How do children’s environments contribute to their life satisfaction?

Amy Clair.jpgAmy Clair, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Oxford

Recent years have seen an increase in interest in how happy children are with their lives in many countries.

Comparisons of wealthy nations show that there is cause for concern, with many studies finding that the UK lags behind in terms of how satisfied children are with their lives, ranking bottom of a Unicef report in 2007 for example (although there was some evidence of improvement in 2013).  In order to improve this, we must improve our understanding what drives children’s satisfaction.

There has been a lot of work investigating how individual characteristics impact life satisfaction, for example we know that girls report lower satisfaction than boys. However, there has been relatively little work examining how children’s environments affect how satisfied they feel about their lives.  Two of the main environments in the majority of children’s lives are the home and the school.  These locations are where children spend the bulk of their time and they provide the location for many of their important relationships, with parents, teachers, and friends for example.

In order to better understand the contribution of schools and homes to children’s life satisfaction, data was taken from Understanding Society: a large household survey which includes children aged 10 to 15.  The data includes children’s own reports of their satisfaction and experiences, alongside household information and information from parents.  This was analysed using a method which enables us to identify how much of the variation in life satisfaction occurs between schools, and how much occurs across households.

Similar methods have been used in the past to investigate the relative contribution of schools and households to children’s educational attainment, but not to their life satisfaction.  Controlling for individual level differences, such as age, gender and household income, the analysis finds that schools and households are responsible for roughly equivalent proportions of variation in children’s life satisfaction, around 11-12% each, together accounting for almost a quarter of the variation in children’s satisfaction with their lives.

This finding means that education policy makers and people involved with schools should have children’s life satisfaction at the forefront of their minds when making any decisions.  Further research is needed to understand how different schools affect the life satisfaction of their children and what it is about these schools that are successful.  Are some schools better at assisting students in handling academic pressures?  Or are others able to support children who have difficulties at home?  Policy makers should then work to ensure schools have the time and resources to provide such support, rather than focusing solely on attainment outcomes.  Given the positive links between happiness and educational performance, even those for whom attainment is the main goal of education should reflect on these findings.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read Poverty and social policy in Europe 2020: ungovernable and ungoverned by Paul Copeland and Mary Daly

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