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About A Week: Worried Children?

Peter Hinchliffe wonders whether today's children really are very much different to the children of 60 years ago.

British children are wealthier than ever before and more stressed, according to two recent surveys.

The average U.K. teenager is now given around £1,000 a year as pocket money.

But a major in-depth inquiry into primary schooling found that younger children are stressed, worried about tests, badly behaved, obsessed with celebrity and greedy for new possessions.

Thirteen-year-olds are given an average of £45 pocket money each month. This increases to £80 at 16 and £140 at 18.

The survey, carried out for MTV One, revealed that the money is spent on socializing and styling products. In many cases a large slice of the allowance goes for alcohol. Nearly 30 percent of teenagers regularly drink to excess, and one in four smoke cigarettes.

The study into primary school education -- the most intensive in four decades -- suggests that children are being forced to grow up too soon and are missing out on childhood.

The report, published by Cambridge University and the Esmee Fairbairn charitable foundation, uncovered a "sense of deep pessimism" about modern childhood.

Young children are worried about national assessment tests, stipulated by the government. Cambridge-based professor Robin Alexander, who headed the investigation, said government ministers might need to accept that improving school "standards" through tests is not the same thing as raising the quality of education.

Outside the classroom children are fearful of traffic and gangs of older children, and they worry about global warming and the state of the world.

Those questioned expressed concern that children outside school were getting a diet of "wall-to-wall" television, which led to children seeing TV stars and celebrities as idols.

They said that parents were unable to resist children's demands for their own TV sets, mobile phones, Internet links and game consoles.

The report says that antisocial behavior is linked to classroom boredom, the constant teaching to the test and a narrow and rigid curriculum based on the three Rs, reading, writing and arithmetic.

Dissatisfaction was expressed in the report at standards of parenting. Some parents had low aspirations for their children and were passing the buck of "socializing" them to schools.

The study comes on the heels of a UNICEF report earlier this year that announced that U.K. children were the unhappiest in the Western world. Their anxieties were said to result from a decline in social cohesion in British society.

The United Nations children's organization said U.K. children were unhealthier and had fewer friends than in any other of the world's 21 richest nations. (See my earlier OMNI report.)

Government ministers then said the UNICEF report was based on out-of-date statistics.

The Alexander investigation is based on 750 interviews conducted with parents, teachers, officials and pupils throughout the past year.

While not wishing to question the thoroughness of professor Alexander's research team, I must report that their findings do not coincide with my own observations.

I spend one afternoon a week in a village primary school working as a reading friend with six-year-old second-year pupils. The aim is to help improve their reading ability and at the same time encourage the idea that reading is fun.

Going into the school, which has around 200 pupils, is a delight. The children are welcoming, eager to learn. They are well behaved, enthusiastic, loyal to their school.

I have been going regularly into the school for four years. Standards seem to be improving rather than declining.

My views on primary education are based on visits to this one school. I assume there are hundreds, and probably thousands, of schools in Britain that are also well run. I know by hearsay of dozens of others in my hometown.

Surveys, no matter how well conducted, are incapable of coming up with the whole truth.

My primary education in a village primary school many years ago had closer links with the Stone Age than the Computer Age. Today's children benefit from better-quality teachers, much better equipment and a far pleasanter school environment.

My first experience of pocket money began when I was at that school. My father gave me a savings tin issued by the Yorkshire Bank -- the Yorkshire Penny Bank as it was then called. Around the outer edge of the tin were slots for pennies, threepenny bits, tanners, two bob pieces and half-crowns.

My father handed me the tin when I was eight years old, announcing that I would be getting regular spending money. He gave me six pennies a week, three of which had to be put into the savings tin.

Week by week he stood by me while I fed coins to the tin. Saving was a new idea. I didn't like it one bit. Three pennies would have bought me a bar of chocolate or a bag of mint humbugs.

But my father was teaching me a valuable lesson for life.

Come to think of it, maybe all U.K. primary schools should launch savings clubs to encourage children to think of the future as well as the day.

And here's an optimistic note: Of those £1000-a-year U.K. teenagers, the majority are not entirely dependent on handouts from their parents.

Two-thirds of them have some kind of paid employment. They garden, wash cars, deliver newspapers and work in a variety of other jobs.

Disregard the £1,000 and they are probably not much different from what we were at their age.

Children have always been worriers. It's part of the growing-up process.

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