1. Overview of children’s well-being indicators

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has been measuring national well-being for 10 years, looking at how the UK is performing in 10 broad areas of life that people told us matter most to their well-being. For the past six years, we have also measured children's well-being using 31 indicators within seven domains. These indicators were developed from the Measuring National Well-being debate and additional consultation.

The ONS children's well-being measurement framework includes both subjective and objective indicators to shed light on how children feel about their lives and the contexts in which they live. Broad areas covered by the framework include personal well-being; our relationships; health; what we do; where we live; personal finance; and education and skills.

As the indicators were developed six years ago, it is now appropriate to review how well they reflect children's lives today and the things that may affect their well-being. Additionally, as 2020 has brought the unprecedented coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it is also important to consider how well our proposed indicators may address the new circumstances in which children and young people are living and factors that may affect their future well-being.

To address the need to review the children's indicators, we undertook focus groups with children across the UK during the end of 2019 and start of 2020. These focus groups aimed to give children the opportunity to tell us what they think is important for a child to live a happy life. We used what children told us directly, along with other published research and stakeholder conversations, to review the current 31 indicators that constitute the children's well-being indicator set.

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2. Choosing the indicators

During 2019 and the start of 2020, we carried out 10 focus groups with children aged 10 to 15 years across the UK. The purpose of these focus groups was to identify what children said was needed for them to have a happy life. For more information on the focus groups and what children told us, please see Children's views on well-being and what makes a happy life, UK: 2020.

An audit of available data on children's well-being was also undertaken. Relevant data from this research were mapped onto the emerging themes from the focus groups.

We also carried out a literature review and compared our potential indicators with other available children's well-being indicator sets, for example, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD's) children's well-being indicator set.

In selecting potential indicators and sources for inclusion in our proposed set, we considered:

  • geographic coverage (aspiring for UK-wide coverage)
  • timeliness and frequency of reporting
  • potential for disaggregation

This process resulted in a proposed indicator set containing 8 domains and 71 measures.

The proposed domains for the children's well-being framework include:

  • personal well-being
  • our relationships
  • health
  • what we do
  • where we live
  • household finances
  • schools and skills
  • future and voice

We intend to reduce the number of measures in the final indicator set to make it more manageable for users. This final set will be selected after taking on board stakeholder feedback and carrying out further statistical analysis.

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3. What children told us

The findings from our focus groups were broadly consistent with the current Office for National Statistics (ONS) children's well-being indicator set. However, our discussions with children enabled us to identify additional potential contributions to children's well-being that are not currently represented in the indicator set and should not be overlooked. This section contains some examples.

Ability to be themselves

Children talked to us about the importance of feeling confident to be able to be themselves and feel good about who they are. The Children's Society's children's well-being index development report suggested happiness with appearance is the most influential aspect of children's well-being relating to "self", which according to their most recent Good Childhood Report (2020) has decreased significantly in the past eight years.

Adding to this, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's (NSPCC's) 2016 report on bullying described how children said bullying can have an effect on their self-esteem and feelings of self-worth, which in turn negatively affects their well-being. Self-esteem can relate to several aspects contributing to personal well-being such as pride and self-worth. For example, Kelly et al.'s 2016 report on improving the well-being of children with disabilities found that children commonly expressed feelings of pride in themselves as a result of achievements in sports or personal development.

Our current framework includes indicators measuring experiences of bullying as well as happiness with appearance. However, happiness with appearance was felt not to sufficiently represent what children told us in the focus groups regarding happiness with themselves as a whole. Therefore, "I like being the way I am" has been added to the proposed indicator set to provide a more holistic approach to measuring the ways and extent to which children may feel good about themselves.

Sleep

Children acknowledged the importance of sleep to their daily mood, ability to concentrate, and ability to engage fully in the things they enjoy, which is not represented in the current indicator set. The Department for Education's 2019 State of the Nation report for children and young people's well-being stated that sleep can be an important protective factor in positive psychological health, particularly for young girls. We are proposing the inclusion of an indicator to represent sleep within the health domain.

Social media

The children we spoke to also highlighted both harms and benefits of social media use. The ONS research into children's social media use found that children who spent more than three hours using social networking websites on a school day were twice as likely to report high or very high scores for mental ill-health. Public Health England's (PHE's) 2019 report on approaches to improving children and young people's mental health and well-being found that young people perceived online spaces, if monitored and moderated, as safe spaces that help them to feel included and not isolated.

Similarly, our report on children's experiences of loneliness outlined how social media can be used positively by children to connect with others, helping to avoid loneliness, although negative factors such as online bullying and unhelpful social comparisons could contribute to loneliness. Our current children's well-being framework contains an indicator measuring self-reported time spent online. We are proposing an additional indicator to represent exposure to online harms.

Schools and teachers

During the focus groups, comparisons were made between primary and secondary schools, with primary schools perceived as safer and more inviting than secondary schools. The ONS report on children's experiences of loneliness also found that transitions linked to schooling and the move from primary to secondary education can trigger loneliness in children.

PHE reported children's associations with their happiness and their schools, which could be seen as safe spaces but also places of stress and pressure. In addition, PHE stated that school staff including teachers may be important sources of support for children's mental well-being but that staff were not always perceived to have the necessary skills to help. The children we spoke to described experiences of stress at school from extra-curricular activities and school commitments, particularly exams, which had a negative impact on their well-being. They also spoke to us in depth about the impact teachers had on their happiness at school, which could be both positive and negative.

The current ONS children's well-being measures do not include measures on perceptions of, and experiences with, teachers, school pressures or safety. We have therefore added these to the proposed framework.

Future

Children spoke to us about the importance of a happy future and what this would entail. An important aspect of a happy life for children involves having bright future prospects. Children said they wanted to have opportunities to gain the relevant skills and education to be able to live independently and follow their aspired career paths. Similarly, Selwyn et al. (2017) (PDF, 920KB) reported that for care-experienced children, perceiving life as "getting better" and having optimistic feelings about the future were important to their well-being. In addition, Selwyn et al. (2017) described how care-experienced children valued being able to express opinions and being included in decision-making, particularly around issues that have an impact on their lives such as movement within the care system.

The children we spoke to often felt their opinions were undervalued and expressed a desire to have more of a voice, including having a say in decisions about their futures. These points raised by children reflect Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states: "Every child has the right to express their views, feelings and wishes in all matters affecting them, and to have their views considered and taken seriously." We felt these factors relating to children's voices and futures were not well-represented and need to be better represented in the children's well-being indicator set. The current "education" domain focuses on attainment and "happiness with schools" but does not include the acquisition of desired skills or other future prospects.

We are therefore proposing to preserve the current domains but renaming "education and skills" to "skills and schools" to better encompass children's experiences at school, including satisfaction and relationships with teachers. Furthermore, the proposed indicator set includes an additional domain titled "future and voice" to represent what children told us was important to their well-being, which included wanting to have a say in the decision-making that affects their lives as well as prospects for a happy future.

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4. Children at greater risk of disadvantage

In addition to the findings from focus groups with children, we also undertook a literature review.

The aim of this was threefold. First, to explore other indicator sets relating to children's well-being, both nationally and internationally, to identify any gaps in our own coverage. Secondly, to identify research with other groups of children who are at risk of lower well-being to supplement our research. Lastly, we wanted to review evidence of a wide range of factors that impact children's well-being.

This literature review aimed to focus as much as possible on recent research. Some of the findings, as described earlier, further emphasised what children told us and aligned with our current measurement framework including: the importance of good relationships and connecting with others; being active and taking part, including learning and engaging in hobbies and activities; family finances; and the negative impact of experiencing bullying. They are also reflective of the New Economics Foundation and The Children's Society's five ways to well-being for children (connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give).

However, we also found that there are specific groups who are particularly at risk of low well-being and whose life circumstances are not well-reflected in the current framework.

For example, being a young carer may have a significant impact on many aspects of children's lives, including their mental health and participation in leisure activities.

Looked after children are much more likely to be classified as persistently absent from school, with much lower average Key Stage 4 attainment than non-looked after children, which can reduce their future opportunities.

Experiences of homelessness in early life can also impact children's life chances, and the longer they experience homelessness, the more likely their health and well-being will be at risk.

Children who stated they were attracted to the same gender or to both males and females had significantly lower subjective well-being than those who stated they were attracted to the opposite gender or neither. In addition, parental rejection of children who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender (LGBT) can negatively affect their identity and overall health.

We also explored other children's well-being indicator sets, namely the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) children's well-being indicator set, the newly developed indicator set for child well-being in New Zealand, the relevant UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) measures, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. After careful consideration, we concluded that our indicator set could be more representative of children who are at greater risk of disadvantage and low well-being. Ideally, this would involve disaggregation of the relevant indicators to measure how those at greater risk are faring in each area of life compared with other children. However, disaggregation is not always possible for all groups of children at greater risk of disadvantage because of lack of data or small sample sizes, for example. Therefore, we are proposing the inclusion of several indicators for children at greater risk of disadvantage, within the relevant domains, to ensure they are represented within the well-being framework. However, we could not capture all of these groups within the proposed indicator set because of lack of data availability.

Some children at greater risk of disadvantage as identified in the literature review are:

To measure experiences of bereavement, we were only able to find figures relating to children who have experienced the death of their mother. This was a single publication, using the data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Longitudinal Study, reporting estimates of the number of children born in England and Wales between 1971 and 2000 who had experienced the death of their mother before they reach the age of 16 years.

Our current framework includes an indicator representing children who have been a victim of a crime including violence within the previous year. However, this does not encompass experiences of child abuse. The ONS publishes data on experiences of child abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect from the Crime Survey for England and Wales. However, these data are collected retrospectively from 18- to 74-year-olds and therefore do not provide a timely illustration of children's experiences today.

The Millennium Cohort Study asks participants to indicate whether they have felt sexually attracted to males, females, both or have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all. However, in the most recent wave (wave 7) participants were approximately 17 years old.

As we were unable to locate any other indicators for children who may have experienced abuse, experienced a bereavement or who identify as LGBT, these have not been included in the proposed indicator set, but we would welcome comments and suggestions on this.

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5. Proposed ONS children’s well-being indicator set

Personal well-being

Proposed indicators, source, coverage and frequency

  • High or very high level of satisfaction with their lives overall (0 to 10) - from the Children's Society Household Survey, Great Britain (UK going forwards), annual.

  • High or very high level of how worthwhile the things they do are (0 to 10) - from the Children's Society Household Survey, Great Britain (UK going forwards), annual.

  • High or very high level of happiness (0 to 10) - from the Children's Society Household Survey, Great Britain (UK going forwards), annual.

  • Agree or strongly agree "I like being the way I am" - from the Children's World Survey, England, Wales, three waves since 2012.

  • High or very high level of happiness with appearance (one to seven) - from Understanding Society - The UK Household Longitudinal Study - youth questionnaire, UK, annual.

  • Often or always feel lonely - from the Active Lives Survey (Sports England), England, annual from 2020.

  • Average deaths by suicide per 100,000 of the population aged 10 to 15 years in the UK - from Office for National Statistics (ONS) death registrations for the UK, annual.

Our relationships

Proposed indicators, source, coverage and frequency

Health

Proposed indicators, source, coverage and frequency

Risk behaviours, for example:

What we do

Proposed indicators, source, coverage and frequency

Where we live

Proposed indicators, source, coverage and frequency

Household finances

Proposed indicators, source, coverage and frequency

  • Percentage of children living in households with capacity to face unexpected financial expenses - from the EU-SILC, UK, annual.

  • Percentage of children in households with less than 60% of median income - from Households Below Average Income (DWP), UK, annual.

  • Percentage of children in workless households - from the Labour Force Survey (ONS), UK, quarterly.

  • Percentage of children in households with combined low income and material deprivation - from Households Below Average Income (DWP), UK, annual.

  • Percentage of children living in households with home broadband access - from the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (ONS), Great Britain, annual.

  • High or very high happiness with the things you have (like money and things you own) - from The Children's Society Household Survey, Great Britain (UK going forwards), annual.

  • Percentage of children who have a family holiday away from home for at least one week a year (Child(ren) has; have it; cannot afford it now; or do not need it now) - from Understanding Society - The UK Household Longitudinal Study - main study, UK, every two years.

Schools and skills

Proposed indicators, source, coverage and frequency

Future and voice

Proposed indicators, source, coverage and frequency

  • High or very high happiness with what may happen to you later in your life (in the future)? (0 to 10) - from The Children's Society Household Survey, Great Britain (UK going forwards), annual.

  • High or very high level of happiness with how much choice they have in life (0 to 10) - from The Children's Society Household Survey, Great Britain (UK going forwards), annual.

  • How happy are you with how you are listened to by adults in general (0 to 10) - from the Children's Worlds Survey, England, Wales, three waves since 2012

  • Believe that people in the UK will be affected by climate change in the future (yes or no) - from Understanding Society - The UK Household Longitudinal Study - youth questionnaire, UK, every two years.

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6. Data sources and quality

During our data source audit, we encountered excellent sources of data about children's well-being within the devolved nations, but our stated aim is to recommend measures available on a UK-wide basis. Therefore, some country-specific surveys without comparable measures in other countries have been omitted for this reason.

Several challenges with potential sources of data for children were identified in trying to populate the indicator set. These include: varying geographic coverage and granularity; infrequent data collection; and small sample sizes that do not allow for disaggregation by groups or areas. This section contains some examples.

Children's Worlds, the International Survey of Children's Well-Being (ISCWeB), contains several useful subjective measures that were identified by children as being important to their well-being. These include having enough food to eat, places to have a good time, enough choice about how their time is spent, and being listened to by adults including teachers. However, data for the ISCWeB are collected infrequently, with only two waves released in the past seven years, and they only cover England and Wales within the UK. Furthermore, some of the survey items have changed between waves, making it difficult to track changes. Although the most recent wave includes 128,000 respondents aged 8 to 12 years from 35 countries, England had a sample of 717 children aged 10 years only because of issues relating to recruiting respondents in schools. Unfortunately, we have been unable to locate comparable questions on other UK surveys.

Understanding Society - The UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS) includes a youth survey for young people aged 10 to 15 years living in the UK and contains several relevant items relating to relationships with parents, friends, bullying, school, safety and risk behaviour. However, useful items, such as arguing with and talking to parents and liking and feeling safe in their neighbourhood, are only included in alternate waves, so every other year.

The Children's Society's Good Childhood Report publishes findings from their annual household survey, which includes principal measures of subjective personal well-being (life satisfaction, happiness and worthwhile), with the 2019 survey containing questions relating to worry, such as worry about the environment, finding a job and having a place to live. These worry-related measures reflect important issues raised by the children we spoke to. However, they were not included in the 2020 survey, and there are currently no plans for these items to be repeated. For this reason, these specific questions have not been included in the proposed indicator set.

From the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) survey, which is used in Wales, England and Scotland, eight new measures have been proposed for inclusion in the indicator set. These include questions around mental health support at school, being able to talk to friends and teachers, experiences with health professionals, and feeling safe at school. However, the survey questions are not always consistent across the devolved nations, making comparisons complicated or impossible. Furthermore, these data are only collected every four years.

We were unable to identify any adequate measures relating to pets, perceptions of government, or inclusion or discrimination. However, we aim to investigate inclusion by disaggregating, when possible, by protected characteristics, including sex, disability and ethnicity.

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7. Future developments

Based on our research and review of the current children's well-being indicators, we are proposing an indicator set of 71 measures within eight domains (see Section 5: Proposed ONS children's well-being indicator set). We believe that the proposed indicator set would provide a more in-depth picture of the lives of children in the UK than the current framework.

Give us your feedback

We would now like to invite stakeholders to review the proposed framework for children's well-being and provide feedback. We would like you to consider:

  • satisfaction with topics covered

  • satisfaction with the number of indicators

  • satisfaction with proposed sources, providing suggestions on other, more representative sources where possible

  • highlighting where sources for comparable indicators may be available in a devolved nation that has not been highlighted by our research

  • how children at greater risk of disadvantage have been represented within the proposed indicator set

We would like to hear your views about whether the proposed sources will provide new and improved insights into children's well-being in the UK. Based on the feedback received, we aim to finalise a new indicator set for children's well-being and update it annually to provide a more timely picture of the lives of children in the UK.

To provide feedback on our proposals, please use our online survey.

This survey will be open for two months and will close on 2 December 2020.

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Contact details for this Article

Amber Jordan, Eleanor Rees
qualityoflife@ons.gov.uk
Telephone: +44 (0)1633 651814