasingly pressurised, in particular, by school expectations and exams. For example, in 2007, the General Teaching Council brought to light children at school are now the most tested with respect to international counterparts. In England children take an average of 70 tests and examinations up until the compulsory school age of 16 (Guardian, 2007). There is no convincing evidence that this constant strategy of testing and examinations is improving standards. The recent scrapping of SATs for 14 year olds may have relieved this to a minor extent, but it is nonetheless likely that testing and examinations will still remain a barrier for positively engaging with learning for some young people (Acting General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, Christine Blower, as reported in BBC News Online, 2008). Nonetheless, it is a difficult for the school to measure a student's performance without the use of tests. Perhaps, instilling a test culture standardises their behaviour, therefore when important examinations do happen, students are capable to perform in such situations.
As a society, we endeavour to protect and support the well-being of pupils, a key priority for Government must be to address the adverse effects of testing children; including increased anxiety and stress. Some young people develop a fixed sense of failure. This can be due to the emphasis schools place on academic achievement and measuring success by test results and levels of qualification. Findings show that this can result in feelings of anxiety and fear, which can be reason why individuals drop out of the education system. Jackson and Hudson (2009) give evidence that fear of failure is clear with 37 per cent of young people worried about failing at school. 46 per cent were 'working class' white girls fear failure, compared to 27 per cent of the 'middle class' white boys. What is learnt outside the classroom such as social skills, life skills and general interaction with other peers within a safe environment is just as important as lessons inside the classroom. Therefore it has come under scrutiny that new schools are being built without the facility of a playground such as the new £46 million city academy in Peterborough contradicting any policies documented in the Play Strategy that highlights the need for children of all ages "regardless of their background, physical ability and where they live" to have "outdoor play and recreational spaces in schools" (DCSF Play Strategy, 2008b, p.7/8). It is respected by many professionals that play is an important part of a child's development at all ages. Such schools may have adverse effects not only on physical health, but also mental health, whereby exercise and engagement can stimulate different cognitive areas and act as a stress relief. Children may also discover and hone talents beyond academia in the playground.
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Alternative curricula are frequently successful in helping young people who are disaffected and excluded from school to re-engage with learning. Although excluded, it is common that the loss of accessibility to learn and develop their skills affects on their overall happiness, motivation and therefore mental health. In the report, it is stated that the current 14-19 curriculum is not meeting the needs of all young people. Foskett et al (2008) highlighted that it is important to note that those who disengage at school may still want to learn. Therefore, it is necessary to provide learning opportunities beyond formal schooling and even alternative curricula. Since the start of Labour government in 1997 there have been several initiatives to relax the structures of the National Curriculum to consider alternative modes of participation. These alternative modes of participation largely focus on providing more opportunities for vocational learning. Discovering the connection between vocational learning and the prospect of career opportunities is essential to young people. As an effect, young people are more eager to engage in education (Hayward et al, 2008).
It is encouraged by Barnardo's (2008) to offer an alternative style of education to make sure that that excluded young people from schools still take part in learning. It is significant that the substitute provisions should focus on gaining life skills, such as those needed to gain employment and continue in education, in a sense their well-becoming, as well as gaining academic and vocational qualifications.
Specifically, Hallam et al (2007) propose the development of an alternative curriculum for Key Stage 4, GCSE level. This alternative curriculum focuses on 'Skill Force', a programme designed to offer a vocational alternative to the academic GCSE qualification. Results showed that the students involved in the programme increased their motivation, confidence, communication and social skills. As well, exclusion rates were lower, and attendance and attitudes towards learning improved. The students responded from a vocational way of learning. They found this style of education more meaningful and for some the first time they had achieved educational success. An example of the qualification was a first aid qualification. The government has made an effort in providing new alternatives in the form of 14-19 diplomas which can be taken at different levels and offer an equivalent route to GCSE's and A-levels. This they hope will increase the participation at higher education and it's fairly early days to see if it will. A concern will be the cost of creating new opportunities for young people that include the training of professionals to carry out these qualifications.
Furthermore, Atkins (2008) notes that taking into account young people's leisure activities is of paramount importance when considering learning. It is shown in the report that children spend 2 hours a day on leisure time and 87% of them spent it on a sport. Atkins points out that leisure activities act as a way of escaping from academia for young people from low-socio-economic backgrounds. Which we've seen as previous are more likely to become NEET. This signifies that leisure activities could be used as a reward for engaging young people in learning.
Personal, social and health education (PSHE) is a curriculum subject which covers a range of public health and personal development topics of which include sex education. Therefore the subject plays an important role in educating students on life lessons that perhaps they can not take from their home environment, so it is imperative there is a service to young people to educate on such issues. Commonly PSHE could be taught in so called citizenship classes. The development of PSHE is dented by a number of factors. Primarily, it is not a compulsory subject in the National Curriculum. Also, the framework for PSHE is still not clear with respect to Every Child Matters (DfES, 2003), responsible for the development of young people's opportunities. The government's history on PSHE policy is varied. In positive fames ministers have shown support for the development by funding the association of PSHE (www.pshe-association.org.uk). However due to the lack of support for a statutory subject, PSHE is being taught by those not necessarily skilled to lead. On recent years, health services in schools and universities are increasing, and there is a national mandate to continue its growth. It is important that schools provide children and young people opportunity for one to one support in a confidential environment. Leadership remains a problem.
The average age of first (heterosexual) intercourse is 16 for both young men and young women (BBC the surgery, 2010). A key indicator to represent the impact of successful interaction with young people on issues such as sex education is the number of teenage pregnancies and people with sexually transmitted infections (STI). The UK has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in the developed world, second only to the USA, and more than 3 times higher than other western European countries for instance France, Spain and Italy (UNICEF, 2001). Despite a recent downward trend in teenage pregnancy rates since the baseline of 1998, UK's rates stay persistently high. The proportion of teenage conceptions that end in abortion is increasing in England. In 1997 the National Healthy Schools Programme (Department of Health/Department for Education and Employment, 1999) was launched, and the frameworks for PSHE and citizenship were published as part of the revised National Curriculum (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, 1999a; 1999b). It targeted interventions that focus on the most disadvantaged children and young people who are at greatest risk. With respect to education and widening opportunities, it is of interest to keep teenage pregnancy levels low, whereby young mothers are more likely to have disadvantages in opportunities for example in higher education and gaining sufficient qualifications for a job that will support them and their child. Considering the child, it has been suggested that a teenage pregnancy child is also less likely to engage with the opportunities available. Economically, it is logical for growth to have more people working and paying their taxes and spending money into the system than receiving state benefits. Results showed from the Teenage Pregnancy Unit identified four clear factors associated with reducing teenage pregnancy rates; high-quality PSHE, strong outreach provision targeted at the most vulnerable, high-quality, young people-friendly services, and senior strategic leadership (Department for Education and Skills, 2006).
In 2006/7 more than 27,000 young people responded to a survey conducted by the UK Youth Parliament about their Sex and Relationships Education (SRE). Their survey, Sex and Relationships Education - Are You Getting It? (United Kingdom Youth Parliament, 2007), showed that young people do not think they are receiving the necessary education they require. Furthermore, discussion of feelings and relationships is encouraged and in my opinion believe this is more useful and a subtle way to bring about more concerning issues of sex education within a classroom environment. Taking this into consideration there is a need for young people to tell schools and governing bodies that young people would appreciate more opportunities to share and gain knowledge of emotions, relationships and 'real-life dilemmas' (Sex Education Forum, 2000).
A troubling fact is that rates of sexually transmitted infection (STI) continue to rise among young people. There is some evidence that condom use is improving; great strides have been made in improving access to condoms through condom schemes. The prevention of STI is stemmed from strong framework of PSHE to bring awareness to young people of such realities. There is a lack of understanding and confidence about sex health and one's sexual rights. Hence, for some the system fails to meet the standards for young people to sufficiently prepare them for their early relationships. This means that there are large numbers of young people who feel they have no choice. These early experience sets a tone for the future.
Thomson (2000) highlighted a correlation between different approaches to sex, and social class. Higher class young people are having sex when older than those from lower classes and investing in the future. Moreover, those from the lower social classes use sexual experience and sexiness to improve social status. Also, it was identified that teenage pregnancy and teenage mothers are closely related to social exclusion - both as cause and consequence. Conception rates are higher among those from lower socio-economic groups. Furthermore those from lower socioeconomic groups are more likely to continue have their child, while more affluent young women are more likely to have an abortion (Social Exclusion Unit, 1999).
Over the essay it has been indicated that there are many troubling issues still affecting the happiness and health by outlining lack in opportunities for alternative curricula, a lack in confidence from the government of delivering strong messages about PSHE in particular teenage pregnancies and safe sex. The introduction of PSHE as a subject and making it a compulsory subject is not a solution. At the same time, it sends the strongest signal possible from the government that the development of life skills is a crucial part of children's educational entitlement. We must be consistent, making young people's sexual health important and reflecting this in the quality of our education, support and services. Most consistently, children from lower classes are more likely to be affected by lack of motivation and their contribution within the classroom and beyond will not always be positive. Bullying rates and the ability to achieve are significant on a child's well-being and of course well becoming. On the other hand the government, in recent years, has given new opportunities for such individuals to become more involved, with education opportunities being tailored to their interests. It is understandable these results will take time, but ultimately have a significant impact on society. The Government is correct in appreciating that there is a need for change and appreciating the value of children and young people today. With regard to the leading statement by Ed Balls, for many children things are good in terms of their potential opportunities in education and future careers. Whether the many issues that could affect their happiness during their childhood, within and beyond the classroom, is hindering the pursuit of these opportunities needs to be considered before we settle with the assumption that children are "healthy" and "happy".
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