Increased access to independently-run schools decreases pupil wellbeing

Research suggests that effective learning often involves activities, such as drill and repetition, which many would describe as boring and tough.
- Gabriel Heller-Sahlgren
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The competition created by increased access to autonomous schools, such as academies, faith schools and private schools, raises academic achievement but decreases pupil wellbeing, a new study from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) published in the Economics of Education Review has found. 

Using pupil data on 15-year-olds across 34 OECD countries, including the UK, the researchers analysed pupil wellbeing and academic efficiency. They found that the inclusion of independently-operated schools in education systems increases choice and therefore competition, which raises academic performance but also has considerable negative effects on pupil wellbeing.

When analysing the reasons behind this, the researchers found that increased competition sharpens schools’ focus on academic achievement leading to the adoption of learning tools which, although academically effective, are not necessarily inspiring or enjoyable for pupils. 

These learning tools include more traditional teaching, instructional time and homework. They also include more hierarchical pupil-teacher relations and increased pressure from parents.

Using an economic cost-benefit analysis, the positive effects of this competition on academic achievement appear to outweigh the negative impacts on pupil wellbeing. However, using adult life satisfaction as the unit of measure rather than money, the results are reversed.

Student wellbeing is increasingly being recognised as a policy goal in Western countries due to the links between childhood and adolescence wellbeing and later adult wellbeing and risky behaviour.

While the researchers warn more work is needed in this area to draw strong conclusions, the analysis suggests there is a trade-off between the attainment goals of education policy and the wellbeing agenda, to which policymakers should pay attention.

Commenting, author of the study Gabriel Heller-Sahlgren from the Centre for Economic Performance and Department of Social Policy at LSE said: “The idea that effective learning and pupil enjoyment go hand in hand is a cornerstone of modern educational theory. Yet there is little evidence supporting it. On the contrary, research suggests that effective learning often involves activities, such as drill and repetition, which many would describe as boring and tough. It is therefore not surprising to find that interventions that raise academic achievement often have negative effects on pupil happiness. This shows that the concept of trade-offs must be taken seriously also in education”.

Behind the article

Click here for a copy of Smart but unhappy: Independent-school competition and the wellbeing-efficiency trade-off in education

For interview requests please contact Gabriel Heller-Sahlgren on 

The researchers used data from the 2012 round of the OECD’s PISA survey. PISA was created as a reliable metric of pupil knowledge and has been carried out every three years since 2000.

In the 2012 round, representative samples of pupils aged between 15 years and three months and 16 years and two months in 34 OECD countries – as well as in 31 other partner countries or economies - were tested in mathematical, reading and scientific literacy.

Pupils also complete questionnaires with rich details on their background characteristics and personal views, which the researchers used to obtain indicators for pupil wellbeing. The sample size when analysing wellbeing was about 190,000 pupils.