'We're not seeing the vulnerable students struggling below the surface'

The link between wellbeing, pupil health and student performance is no longer challenged. But we still make too many assumptions about who might be vulnerable, writes a leading assessment expert

Greg Watson

Schools and teachers invest a lot of time and effort in getting to know and understand their students. It’s a task that arguably becomes harder the older children get. Adolescence is associated with many things; increased transparency and emotional clarity aren’t usually among them. 

It would be a mistake to assume that it’s always easy to "know" children – even at a young age. What you see isn’t always what you get. Children can be adept at hiding their true feelings, a talent that merely increases with age. Yet understanding what their attitudes to learning are is crucial.

Educators and researchers have become increasingly cognizant of the link between student attitudes, academic performance and general wellbeing. A growing body of evidence now indicates that what children feel about school and how they perceive their own learning capabilities not only has an effect on their grades but can also provide an indication of wellbeing and mental health.

At some point, a significant proportion of children will underperform at school because they have attitudinal issues. Unfortunately, discovering who is most vulnerable isn’t always obvious. A few may display signals that all is not well – but many more will not. Teachers have to look for the early, subtle indicators of trouble – poor engagement, a lacklustre work ethic or low self-regard – that could suggest that children’s wellbeing and confidence is more fragile than supposed.

In the UK, various studies have found that while the vast majority of children are content at school and confident in their learning, a significant minority are not. Indeed, according to international and longitudinal surveys, our students are less satisfied and more anxious than those in most other developed countries, and the problem appears to be getting worse.

'Corrosive' negative attitudes

The evidence we have from seven- to 14-year-olds in the UK confirms those findings. According to a recent study of over 850,000 children undertaken by GL Assessment, where I am chief executive, the largest of its kind ever undertaken in this country, almost a fifth of them have negative feelings towards school and learning. They struggle with issues such as self-regard, perceive they lack the capabilities to learn and have poor relationships with their teachers. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the study also found that negative attitudes tend to increase the older children get.

These attitudes can have a big impact on attainment but they can be all the more corrosive because they are easily overlooked. If left unaddressed, and if they are combined with other issues like a lax work ethic or a poor attendance record, the chances of children becoming unhappy or even ill increase significantly.

Interestingly, there is little variation between schools with high and low numbers of free-school-meal pupils. Nor is there a significant gender difference. Boys, perhaps contrary to public perceptions, are just as likely as girls to have negative feelings about themselves as learners and are just as vulnerable. Negative attitudes can be a problem for any child, regardless of sex or social background.

And therein lies the problem for teachers. Because while awareness of the link between wellbeing, attainment and health has increased enormously in the past few years, knowing exactly who is most at risk of negative attitudes is far from obvious. Is the outwardly confident and loquacious boy as secure as he seems or is it a front and does he hide his doubts about his learning capabilities? Is the quiet girl, who conforms superficially but doesn’t really engage, demotivated because she has a poor work ethic or because she is bored and isn’t being stretched? Without assessing their attitudes, without understanding what their true feelings are about school, their problems are likely to remain unidentified and unaddressed. 

If we want our children to perform well, to achieve their full potential in life and reduce the prevalence of poor mental health, we have to start making sure they are healthy, happy and confident in school first. And to do that we have to really "know" what makes them tick. Sadly, our study shows that far too many children remain at risk and that we have to work harder to identify those who seem fine on the surface but have hidden barriers to learning.

Greg Watson is chief executive of GL Assessment

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