Why ‘outstanding’ leaders must prioritise pupil wellbeing

New research points to a link between ‘outstanding’ ratings and poorer pupil wellbeing. Daniel Muijs sets out what that means for school leaders

New research points to a link between ‘outstanding’ ratings and poorer pupil wellbeing. Daniel Muijs sets out what that means for school leaders

4 Dec 2021, 5:00

Alongside the national focus on academic catch-up after the school closures forced by Covid, there has rightly been concern about the impact of the pandemic on children and young people’s mental health. It goes without saying that helping them through the recovery requires us to focus on both, and recent research examining pupil wellbeing has highlighted some new trends which school and trust leaders should heed.

Edurio’s Pupil Learning and Wellbeing Review, which I helped to co-write, is a survey of 45,000 pupils in English schools. The report underlines serious, if not surprising, concerns across a number of areas of pupil wellbeing, not least that less than half of pupils (47 per cent) reported that they had been feeling well overall, and a similar proportion reported feeling stressed and overworked.

However, it also highlights some interesting links between a pupil’s wellbeing and their school’s Ofsted rating. Among pupils at schools rated ‘outstanding’, scores were worse than for those pupils at schools judged ‘good’ or ‘requires improvement’. The review found that respondents at ’outstanding’ schools felt more stressed, slept less well and were more likely to feel overworked.

To conclude that ’outstanding’ schools are causing lower wellbeing based on this research alone would go beyond what this evidence tells us. However, the research conducted by Edurio and the subsequent analysis that I was involved in have identified a link, and this should be seen as a starting point. The research is designed to highlight potential areas for concern, and act as a step on the journey to building better schools, where children and young people can thrive.

Pupils at ‘outstanding’ schools felt more stressed and slept less well

So these findings should give school leaders pause for thought and prompt further investigation. One might conclude that these differences are based on pressure put on pupils at ‘outstanding’ schools to excel academically. This could come from the school itself, looking to maintain high standards and outcomes, or it could come from parents, who may have chosen their homes based on the opportunity to get their children into ’outstanding’ schools. Perhaps pupils need support in developing the resilience to deal with increased pressure, or fear of failure, that comes with these higher expectations. In all cases, we have a choice to treat either the cause or the symptoms.

However, it is also important to note that until recently, many ’outstanding’ schools were exempt from inspection, and were not inspected for many years. Now this is changing, and the expectation is that some schools currently rated ‘outstanding’ will not receive the same verdict.

Interestingly, the increased stress and associated factors do not seem to impact how pupils at ‘outstanding’ schools feel about their school ̶ they are more likely to be happy at their school, and more likely to recommend their school than their peers at schools rated ‘requires improvement’. Although this is encouraging, and perhaps driven by the pride they have in their school’s performance, it needs to be viewed within the context of the report’s wider findings.

I would urge leaders of ’outstanding’ schools to take a look at their wellbeing provision and their overall organisational culture. What are the behaviours that are rewarded in your school? Is attainment the most important metric you track? If this is the case, is it possible that pupils are becoming blinkered? Are they seeing academic success as their only goal, and anything outside that a distraction or detraction from the overall objective?

It’s important that pupils know that their attainment is a very important piece of a bigger puzzle, but not the be all and end all of their education. The range of skills that they are building should include resilience, confidence and other broader capabilities that prepare them for life after school and, indeed, for life after Covid.

The end of the pandemic may seem further away again after the past week’s news, but that is precisely why no school’s focus on academic achievement should come at the expense of securing our pupils’ long-term wellbeing.

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