Aim To evaluate prospectively the influence of mental health and wellbeing in early adolescence on educational attainment.
Methods Using the data linkage between 1073 participants from the UK Household Longitudinal Study (2009-2012) and the National Pupil Database, we investigate longitudinal associations between mental health at ages 11-14 and later attainment at GCSE. We use the term mental health to encompass socio-emotional development (measured using a self-completed Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire) and subjective wellbeing (measured using a self-assessment of happiness with life as a whole). Young people were scored as having typical (0-14), borderline 15-17), or atypical (18-40) levels of socio-emotional development. Happiness was defined as a score of 1-3 on a 7 point scale.
Results Low levels of socio-emotional development aged 11-14 were associated with a lower likelihood of gaining 5 A*-C GCSEs. Over half (57%) of young people with low levels and almost half (46%) of those with borderline low levels of socio-emotional development did not achieve 5 A*-C GCSEs including maths and English, compared to 30% of their peers with typical levels of development. This association remained significant after controlling for individual demographic and household social and economic factors, (low SDQ odds ratio: 2.80, [1.95,4.03]; (Borderline SDQ odds ratio: 1.94, [1.31,2.87]). Wellbeing at ages 11-14 was positively associated with later GCSE attainment. Almost half (48%) of children who were not happy with their life as a whole at ages 11-14 did not achieve 5 A* to C GCSEs, compared to around one-third (35%) of their happier counterparts. This association was significant after controlling for individual demographic and household social and economic factors (odds ratio: 1.59, [1.09-2.32]).
Conclusion Mental health at ages 11-14 was independently linked to educational success at age 16. Given the known links between educational attainment and later life outcomes, this evidence illuminates an important mechanism through which poor health in childhood and early adolescence can limit young people’s life chances. It provides another strong case for investing in adolescent mental health in addition to the health and economic cases widely evidenced in the literature.
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