The adversities children and young people are currently experiencing in the UK

Although many pupils have access to high levels of emotional and social resources that facilitate their learning and development, significant numbers do not.  Children and young people in the UK are living with chronic on-going adversity, while others experience times of acute stress, such as family breakdown and trauma.  We know that adversities for individuals are often multiple and interactive.

Table 1. The extent and range of adverse life circumstances for children in the UK today.

Issue Known Figures Source Further information
Children living in poverty 3.7 million – 28% 2013 – 2014 Child Poverty Action Group (2015)
Pupils eligible for free school meals 15.2% in England

28.7% in Scotland

18% in Wales

(2015 figures)


Department for Education (2015)

Scottish Government (2015).

Welsh Government (2015).

In maintained nursery, state-funded primary and secondary, special schools and pupil referral units
Abuse 50,000 children registered as in need of protection Jutte et al (2015) for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) It is estimated that eight times as many children are in need of protection
Sexual abuse Affects 1 in 20 children in the UK

11,839 counselling sessions on sexual abuse by Childline 2013/14

Radford et al (2011) for the NSPCC

Jutte et al (2015) for the NSPCC

It is estimated that 1 in 3 children do not tell anyone at the time (Radford et al, 2011)
Neglect 24,300 identified as in need of protection from neglect Radford et al (2011) for the NSPCC Neglect is a factor in over 60% of serious case reviews (Brandon et al, 2013)
Children in care 93,000 NSPCC (2014) 34% at age19 not in employment, education or training compared to 15.5% of general population

(DfE 2014)

Family breakdown 42% of marriages end in divorce

Almost half involve children under 16

Office of National Statistics (ONS) (2013)

ONS (2012)

This number is an under-estimate as 27% of couples co-habiting at the birth of their first child will have separated by the time they are 5 (Crawford et al, 2011)
Loss By 16 years 92% of young people will have experienced loss of a significant person, including a peer or family pet Harrison and Harrington (2001)
Family Violence 887,000 domestic abuse incidents recorded 2013/14

At least 130,000 children live in homes with high risk of domestic abuse

ONS (2015)



SafeLives (2015)


On average high risk victims live with violence for 2 and a half years before seeking help (Safe Lives 2015)
Young Carers 244,000 young people under 19 are carers for family members ONS (2013) About 23,000 are under nine years old (Children’s Society, 2013).


Potential outcomes of risk factors

Highly stressful experiences and/or negative life circumstances inevitably impact on self-worth, concentration, attendance, behaviour and mental health, all of which will affect learning outcomes.  Although there has been no official data on the mental health of children and young people since 2004, concerns are increasing as evidenced by the report to the House of Commons Health Committee on Children and Adolescent’s Mental Health (2014). The UK charity Young Minds estimates that 3 children in every class now experiences a mental health difficulty (Young Minds, 2015). The following gives summary information of some of the ways in which specific adversities listed in Table 1 may impact on pupil mental health and behaviour.

Chronic Stressors

Chronic, long-term stressors appear to be more damaging to mental health than acute, sudden events.  The link between poverty and mental health has been demonstrated in numerous studies.  A key causal factor in the onset of depressive or anxious symptoms appears to be the experience of stressful life events, the prevalence of which is significantly elevated for those experiencing poverty. Lupien and colleagues (2001) found increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol in children living in families with low social economic status (SES).

There are potentially multiple and serious negative outcomes in both the short and longer term for children who are abused and/or neglected, including withdrawal and regression, aggression and other forms of anti-social behaviour, a wide range of mental health problems including self-harm and addiction, difficulties forming healthy relationships, poor self-worth, communication and learning difficulties.

Over half of children are taken in care because of parental abuse or neglect. Children in care are over four times more likely to have a mental health difficulty. They are less likely than their peers to do well in school. Two thirds have a special educational need and their achievements are lower. There is cause for concern about the social and emotional health of 36.7% of these children with figures higher for boys.  Children in care are some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Sexual abuse is a major trauma and even more so when ongoing and perpetrated by someone who is supposed to care for and protect the child. Meta-analyses suggest that a wide range of psychological and behavioural disturbances are associated with the experience of child sexual abuse, indicating it is a substantial risk factor for current and future mental health problems.

Children who live with violence in the home are not only more likely to be harmed themselves but are also at risk of multiple developmental problems. The stressors for infants and young children may impact on brain development leading to an impairment of cognitive and sensory growth.  Behaviours affected can include sleep problems, fearfulness, toilet training and language development.  Primary school children may have more trouble with school-work and often have poor concentration. Mental health concerns in adolescence include psychosomatic illness, depression and self-harm, including substance abuse.  Many studies note that children from violent homes exhibit more aggressive behaviour and are more likely to be involved in fights and bullying  Some children lose the ability to feel empathy for others and/or become socially isolated.

Acute Stressors

How children react to family breakdown will depend on multiple factors, including the age at which it occurs, how it is managed, and on-going relationships. Children may be confused, angry and/or anxious and younger ones in particular may be self-blaming. Some of the attendant behaviours may be difficult for adults to understand and hard to manage.  Children also experience loss in other ways.  Again, this does not always have negative longer-term impact but can increase vulnerability to depression.

Other adversities:  There are significant numbers of children living in families with drug and alcohol addictions and/or in communities who have experienced major trauma – such as refugees and asylum seekers. Discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation often leads to either direct or on-line bullying.

(This is an abbreviated section from a paper published in Educational and Child Psychology 33 (2) – Roffey. S. (2016) Building a case for whole child, whole school wellbeing in challenging contexts: download PDF here)