Educational attainment up to 18 plays a big part in determining whether we transition into employment or not. This is traditionally the focus of policy and is important for a range of reasons; it’s also important because being employed is the third biggest driver of adult wellbeing, measured by life satisfaction, behind health and having a partner. But our adult wellbeing is also affected by our emotional health in childhood. As well as being important in itself, our emotional health in childhood is a stronger predictor of later adult wellbeing than educational attainment.
Mental health and gender difference
Our evidence review in 2018 showed that poor mental health and low wellbeing can act as a barrier to learning and progression. We also know that children’s happiness with their lives has declined, which reverses the positive trend found during 1995-2010.
It’s also the case that boys and girls may experience different types of wellbeing-related challenges: By the age of 14, girls have more emotional health problems than boys, which are also associated with lower levels of life satisfaction and happiness with appearance. The Department for Education State of the Nation Report 2019 also highlighted a concern about psychological wellbeing of teenage girls
For our research, we measure mental health and wellbeing using three age-dependent measures:
- the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire at age 14-15 which is specifically designed for young people
- General Health Questionnaire at age 16 and 17 which is used for adult populations
- the life satisfaction measure at age 16 and 17, which is used for adult populations.
The link between mental health, wellbeing, and educational outcome is significant only for one out of the three measures used. We found a link when using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, but not for General Health Questionnaire or life satisfaction. Because of this, in this blog, we look at the findings on the relationship between responses to the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire and educational outcomes.
We used the longitudinal survey data from Understanding Society between 2009 and 2017. We looked at the effect of wellbeing on teens’ A-level (equivalent) attainment at 18 years of age. In total, 681 boys and 785 girls are measured on their wellbeing and mental health levels from the age of 10 onwards to 17 years.
- It’s not clear how, or if, wellbeing and mental health impact educational attainment. Girls have poorer mental health and wellbeing than boys between 10 and 17, but generally outperform boys in A-level qualification attainment.
- The strongest association between mental health and educational outcome is for mental health measured at 14-15 years. Overall, better mental health in different stages of adolescence is generally associated with better educational outcomes for boys and girls.
- Mental health is more strongly associated with educational outcomes for boys than for girls. For example, a boy with 10% higher mental health score at age 14-15 (that is 3.5 points higher scores on a 35 point scale) increases his likelihood of getting A-levels via the academic route by the time he is 18 by 15% and a girl by 7%. Both these associations are statistically significant.
- The link between mental health and educational attainment is significant only for boys, even when controlling for additional factors, such as family resources or adolescent behaviours. For girls, reading two to four books a week; not hanging around the house or town centre; and household income are all positively associated with attainment of A-levels by age 18.
What explains these findings?
This suggests that for boys, either:
- their wellbeing has a direct influence on their academic achievement
- the specific factors we have considered do not explain the link between mental health and education.
For example, there may be educational practices that are supporting the engagement of boys in some way. These may be practices supporting the emotional or behavioural wellbeing capabilities of boys in ways that help translate into better educational outcomes.
Overall, the results point to a paradoxical set of results: boys have better mental health than girls, poorer educational outcome than girls, yet the association between mental health and educational attainment is stronger for boys and cannot be explained by parental and adolescent characteristics and behaviours.
We think there may be an explanation: girls are more likely to be conscientious high performers than boys.
Our findings suggest more research and conceptual work is required to gain a better understanding of wellbeing-education pathways for boys and girls, which are likely to be different.