Transition Year students Shane O’Connor and Liam Carew recently conducted the research project ‘Assessing the impact of second-level education on key aspects of adolescents’ life and development’.
The project investigates the impact of second-level school on students’ mental, physical, and social wellbeing.
—Shane O’Connor and Liam Carew
After noticing the differing experiences between ourselves and our peers, Liam Carew and I – Transition Year students at Abbey School, Tipperary – decided to conduct this project in order to enter the 2021 BT Young Scientist Exhibition. We were awarded 1st place in the category Social and Behavioural Science (Intermediate Group).
The study examined the experiences of students from schools of varying social and gender demographics. We conducted online surveys and analysed them using SPSS with the help of NUIG lecturer Bernard McCarthy. We also carried out focus groups with each student group. We interviewed experts in education and advocacy, such as deputy chief inspector at the Department of Education and Skills Pádraig Mac Fhlannchadha, ESRI professor Selina McCoy, Senator Joan Freeman, ISSU education officer Alicia O’Sullivan, guidance counsellor Conor Hayes, and principal John Kiely.
Male and Female
The first comparison looked at the experiences of male and female students. Likert scales showed that male students reported more positive school experiences than female students did. While male students recorded higher ratings in each area, the only significant difference was seen in the impact that physical education classes had on physical health and wellbeing: male students gave an average rating significantly higher than female students did (7.27 vs 6.85).
Junior and Senior
Next, we compared the experiences of Junior and Senior Cycle students. In all instances, Junior Cycle students rated their experiences of school to be higher on average than Senior Cycle students. While their mean scores were still quite high, third-year students rated the lowest in Junior Cycle in most areas, followed by second-year students. In Senior Cycle, sixth-year students who experienced online learning during the crucial March-May 2020 period rated lowest in most areas. They were followed by Leaving Certificate Applied students, who rated their experiences remarkably high in many areas but exceptionally low in areas such as mental health, social interaction, and the impact of Covid-19 on their mental health.
Single-sex and Mixed Schools
We also compared student experiences across different school structures: single-sex boys’ and girls’ schools as well as mixed schools. On average, students in single-sex schools rated their school experiences highest, with single-sex boys’ schools coming out more positively than single-sex girls’ schools. Mixed schools had remarkably diverse results but reported positively in areas such as the impact of second-level on their mental health, their social activity in their school environment, and the skill sets they need to progress in life.
A surprising statistic related to whether students had received educational guidance on their mental health in the second-level education system: 67% responded ‘No’. Only 29% of Junior Cycle students said they received SPHE classes that guide them on their mental health – despite the fact that the Education Act (1998) ‘emphasises that schools should promote the social and personal development of students and provide health education for them’, and recommends the allocation of one class period a week for the programme in Junior Cycle. Only 10% of Junior Cycle students acknowledged receiving wellbeing classes despite the implementation of 300 hours of wellbeing class time over the three years of the Junior Cycle Programme.
Our focus groups indicated that second-level education provided great opportunities to participate in diverse activities, in particular to socialise with others. Participants also acknowledged the negative impacts that pressure from tests and exams could have on them. The consensus from each group was that a better student-teacher relationship would improve their school experience.
The interviewees we met also agreed that second-level education is an extremely beneficial journey overall, but that there should be systems in place to avoid and reduce negative outcomes for students by creating things such as social pastoral areas and by nurturing student-teacher relationships.
Based on these results, we have compiled the following conclusions for schools and school leaders:
- Based on our study, we believe that the best way to foster good mental health among the student body is to create positive and caring student-teacher relationships and to provide excellent pastoral care.
- Teachers should be encouraged not to create an ‘us v. them’ situation, where students feel disconnected and isolated from their teacher mentors, while still maintaining a prominent level of professional conduct.
- Awareness of students’ external situations is important for teachers, and workloads should be adjusted accordingly in some situations.
- Students should be made aware of the mental health guidance available to them in the school community on an ongoing basis. As one focus group participant said: ‘An open door and a listening ear is the best support a school can give.’
- Schools should be aware of the impacts of ever-changing restrictions and home situations as a result of the pandemic.
Social interaction and development
- Social interaction is a vital aspect of school life, and this is emphasised by students unequivocally.
- Students should be given every opportunity to socialise with each other where possible. This could be done through increased activities or in a social or pastoral area in the school.
- Activities that promote students leaving their comfort zones, such as presenting to their class, are great for building confidence.
- Teachers should consider giving students a break or slightly reducing the assigned workload over weekends. This allows students to ‘switch off’ for a while, do self-directed study, or engage in other activities with friends and family.
- A strong emphasis on physical health is evident in single-sex schools, and students show positive attitudes towards looking after their physical health.
- Students in mixed schools (DEIS and non-DEIS) should be encouraged to partake more in physical activities and PE classes.
- Students in Junior Cycle should be encouraged to keep doing the same physical activities and should be shown the benefits of staying fit and healthy.
- Students, like all other sections of society, have been hit hard by the pandemic, particularly in their social interaction and mental health.
- Supports should be put in place to help students recover from this experience, and policies should adapt to the ongoing and ever-changing restrictions put in place.