IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


State school pupils just as happy with their lives as private school peers

7 April 2022

Private school pupils in England do not tend to report better mental health or greater life satisfaction in early adulthood than their state-educated peers, new UCL research shows.

Secondary school pupils sat at front of class applauding

Researchers from IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society, analysed data collected from over 7,700 participants, born in 1989-90, taking part in Next Steps, a longitudinal cohort study run by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies. The researchers examined data from mental health assessments taken by study participants at ages 14, 16 and 25, and then looked at information they reported at ages 20 and 25 on how satisfied they were with the way their life had turned out so far.

The study found that there was no private school advantage for boys’ mental health at any age. Girls in private schools had slightly better mental health than their state school counterparts at age 16, but no difference was seen at 14 or 25. The researchers also found no difference in life satisfaction between the private and state school pupils.

Although, on the face of it, those who went to private school tended to have better mental health than their state school peers, the differences disappeared after socioeconomic background and ethnicity were taken into account.

The findings surprised the researchers who point out that private schools have greater financial resources than state schools and have placed particular emphasis on pastoral support for mental health in recent years.

Private school pupils may, however, be under greater pressure than their state school peers.

“I think it is possible that the increased pastoral support was just starting to make a difference for this cohort,” says co-author, Dr Morag Henderson. “But it is also likely that although school resource is greater in private schools, the academic stress students face might be too and so we see each force cancelling the other out.”

Dr Henderson adds that the results might be different for today’s schoolchildren, due to private schools being better able to support pupils who are struggling with their mental health since the start of the pandemic.

She explains: “This is speculation, but it might be that we see state school students fare worse in terms of mental health compared to private school students, post-lockdown. This question is ripe for future analyses; and is one of the areas that the new COVID Social Mobility and Opportunities Study (COSMO) cohort study, headed up by Dr Jake Anders – one of the co-authors – is gathering evidence on.”

The study’s authors note that this analysis identifies associations between school status and wellbeing rather than establishing a causal relationship.