As the pressure on students to succeed increases, governments, schools and parents have become more concerned about the effect they are having on students’ wellbeing. High performing schools have even been dubbed “epicentres of overachievement”, where students, says American psychologist David L. Gleason, “hear the overriding message that only the best will do in grades, test scores, sports, art, college… in everything”.
Research has shown that, if pupils believe they are in control of their success, they are more likely to succeed. Conversely, a pupil’s lack of belief in their ability to succeed, or a fear that they do not possess the tools to learn, will tend to undermine academic performance.
This issue is compounded because, while some children may display obvious signs that all is not well, many more will not; teachers need to look for the early, subtle indicators of trouble that could suggest that their confidence is more fragile than supposed. Pupils’ attitudes are therefore extremely important indicators for any educator.
For children to thrive, we need to make sure that academic ability, social skills and emotional intelligence are aligned
According to our recent study of over 850,000 children aged 7–14 years, based on an analysis of data from our Pupil Attitudes to Self and School (PASS) psychometric measure, almost a fifth of UK pupils have negative feelings towards school and learning.
If we look at the findings from independent schools, pupils registered their lowest satisfaction in their perceived learning capability, which can reveal early warning signs of demoralisation and disaffection – 17% of pupils had a low or low-moderate satisfaction here. Other areas of concern were in their preparedness for learning, which explores whether a pupil feels they have the tools in place to learn, and their self-regard as a learner.
There is certainly a growing need for schools to support both the educational and pastoral needs of their pupils, says Jill Wilson CBE, headteacher at the Gleddings Preparatory School in Halifax: “For children to thrive, we need to make sure that academic ability, social skills and emotional intelligence are aligned. Using PASS fits with this philosophy, and keeps us in the know about our pupils’ attitudes to themselves and to learning.”
The good news is that there’s also plenty to celebrate. 82% of pupils at independent schools have high satisfaction with their school experience (compared to 72% of pupils at state schools) and they are also highly motivated. 85% of pupils at independent schools had a high satisfaction in the area that looked at response to curriculum demands, compared to 69% in the state sector.
Related article: The importance of confidence
The Girls’ Schools Association’s president, Sue Hincks, says it’s vital that young people are helped in gaining confidence, critical judgement and a love of learning, if they are to navigate the rapidly changing environment of the 21st century.
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Interestingly, there is little variation between boys and girls. Boys are just as likely as girls to have negative feelings about themselves as learners, and are just as vulnerable. Negative attitudes can be a problem for any child. And therein lies the problem.
While awareness of the link between wellbeing, attainment and health has increased enormously in the past few years, knowing exactly who is most at risk of negative attitudes is far from obvious. Is the outwardly confident and loquacious boy as secure as he seems, or is it a front? Is the quiet girl, who conforms superficially but doesn’t really engage, demotivated because she has a poor work ethic, or because she is bored and isn’t being stretched?
If we want our children to achieve their full potential in life, and reduce the prevalence of poor mental health, we have to really know what makes them tick. Without assessing their attitudes or understanding their true feelings about school, problems are likely to remain unidentified and unaddressed.