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@TheNFER analysis of wellbeing of 15-year-olds reveals strength of personal relationships and a sense of belonging key

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has today published two reports, based on further analysis of the PISA 2018 study, looking at the wellbeing of 15-year-old pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and exploring the differences between disadvantaged pupils who do well in reading, maths and science and those who do not.

Recent national and international evidence suggests that the Covid-19 pandemic has had an adverse effect on young people’s wellbeing and has increased the negative impact of disadvantage on educational success. Although conducted prior to the pandemic, NFER’s analysis of data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2018, provides new insights into pupils’ wellbeing and what sets apart disadvantaged pupils with good reading, maths and science skills from those with low skills.

Pupils who are most satisfied with their lives have a strong sense of belonging at school

The PISA 2018 results, released in December 2019, raised concerns about our young people’s wellbeing.

NFER’s analysis finds strong personal relationships are crucial to pupils’ wellbeing. Feeling a sense of belonging at school was most strongly linked to higher life satisfaction, closely followed by strong relationships with parents and teachers. These findings emphasise the importance of the wider aspects of school life – of ensuring pupils have a voice, supporting positive relationships between pupils, teachers and family, and the importance of positive feedback from teachers.

Disadvantaged pupils who do well in PISA had a better understanding of how they learn and were less likely to believe intelligence is fixed

Encouragingly, in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, disadvantaged pupils scored higher in maths and reading than in previous PISA studies.

In all three countries, around a third of disadvantaged pupils achieved at a level considered to equip them for success in later life. These disadvantaged pupils who, despite the odds, did well in PISA, had a better understanding of how they learn and were less likely to believe that intelligence can’t be changed. This is interesting, because understanding how you learn, or ‘metacognition’, can be taught.

Commenting on the findings, Rebecca Wheater, author of the reports and Research Director of International Large Scale Assessments at NFER said:

“These new reports provide valuable insights into our young people’s wellbeing and how best to support our disadvantaged pupils to succeed.

“Our analysis shows the importance of paying particular attention to our young people’s relationships – with their teachers, their friends, their parents – particularly in the current context when all these are harder.

“Our findings provide pointers on how we can best support disadvantaged pupils, to ensure that they are given the tools they need to succeed now and in later life. 

“While the research was conducted prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, these findings, on wellbeing and our disadvantaged pupils, could not come at a more important time, as they address issues we are even more concerned about than we were when they took part in PISA 2018.” 

 In addition to the key findings above, the wellbeing analysis revealed that:

  • In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, on average, pupils reported a lower sense of belonging and less emotional parental support than in 2015, whereas they reported higher levels of teacher feedback.
  • In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, life-satisfaction was lower for disadvantaged pupils than their more advantaged peers. In Northern Ireland, emotional parental support was linked to better reading performance.
  • In Wales, emotional parental support played a significant role in advantaged households for reading, maths and science performance.
  • In Northern Ireland, disadvantaged pupils who tended to avoid mistakes, or had a ‘fear of failure’, had higher reading attainment than pupils with lower levels of ‘fear of failure’.
  • In England, there was no evidence that aspects of pupils’ wellbeing affected the relationship between level of disadvantage and attainment in reading, maths or science.

The disadvantage analysis also found that:

  • The gap in performance between most- and least-disadvantaged pupils was greater in England than in Wales for reading, maths and science – driven by better achievement of less disadvantaged pupils in England. The gap between the most and least disadvantaged pupils in Northern Ireland is smaller than England, but larger than Wales, and not statistically significant from either country.
  • For the most part, there were no differences in attitudes between disadvantaged pupils who did well (called ‘resilient’ pupils) and their similarly-achieving, more affluent peers. The exception to this was in Northern Ireland, where resilient pupils were less confident in their reading than their more affluent peers.
  • Resilient pupils tended to use metacognitive strategies, had a growth mind-set and had high aspirations for their future education or careers. They were also less likely to truant. Resilient pupils were less likely to report having found meaning in life and less likely to report regularly feeling positive emotions.


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