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A girl hugs her knees while sitting down.
The health and wellbeing of primary school children declined between 2014 and 2022. 1st footage/Shutterstock

Alarming decline in children’s health and wellbeing predated pandemic, research reveals

The COVID pandemic affected several aspects of children’s health and wellbeing. The number of children referred to specialist mental health teams in England has soared by more than 50% in just three years, for example. But recent research from my colleagues and I reveals that problems such as these were increasing even before the pandemic.

Our study explored changes in the health and wellbeing of 36,951 primary school children between 2014 and 2022. We analysed the data from anonymous annual surveys given to children aged between eight and 11 in Wales. The questions covered various aspects of health and wellbeing such as physical activity, diet, sleep and mental health and wellbeing.

It shows a significant decline in various aspects of childhood health and wellbeing over an eight year period. While societal factors like Brexit, the pandemic and the cost of living crisis likely play a role, our research suggests a decline was underway even before these events.

Understanding these trends is crucial. Childhood experiences significantly affect adult health and behaviour, with half of all mental health problems established by age 14.

Decline in swimming and cycling

We found a particularly troubling decline in swimming and cycling ability. For example, 85% of children reported being able to swim 25 metres in 2018, but that percentage dropped to 68% by 2022.

This is concerning as activities such as these are essential for developing fundamental movement skills and coordination in childhood. Funding cuts to free swimming schemes in 2019 in Wales and the closure of swimming pools during the pandemic to prevent virus transmission will have not helped the situation.

The decline in swimming ability disproportionately affected children from disadvantaged backgrounds, further highlighting the potential for such cuts to widen existing inequality.

A group of children enjoy themselves in a swimming pool
Swimming ability significantly declined according to the research. Michael Kemp/Alamy

We also identified a decline in fruit and vegetable consumption, while there was a rise in eating sugary snacks. Sugar intake spiked in 2020, coinciding with the COVID lockdowns. This suggests a possible link between the increase in time spent at home and unhealthier dietary choices.

School routines often provide structure and regular mealtimes, which may have been disrupted during the pandemic. These findings may support arguments for universal free school meals, which could help reduce the inequality in access to a healthy and balanced diet.

Mental health issues, including emotional and behavioural difficulties, also increased. Emotional difficulties affected between 13% and 15% of children between 2017 and 2018. But that percentage increased to 29% between 2021 and 2022. Girls also reported higher emotional and behavioural difficulties than boys.

There was also an increase in children worrying and feeling lonely, and this was present even before the pandemic. This highlights the need to provide settings which promote socialisation and support children’s wellbeing.

More than a pandemic problem

Our research suggests the decline in children’s health and wellbeing that began before the pandemic has either continued or plateaued. This indicates that more complex issues are present and require further action than simply assuming that returning to pre-pandemic routines would improve matters.

The wellbeing of school-aged children is a cornerstone of future public health. Our findings, based on children’s own experiences, underscore the urgent need for interventions to address this concerning trend. This is particularly significant as children’s voices are often absent from policy and planning discussions.

Read more: More mental health support in schools makes sense – but some children may fall through gaps

Governments and public bodies must prioritise developing and implementing effective, long-lasting ways to reverse these trends. Policies and funding should address critical aspects of childhood health and wellbeing. These include essential physical skills like swimming and cycling, confidence and independence in physical activity, and children’s overall wellbeing and ability to socialise. Creating supportive environments within schools and communities is also crucial.

Greater investment is needed in these areas and a stronger focus on listening to children and understanding their needs. Only then can we bring about meaningful change and ensure a brighter future for children everywhere.

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