Before the Christmas break, you could have been forgiven for feeling a little glum about the picture for education in the UK, following media and ministerial reactions to the latest round of results from PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment).
However, one of the good news stories from PISA was that pupils in England are happier at school than many of their global counterparts – with 84 per cent of the 15-year-olds surveyed agreeing or strongly agreeing that they were happy at school, compared to the 80 per cent OECD average.
Significantly, 72 per cent of England’s pupils also agreed or strongly agreed that “things are ideal in my school” – a far higher proportion than the OECD average of 61 per cent.
So far, so gratifying – we all want our young people to be happy, well-rounded individuals, and recognise that the huge amount of time they spend in school plays a crucial role in their sense of wellbeing. The picture at a national level is positive in this regard – but how can individual schools determine the emotional health of their own students or, indeed, the whole school community? And what can they do with their findings?
Measuring pupil wellbeing in your school
In search of an answer, the Centre for Statistics at NFER looked back at data from the last two years of NFER School Surveys completed by parents, pupils and staff – more than 90,000 respondents.
With the original questions based around the Every Child Matters framework, they were conscious that the data could potentially be developed to provide more evidence on wellbeing in schools. They were right. This data-rich environment gave the statisticians some interesting initial findings, suggesting two distinct measures for pupils.
School wellbeing measures pupils’ perspectives on the overall values and ethos of their school. The values the school instils into their pupils include behaving well, working hard, helping others, and keeping fit and healthy. The ethos the school creates for the pupils includes fairness, friendliness, and confidence-building.
Emotional wellbeing measures pupils’ happiness, and is based on questions exploring, for example, how they feel about how they look and whether they like the way they are. It measures their feelings (sadness, happiness, loneliness, etc) and how well they feel they get on with others. The measure is similar to some of the domains identified by the Office for National Statistics (see "So what exactly is wellbeing", below).
Using these measures, the statisticians and researchers have been able to build-up a good picture of the school and emotional wellbeing of pupils who have taken part in the NFER School Surveys over the past few years. The results paint an interesting picture of the range of happiness of pupils, schools’ ethos, and the ways they instil values in their pupils (from acceptable to inspirational), all from the pupils’ perspective. Every school is able to compare their results with those of all the other schools in the sample (weighted to be nationally representative).
Measuring staff engagement
The NFER researchers also did a similar exercise for school staff. This resulted in an overall measure of staff engagement, which looks at involvement, commitment and enthusiasm about their work.
So what is included in staff engagement measures? The researchers believe there are 16 questions in the education arena that sit together to create an overall engagement measure of either “engaged”, “not engaged” or “disengaged”. Some of these relate to staff job satisfaction, whether they feel part of the school community, and how they feel they can contribute to the school’s goals. The data for secondary schools in England shows a staff engagement level of nearly 2:1 engaged to disengaged.
Changes in leadership or status of a school could potentially effect staff engagement, so monitoring engagement levels is important. Participants in the surveys now get details of their school’s staff engagement measures compared to all the other schools in the samples (again, weighted to be nationally representative).
From measurement to action
Of course, measurement should only be the starting point: what really matters is what you then do with the findings. NFER would recommend that the surveys can be used as part of a three-step improvement process:
Establish your current situation. What do your survey results tell you about what is going well and where there is room for improvement? The inclusion of comparisons with samples weighted to be nationally representative can help with this process.
Plan and implement a response. You may already have a strategy in mind, you may look to the experiences of other schools you know, or you may look for solutions from research that has already been shown to work elsewhere.
Evaluate progress. Have the changes led to the improvements you expected? The NFER surveys enable changes over time to be tracked and if you are interested in conducting further research of your own into other aspects of pupil wellbeing and staff engagement, it also has other research resources available on the schools area of its website (www.nfer.ac.uk/rs2a).
So, while PISA offers good reasons to be cheerful, one certainty about life in school is that things do not stand still for long. With such a wide range of changing expectations being placed on pupils and teachers at the moment, it is important that we do not get complacent.
Let’s continue to keep track of the wellbeing of pupils and engagement of teachers so that we can celebrate success, and take early action to tackle issues as they arise. We can then look forward to many more happy new years to come.
So what exactly is wellbeing?
At the 2007 OECD World Forum a declaration was issued calling for the production of high-quality facts-based information that can be used to form a shared view of national wellbeing and its evolution over time.
Within the UK, there was a commitment to develop wider measures of wellbeing so that government policies could be more tailored to the things that matter.
The Office for National Statistics has an ongoing programme to develop wellbeing measures across the UK which now include 10 domains: personal wellbeing, our relationships, health, what we do, where we live, personal finance, economy, education and skills, governance, and natural environment.
There are a total of 41 measures across these 10 domains. Originally, the structure was based on adult wellbeing and it was left to other organisations to think particularly about children’s wellbeing. So, what is relevant to our young people and how can we best measure their wellbeing?
NFER School Surveys: the emotional wellbeing and school wellbeing measures for pupils and the staff engagement measures developed by NFER have been included in its new School Surveys service.
Devised by experts, and developed with the help of more than 330 school leaders, the service offers professionally written questionnaires and extensive online reports that compare the results of a school with nationally representative results from other schools in the sample. Visit www.nfer.ac.uk/ts1a
PISA in the UK: the OECD’s now famous global survey of the educational achievement of 15-year-olds was carried out in the UK by NFER on behalf of the respective governments, and the national reports published on the NFER website. The national report for England, referred to in this article, can be found at www.nfer.ac.uk/publications/PQUK01
More positive stories from PISA for England’s schools are highlighted in a new blog post by NFER senior researcher, and UK national manager for PISA, Rebecca Wheater: PISA – Why context is everything: http://thenferblog.org/2013/12/05/pisa-why-context-is-everything-2/