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Is there is a link between Year 11s’ wellbeing and their GCSE grades?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 28 April 2022

John Jerrim.

The 2021/22 academic year is due to see the return of GCSE examinations after a Covid-enforced two-year hiatus. Before the pandemic hit, there was much concern about how these high-stakes examinations may be affecting young people’s mental health.

At the same time, it was recognised that those Year 11s who were struggling with their wellbeing could see their GCSE grades suffer as a result. Yet we actually know relatively little about this key issue – how strong is the link between the wellbeing of Year 11 pupils and the GCSE grades they achieve?

This blog takes a look at the evidence, drawing upon work I have published today in a new academic paper.

The study

In PISA 2018, a sample of more than 4,000 Year 11s in England were asked how often they usually feel (a) happy; (b) lively; (c) joyful; (d) cheerful and (e) proud, responding to each using a four-point scale (never to always).

Using their responses, I have divided these Year 11s into three groups: low levels of wellbeing (i.e. the least happy 20%), high levels of wellbeing (the happiest 20%) and those who fall in-between.

The GCSE results of these three groups are then compared, both with and without the inclusion of a range of additional statistical controls (although the inclusion of these does not really change the results).

The headline result

Figure 1 provides, in a nutshell, the main findings from the paper. It compares the probability of achieving a grade 4 in GCSE mathematics across the three wellbeing groups.

Figure 1. The probability of achieving a grade 4 in mathematics by level of wellbeing in Year 11.

Notes: Figures based upon Jerrim (2021) reported in Appendix M4 (model M4). Model includes controls for demographics, Key Stage 2 scores, PISA scores and school fixed effects.

 

Differences in GCSE grades are – on the whole – pretty small. Having low levels of wellbeing in Year 11 is associated with only a modest decrease in the probability of achieving a grade 4 in mathematics (75%, compared to 78% for their peers with “average” levels of wellbeing).

On the other hand, there is no evidence that those Year 11s who feel particularly joyful do any better on their GCSEs than other groups (they in fact have a slightly lower chance of achieving a grade 4 in mathematics than the “average” wellbeing group).

Conclusions

The mental wellbeing of teenagers is clearly an important issue in its own right. And we currently have only a limited understanding of how this is impacted by England’s system of high-stakes examinations.

Yet the results from my new study perhaps provides at least some solace from the fact that – if Year 11s do struggle with their wellbeing – it is unlikely to have a major impact upon the GCSE grades that they go on to achieve.

 

 

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