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:
Social interaction and development