What can the latest data tell us about students’ attitudes to school and learning in the independent sector?

Sponsored: Crispin Chatterton, director of education at GL Assessment, gives an insight into children’s wellbeing as schools emerge from lockdown

For much of the past academic year, teachers have been understandably concerned at the effect the pandemic would have on the wellbeing of their students.

Not only was the disruption to children’s learning unprecedented but serial lockdowns also made assessment and tailored interventions difficult. As the crisis unfolded, experts and health professionals were warning last year that a ‘tsunami of mental illness’ could overwhelm children.

Fortunately, that doesn’t appear to have happened. Some children undoubtedly found physical separation from their teachers and classmates difficult, and their wellbeing and learning suffered as a result. But many others coped surprisingly well, helped in no small part by the phenomenal effort schools put into supporting them.

A survey of 10,000 parents and children by experts at the University of Oxford conducted last year, for instance, painted a complex picture. Parents of under 11s told researchers they had noticed a deterioration in their children’s behaviour and mental state. Parents of teenagers, on the other hand, tended to report that they hadn’t noticed any significant increase in anxiety or a decline in their offspring’s emotional wellbeing.

That research, however, was put into the field in the middle of the first lockdown. Several months and two lockdowns later, how are children feeling about school and learning?

A largely positive story in the independent sector

As schools only returned to in-person teaching in March, we don’t yet have the complete picture. Many schools are in the process of conducting PASS (pupil attitudes to self and school) assessments, or are yet to do so, and it will take some time to evaluate national trends.

But we do have preliminary data for this academic year based on PASS assessments carried out in the autumn term of 2020. And they tell a largely positive story about student attitudes to their learning and their teachers, particularly in the independent sector.

Benchmarked against data from 2018, students’ positive attitudes towards their schools and teachers increased, albeit slightly, in almost all types of school. Of the nine factors that comprise the PASS assessment, four – feelings about school, preparedness for learning, attitudes to teachers and attitudes to attendance – all rose in 2020 from two years previously.

Despite the disruption, children it seems are largely confident in their abilities to learn and are pleased at the prospect of being back at school

Among independent school students, the data is even more positive. All factors witnessed a rise in positive attitudes compared to 2018 – with small but statistically significant increases in feelings about school, preparedness for learning and attitudes to attendance across the sample of more than 5,000 students in independent schools.

Despite the disruption, children it seems are largely confident in their abilities to learn and are pleased at the prospect of being back at school. To some extent, this was expected. After months of enforced social isolation from their teachers and classmates, it isn’t altogether surprising that attitudes to school and attendance have improved. It will be interesting to see if those feelings are sustained as the year goes on.

But a word of warning: schools shouldn’t allow this largely positive picture to obscure signals that may indicate attitudinal problems further down the line. The above figures are of course indicative of school-level results – there will be variation at the individual student level. And although UK independent schools overall didn’t register any decline in student attitudes to perceived learning capability or self regard as a learner, schools in other sectors did.

Perceived learning capability provides a snapshot of a student’s attitudes at a particular time. A poor score may indicate that a child is overwhelmed by the expectations placed on them in a specific situation.

A student with low self regard as a learner would typically lack confidence in their ability to take the necessary steps to achieve their long-term goals. Weak scores in either of these two factors could suggest that pupils will have issues with attainment.

Tackling low self-regard

There are several measures teachers can take to tackle low learner self-regard, from effective feedback and celebrating failure as a learning opportunity, to raising expectations and promoting independent learning skills.

The following questions may be useful as an initial approach if you suspect a student has poor learner self-regard:

  • Do they set realistic expectations for themselves?
  • Do they acknowledge their efforts and achievements?
  • Do they know how to ask for feedback?
  • Do they see mistakes and failures as learning opportunities?
  • How do they view their abilities in relation to their peers?
  • Are they able to identify their own emotions?
  • Do they have the right support for home learning?

For further information on PASS, please visit our website or email Andy Small, independent specialist at GL Assessment.

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