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We need to tackle loneliness in our schools

By Kate Hilpern

Loneliness in schoolOne of my lasting memories of my younger school life is standing in the corner of the playground during breaktimes, with my back to all the other children, staring out towards the empty field. I was alone and I felt lonely.

I have no idea why I did it. Perhaps someone had been unkind to me. Perhaps I felt sad about things going on at home. Nor do I have any idea how long it went on for. It could have been days, weeks or months. I know the loneliness didn’t dominate my school years because most of my memories involve happier, more sociable times. I made great friends that I still have now. But I can still remember the feeling of sorrow as I gazed out at the grass, hearing the tormenting sounds of laughter and play behind me.

Fourteen per cent of British children starting secondary school ‘often’ feel lonely, according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). That’s one in every seven children aged 10-12. Worse still, the report found that children are embarrassed to admit to loneliness, perceiving it as a possible ‘failing’.

Children in cities are significantly more likely to feel lonely than those in the countryside and towns, according to the report. And children are also more likely to feel lonely if they receive free school meals, have health problems or poor relationships with friends and family.

These youngsters are not necessarily excluded (although some are); they are just not included. While some children think nothing of asking to join games or conversations, or just get stuck in without even asking, for others it doesn’t come easily. Teachers can make it worse by asking pupils to work in groups or find someone to sit next to on the school coach. Sports, school outings and even – as in my case – break times can quickly become moments of melancholy, picking away at self-esteem.

‘Home was my sanctuary when I was at school – I always knew I’d feel safe, secure and loved once I got home,’ a friend said to me recently. But social media means there’s no longer that clear distinction. One group of children recently told me how their year 7 class chat on Whatsapp was active until as late as 10pm, but could be as difficult for people to feel part of (or even join) as it could for them to enter into real world chats at school.

We can do better than this. Thankfully, some schools we visit already do. In the best ones, kindness, empathy and emotional intelligence are taught as readily as maths and English. Restorative justice – increasingly a feature of today’s schools – can help. Some schools provide friendship coaching, while others have buddy systems. Friendship benches – where you sit if you have nobody to play with – can be a godsend in younger years, as can programmes which see older pupils organising games for smaller children in the playground. Lunchtime clubs are a good way of scooping up the otherwise lonely and there’s no doubt anti-bullying initiatives can be significant.

The transition into year 7 is, as the ONS study shows, a time when children are particularly at risk of loneliness. Some schools respond by having team building days in the summer. House systems, peer mentoring and encouragement to do clubs are other examples of initiatives that can encourage young people to develop new friendships right from the off.

In the ONS survey, young people themselves made a series of suggestions, including making it more acceptable to discuss loneliness at school; preparing young people better to understand and address loneliness in themselves and others; and encouraging positive uses of social media.

As it is, too many schools seem oblivious to the loneliness within their schools or they don’t take action until it’s too late. One headteacher of a school we recently reviewed raved about the sense of community and the lack of cliques and said she couldn’t remember the last bullying incident. Talking to students from that very same school revealed that ‘bullying happens in the shadows, you just don’t report it because you know the people in charge of pastoral care will say it’s not bullying.’

Feeling friendless is miserable. These children are known to be at greater risk of forming inappropriate ‘friendships’ on the internet. They are more likely to underperform at school. And they are more likely to be absent from school. Their confidence and self-esteem can reach worryingly low levels, which in turn puts them at risk of mental health issues.

We’d like to see more schools being proactive when it comes to loneliness. There should be no reason for today’s young people to feel secluded and companionless.

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