Antidote director James Park and development director Marilyn Tew describe the challenge that schools face if they are to address a decline in student wellbeing between Years 5 and 10

Education minister Andrew Adonis surprised many this autumn when he brought forward an amendment to the education bill that required schools to promote the ‘wellbeing’ of students. Having previously dismissed such a clause as unnecessary, he conceded that sending a message to teachers about their duty to promote wellbeing would help to deliver an ‘undoubted premium on school standards’.

New evidence from surveys carried out in 25 primary and secondary schools by Antidote over the past 12 months suggests that winning this premium is going to be hard work in many of our schools. The surveys, which involved around 8,000 students between the penultimate year of primary school (Year 5) and the first post-GCSE year (Year 12), showed a steady decline in student wellbeing through Years 5-10, with a modest improvement after that.

The surveys particularly highlight a dip in the way students experience their relationships, both with adults (teachers and other staff) and with peers. These relationships are crucial to students maintaining their motivation to learn and their capacity to create the sort of ordered environment that is conducive to learning.  Reversing this downward trend, therefore, is vital to:

  • raising levels of achievement
  • closing the gap in achievement between different groups of young people
  • reducing the levels of low-level disruption that feature so highly in staff and student complaints.

What was measured

The surveys used a tool called the School Emotional Environment for Learning Survey (SEELS) that was developed by Antidote to help schools shape learning environments that give young people the best possible opportunity to achieve and make a positive contribution. Development of SEELS was part of a four-year research project looking at how schools could improve the quality of staff and students’ communication and relationships so as to enhance people’s learning. The survey uses a confidential online questionnaire to ask staff and students how far they experience the school as a place where they feel:

Capable – that others have a genuine interest in enabling them to reach their potential
Listened to – that saying what they think or feel may enable things to change in positive ways
Accepted – that they can explore different ways of being themselves, rather than simply complying with expectations
Safe – that it is acknowledged they experience emotions which have an impact on how they think, learn and behave
Included – that they have a distinctive and valued role to play within the school community.

Antidote’s research, carried out in partnership with the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol, showed that these dimensions correlated with students’ effectiveness as learners, as measured by another tool, called the Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory (ELLI).

Main finding

The central finding from the surveys is that, between Year 5 and Year 10, there is a 25% drop in the degree to which students experience the school environment as one that enables them to feel capable, listened to, accepted, safe and included (CLASI). The level drops from a relatively rosy 82% in Year 5 to a worrying 58% in Year 10, then starts to pick up so that around 70% of reports in Year 12 are of students feeling CLASI.

What this tells us is that, as students start work on their GCSEs, over 40% of them experience a low level of wellbeing. Their experience of secondary school has not promoted in them the sort of emotional state that supports motivation to learn and to get on with each other. It may be the focus provided by exams is what leads to things picking up slightly in the subsequent year, but the consequence is that a lot of learning opportunity will have been wasted in the preceding period.

Transition effect

The dimension that dips most significantly is ‘included’, which reflects students’ sense of how they are viewed by others and how strong a sense of connection they feel to them. In Year 5 the picture is relatively positive, with 77% of children saying they feel connected to adults and children in the learning environment. By Year 10 this figure has dropped by 31% to only 46%.

It might have been expected that the most significant decline would have occurred with the transition to secondary school, when students move from being the most senior in their age group – with all the responsibility and status that is involved – to a position at the bottom of the age hierarchy. In fact, there are two significant dips – in the last year of primary, and the second year of secondary. It looks as if the anticipation of the move to secondary creates a sense of diminishing importance that being top of the school does little to allay. That feeling abates a little as a result of the effort schools put into ensuring a smooth entry into the new phase, but the decline then accelerates in the following year.

Although the figure does start to swing back between Year 10 and Year 12, it does not make it back to anything like the Year 7 level. Students seems to be saying that their sense of how they ought to feel connected to others in their schools is not matched by their experience. They would expect to be taken more seriously than they are. Older students often reveal sentiments in the surveys such as:

We want you to listen to us more and actually pay attention to us, treating us all as equals and talk to us on a more personal level.

There is currently considerable concern about the effect on young people’s learning of the shift from the relative intimacy of primary school to the hustle and bustle of secondaries. Given this concern, it is of interest that the sharpest drop in wellbeing picked up by the Antidote surveys happens not between Year 6 and Year 7, but between Year 7 and Year 8.

The reason for this may be that the new opportunities offered by secondary school – to make new friends and do different things – provides enough excitement to carry many through their first secondary year, compensating for whatever may be felt to have been lost. In this conversations with Antidote, students say things like:

This school is better than my old school. The lessons are much more fun and so are the teachers.

The teachers are very friendly and helpful. The lessons are fun. You learn something new every day.

I think that this school is quite good and most of the teachers are very nice compared to the horror stories I have heard.

It is afterwards that the growing disappointment with what is on offer really starts to bite.

Listened to

The dimension that makes the smallest contribution to the decline in student wellbeing is ‘listened to’. This dips by only 18%, from a high of 86% to a low of 68%. Apart from the dip between Years 7 and 8, the figure is relatively stable. This suggests that although schools are becoming better at gathering students’ views through school and class councils, this is not sufficient to ensure they appreciate their learning needs.

Peers, friends and adults

Relationships have a profound impact on student wellbeing and capacity to learn. It is when young people feel that their teachers are competent, supportive and caring that they are most likely to be engaged in learning. They need to get on with their classroom peers if they are to stimulate and usefully challenge each other to higher levels of achievement. It is worrying, therefore, that the Antidote surveys report a 24% decline in the way students rate their relationships with adults, from a high of 74% in Year 5 to a low of 50% in Year 10. Also, the rating for relationships for peers declines by 13%, from 72% to 59%.

Relationships with friends, by contrast, are relatively stable between Year 5 and Year 12. While this may be positive on a personal level – it indicates people have supportive relationships to help them through their time at school – its effect may be negative on classroom harmony and efficacy. An attachment to their friendship group can get in the way of students being able to work well with each other. As one student taking part in Antidote’s original research reported:

I don’t like grouping up with other people that I don’t know in lessons. I just stare them and do nothing. It makes me feel like: No, I’m not working with them. I don’t like them. I just stay away from them.

What’s going on?

Some will be tempted to dismiss these findings as simply an expression of ‘adolescence’. But if young people are experiencing a high degree of frustration with the way they are being asked to learn, and the way schools are organised, then perhaps that tells us something about how responsive schools are to students’ learning needs. These surveys vindicate the insistence of the Gilbert review that there need to be changes to ‘the way the education system operates and to the practice of many teachers.’