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Exclusive: Pisa study to look at pupils' body image but UK will not take part

Link between body image and wellbeing being explored as concerns grow over teenagers' mental health

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Link between body image and wellbeing being explored as concerns grow over teenagers' mental health

The UK will not be taking part in an international study which aims to uncover how body image affects pupils’ wellbeing and happiness.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) – which is responsible for the world’s most influential education rankings – wants to include questions on body image in the next round of questions in 2018.

There has been increasing concern about children’s mental health – with MPs warning earlier this month that the pressure of Sats is affecting pupils’ wellbeing and that cuts in funding are restricting schools’ ability to run services supporting children’s mental health.

Mario Piacentini, analyst at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which publishes the Pisa Students’ Wellbeing report, is clear that wellbeing is an educational issue.

“In some countries, beauty and thinness is emphasised more than in others,” he says. “Part of mental health and physical education should be learning about the risks of related to a narrow and problematic image of the self.”

Pursuit of happiness

Pisa’s last report on pupil wellbeing, published last month, revealed that the UK’s 15-year-olds were among the unhappiest in the world – coming 38th out of 48 countries – and that girls in this country were less happy than boys.

Pisa analysts believe that gender gap may be linked to body image. Their study also found that 36 per cent of UK girls skip breakfast, compared with 26 per cent of girls on average across developed countries.

“In the next round, we will probably have some questions about body image and weight teasing, because we think this will explain part of the gender difference,” Piacentini says. “Body image problems exist among boys. But we know at that particular age among girls they are a bit more severe. There is research that shows this is related to an unrealistic and negative perception of the self.”

Despite these findings, the UK is not signed up to take part in the 2018 body image research. Experts in the field are urging a change of heart for future studies.

“We think the UK should have signed up,” says Denise Hatton, the chief executive of the YMCA England and Wales, which has campaigned to raise teachers’ awareness of body-confidence problems. 

"Body image anxiety is a very real issue for young people, with more than half telling us they often worry about the way they look and more than a third agreeing they would do whatever it takes to look good.”

“Absolutely the UK should take part,” says Natasha Devon, who has run body image classes and is co-founder of the Self Esteem Team as well as a former mental health tsar for the Department for Education.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said the department took the decision in January 2016 not to participate in the optional questionnaire on body image.

This is an edited version of an article in the 5 May edition of Tes. Subscribers can view the full article here.

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