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Attending the launch of The Children’s Society report on Understanding Children’s Well-being at Westminster Hall on Wednesday reminded me just how much children are becoming used to being asked their opinion. Schools are particularly using research; just recently I have been carrying out pupil perception groups in school, asking 5-11 year olds everything from what they think of school lunches to what are their favourite things about school, and what they would like teachers to do to make lessons better for them. The annual TellUs survey, now run by the DCSF, has been asking children about their lives in and out of school since 2007, and children complete this questionnaire each summer.

While children are becoming familiar with research, how it is done is an important aspect to consider. It was the subject of the conference I chaired this week at the Market Research Society’s Children’s Conference in London. The ethics around research with children was a hot topic of debate. The debate ranged from when is a child no longer a child (The UN says 18, legally a child is defined as under 18 in the UK, in the US for research purposes a child is defined as 13, in the UK 16), to when and if it is appropriate to give a child a gift for taking part in research, and when might this be deemed to be coercion. The children’s research world is relatively small, and it was good to spend a day with so many deep thinking and responsible researchers. I have received many emails since the event telling me how much delegates enjoyed the day, and how thought-provoking they found it.

The Children’s Society’s Understanding Children’s Well-being research referred to earlier had been carried out in schools by Ipsos MORI April-July 2008 and included nearly 7,000 children in Year 6 in primary school and Years 8 and 10 in secondary schools, in other words children aged 10, 13, and 15. In many ways it is quite encouraging, with the majority of children scoring a level of well-being at 7.7 out of a scale from 0 to 10, although questions from the audience pointed out the difficulty of assessing well-being. But the authors make the point that it is subjective well-being. It is estimated by the researchers that 7-10% of children could be said to have low levels of well-being. It is interesting to note that subjective well-being appears to decline somewhat with age, and this is especially the case for girls. In this country around 1 in 4 families are headed by a lone parent, but the research did not find a link between well-being and family structure. The research confirms previous research that colleagues and I carried out at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge (funded by the Nuffield Foundation on Adolescent Well-being and Schools, headed by Professor John Grey) that indicates that the quality of relationships and change in life events such as school transition has the most impact on children’s level of well-being. An important message for us all is that given that UK children are rated lowest in developed countries on levels of well-being (UNICEF 2007), we need to be constantly asking questions, of children, and of ourselves as researchers, to find ways of improving this abysmal rating.

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