Toby Young Toby Young

Don’t let these figures depress you, girls

A badly thought-out survey has been twisted beyond recognition to smear Conservative education reforms

Are British teenagers suffering from an epidemic of mental illness? Yes, according to a ‘government-funded study’ which found that 24 per cent of 14-year-old girls are suffering from depression. This has been seized upon by critics of Conservative education policies; they see it as ‘proof’ that the increased focus on teaching children knowledge, as well as more frequent testing and the GCSE reforms, have literally driven children mad. ‘One in four girls is clinically depressed by the time they turn 14,’ reported the Guardian.

I’m sceptical about this and I took a look at the research carried out by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, which is based at UCL Institute for Education. It involved asking 14-year-olds in the Millennium Cohort Study to fill out a questionnaire called Short Moods and Feelings. This is an American document that uses the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ criteria for depression. It lists 13 symptoms in the form of first-person statements like ‘I thought I could never be as good as other kids’ and asks respondents to indicate ‘Not true’, ‘Sometimes’ or ‘True’, depending on how often they’ve experienced these feeling in the past two weeks. A total of 11,394 children completed the survey, which is a respectable sample size.

The first thing I noticed is that the report doesn’t actually claim that a significant percentage of these children are suffering from depression, much less ‘clinical depression’, since no clinicians were involved. Rather, it says that 24 per cent of girls are ‘suffering from high symptoms of depression’, without providing a definition of ‘high’. If they were using the questionnaire as it is supposed to be used, they should have assigned a score to each answer, with different values awarded to ‘Not true’ (0), ‘Sometimes’ (1) and ‘True’ (2), and only claimed that children who scored 12 or above might be suffering from depression.

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