It's a deceptively simple question. Everyone from parents and Ofsted inspectors to teachers and their unions has voiced concern about the mental health and wellbeing of school children, but compared to the effort put into measuring academic attainment, we still do relatively little to monitor and understand this vital aspect of young people's development.
SchoolDash is therefore delighted to be collaborating with EduKit1, a provider of (among other things) student wellbeing surveys that not only help individual schools to analyse their own performance on this important dimension, but can also provide a psychological barometer for the country as a whole. To this end, we have analysed anonymised responses from around 45,000 pupils in England, representing all school years, regions and major ethnic groups2, collected between autumn term 2018 and summer term 20193. Our main findings are:
Self-reported life satisfaction tends to decline between Year 3 (ages 7-8) and Year 13 (ages 17-18).
Boys and girls show very similar levels of life satisfaction at primary school, but at secondary school girls' satisfaction declines faster than that of boys.
Pupils in the north of England tend to be more satisfied than those in the south. Among other things, this suggests that there isn't a positive correlation between life satisfaction and academic performance.
The factors that influence children's life satisfaction differ markedly between between boys and girls, and between primary and secondary school pupils.
I can't get no...
A central part of EduKit's wellbeing surveys is an 11-rung 'Cantril ladder' question in which respondents are asked to gauge their life satisfaction on a scale of 0 (worst) to 10 (best). Figure 1 below shows how this varies by age for all pupils (grey line). Notwithstanding distressing recentreports of mental health concerns at primary schools, overall life satisfaction is relatively high among younger children, with an average score of 7.8 in Year 3. However, by Year 13 this declines to 6.2. (Hover your mouse over the chart to see individual data values.) Moreover, while numbers for boys and girls are very similar through primary schools, they start to diverge between Years 7 or 8 (which, coincidentally or otherwise, corresponds roughly to the beginning of secondary school and onset of puberty), with girls' satisfaction declining more quickly than that of boys. By Year 12 they are 0.7 points apart at 6.8 and 6.1, respectively, though this gap appears to close a bit by Year 13 (6.5 for boys versus 5.9 for girls). These results are broadly consistent with recent surveys of adolescents in Ireland.
Figure 1: Average wellbeing score by year group and gender
Note: Sample sizes for each data point are in the range 400-11,900.
Sources: EduKit; SchoolDash analysis.
EduKit surveys also ask a series of much more specific questions about pupils' lives (analysed in more detail below). These use a five-level 'Likert scale' to measure how much the respondent agrees with a particular statement, from 'strongly agree' to 'strongly disagree'. These are coded in a way that always assigns a 4 to the most positive response and 0 to the least positive response. For example, a pupil who strongly agrees with the statement "Overall I have a lot to be proud of" would get a 4, while one who strongly agrees with the statement "I can't do anything right" would get a 0. Looking at all of these questions in aggregate, we see a similar pattern of overall decline along with a divergence between boys and girls from Years 7-8 onwards.
It is important to recognise that the variations within each of these groups are much bigger than differences between them. As a result, simply knowing the year group or gender of an individual pupil tells us next to nothing about their happiness. To illustrate this, Figure 2 shows the distributions of 'Cantril ladder' scores for all pupils (grey columns), boys (blue) and girls (red) across all school years. Although boys are more numerous among those giving scores of 7 and above, while girls tend to be more numerous among those giving lower scores, there is nevertheless huge overlap between the two distributions. (You can explore these further by clicking on the figure legend to display or hide individual pupil groups; double-click to show a group on its own.)
Figure 2: Distributions of life satisfaction scores by gender
Note: Sample sizes for each gender are in the range 25,600-27,900.
Sources: EduKit; SchoolDash analysis.
Grin up north
There are clear regional differences too. As shown in Figure 3, the North West and North East show the highest overall life satisfaction scores, while the South East and South West have the lowest scores. (Note that in order to show the differences more clearly the y-axis does not start at zero.)
Figure 3: Life satisfaction, Attainment 8 and Progress 8 scores by region
Note: Sample sizes for each region are in the range 1,900-13,500.
Sources: EduKit; Department for Education; SchoolDash analysis.
Interestingly, Attainment 8 scores (a measure of GCSE exam success) shows almost the reverse pattern, as does Progress 8 (a measure of how much progress pupils make at secondary school). This suggests that life satisfaction is neither a driver nor a consequence of academic success4. Indeed, based on these data, the opposite appears more likely to be the case. The main exception – as so often – is London, which shows middling levels of life satisfaction but very high levels of GCSE attainment and progress.
Reasons to be cheerful
Finally, it is instructive to look at the correlations between the overall life satisfaction measure and the more detailed questions about pupils' attitudes and experiences. In particular, how well does each detailed question predict a pupil's overall life satisfaction? Figure 4 shows the life satisfaction correlation coefficients for a selection of these questions (there are too many to show them all). When looking at all pupils, the statements that best predicted life satisfaction were: 'I am unhappy, sad or depressed', 'Overall I have a lot to be proud of' and 'I find life really worth living'. These remained the top three factors when looking separately at boys and girls. However, there are also some clear gender differences. Relatively speaking, boys tend to give more weight to personal relationships ('My friends are great', 'Other people think I am a good person' or 'Other children my age treat me as equal to them') while girls' life satisfaction seems to more affected by personal anxiety ('I cry a lot', 'I miss meals on purpose' or 'I am worried about the future').
Figure 4: Correlation of statements with overall life satisfaction
Note: Sample sizes for each pupil group are in the range 8,100-27,900.
Sources: EduKit; SchoolDash analysis.
Differences between primary and secondary pupils were even more pronounced. Compared to older children, primary pupils were more likely to be influenced by friendships ('My friends will help me if I need it', 'My friends treat me well' and 'My friends are mean to me'). In contrast, secondary pupils tended to give relatively more weight to family relations and general perceptions of life ('I feel my life has a sense of purpose', 'I like spending time with my parents' and 'I can't do anything right').
For anyone interested in the wellbeing of young people, there's plenty here to chew on. But perhaps the most important message is that, thanks to the work of organisations like EduKit, we can now monitor this aspect of pupils' progress almost as readily as we test their spelling or maths. There are always risks in reducing complex personal attributes to mere numbers, but if this increases the amount of attention and effort we apply to ensuring the psychological health of our children, it will surely count as a welcome step.
In the interests of full disclosure, there is no commercial relationship between SchoolDash and EduKit; we're just friends. :)
There were nevertheless some biases in the sample. Far more responses came from secondary school pupils (85% of the total) than primary school pupils (15%); more were gathered in the autumn term (44%) and spring term (41%) than in the summer term (15%); and there were more from boys (52%) than from girls (48%). In addition, some ethnic minorities – notably pupils of black African and Pakistani descent – were somewhat over-represented. London was relatively over-represented at the expense of Yorkshire and the Humber, which was under-represented.
For any given year group, the pupils surveyed each term were not necessarily the same, though some pupils did complete more than one survey during the course of the year.
Attainment 8 and Progress 8 scores are for the 2017-2018 academic year. Note that they represent all state-school pupils in each region, not just the subset of pupils who completed EduKit's surveys.
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