How important is adolescents’ mental health to the future educational outcomes for boys and girls? The report examines the relationship between adolescent mental health and subsequent educational outcomes in early adulthood. We are particularly interested in educational outcomes in early adulthood because the educational attainment at the end of compulsory education in the UK is a significant transitioning stage for young people determining their future labour market participation.
Using 8 waves of Understanding Society (2009-17) data we scrutinize the effect of adolescents’ wellbeing on their A level (equivalent) attainment at 18 years of age. 681 boys and 785 girls are measured on their wellbeing levels from the age of 10 onwards to 17 years. Girls have poorer mental health and wellbeing than boys at all these ages but girls generally outperform boys in A-level qualification attainment. It is thus not clear how or if wellbeing impacts educational attainment. So, this research considers if the wellbeing-education performance link is any different for boys and girls.
Looking at the relationship between mental health and educational outcomes we find:
Better mental health measured at different stages of adolescences is generally associated with better educational outcomes for boys and girls.
However, there are gender differences in the associations between adolescence mental health and educational attainment, with mental health being more strongly associated with educational outcomes for boys than for girls. The strongest association of mental health and educational outcome is for mental health measured at 14-15 years.
The strength of the association between mental health and educational outcomes is greater when considering educational attainment through the academic pathway, but the gender distinction remains. In this case, 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 any route 7.5% (statistically significant at 1% level of significance) and while this is only 2% for a girl but this association is not statistically significantly different from zero.
The differences in the mental health effect on educational outcome for girls can be explained in terms of other individual and parental characteristics and
adolescent behaviours that are also found to correlate with girls’ mental health. However, that is not the case for boys. For boys, the net association is almost the same as the overall association: 21% higher likelihood of getting an A-level via an academic route and 7% via any route. For girls, the net associations are 3% and 2%, respectively, but neither is statistically significantly different from zero.
Practical implications of the research findings
Wellbeing matters in its own right and wellbeing matters to educational attainment
The findings demonstrate that mental health and wellbeing at age 14-15 has a significant and positive association with educational attainment at age 18, and this association is stronger for A-level achievement via the academic route. This suggests that investing in activities that enable young people to develop and protect their mental health and wellbeing is likely to both enhance not only their sense of happiness and subjective wellbeing, but also supports them longer-term through gaining the human capital or qualification that in turn can facilitate progression to further educational opportunities or work opportunities.
Need for domain specific models
There are gender differences in the wellbeing effect on educational attainment that suggest the actions to support boys and girls may need to differ and be considered in the context of the educational environment. This may suggest a call for a better understanding of domain specific wellbeing capabilities, in this case educational wellbeing. This would have parallels with workplace or community wellbeing whereby domain specific conceptual and theoretical models are used to guide policy and practice interventions.
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ClosePractical implications of the research findings