Multiple factors influence how we perform educationally: the way we’re taught, our particular needs and how they’re met, our parents, and our socio-economic background to name a few. Gaps in attainment can start from very early on: some children have already fallen behind before the age of seven.
But what about how much we enjoy school? A new study in npj Science of Learning, led by the University of Bristol’s Tim Morris, looks at this relatively under-explored factor. And the team finds that enjoyment at the age of six has a significant impact on achievement, which was visible even years later when participants took their GCSEs.
Data was gathered from participants in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, which has been tracking parents and their children from 1991 onwards. At the age of six, participants were asked if they liked school, before answering further questions on their enjoyment six months later.
Educational attainment was measured through exam results aged 16, and the team also looked at sex, month of birth and school year, ethnicity, cognitive ability aged eight, maternal education and the socioeconomic position of parents. Mothers who took part in the study also reported how much their children liked their teachers aged six, and children themselves self-reported their temperament by answering questions on how happy or angry they were.
From the age of eight, children answered questions on their confidence in their work and intelligence, as well as how happy they were with their number of friends and the quality of their friendships. Finally, the team looked at the home learning environment through questions on how families taught their children colours, language, numbers, songs and shapes and sizes.
There was no relationship between school enjoyment and parental socioeconomic status: those who had parents in so-called “skilled” occupations were just as likely to enjoy school as those in “unskilled” occupations. Children with higher cognitive ability were more likely to enjoy school than not, girls were twice as likely to say they enjoyed school than boys, and non-white children were almost twice as likely to report enjoying school than their white counterparts.
Unsurprisingly, there was a strong relationship between children’s opinion of their teacher and how much they enjoyed school: those whose parents reported that they liked their teachers were more than nine times more likely to enjoy school than those who did not. Similarly, those who had confidence in their work also enjoyed school more.
Enjoyment of school didn’t just have a short-term impact, however. Those who enjoyed school at age six scored on average 14.4 more points at GCSE — a difference of two grades — even when the researchers had controlled for other factors related to educational achievement like cognitive ability and family socioeconomic status. They were also 29% more likely to obtain five or more A*-C grades, including those Maths and English qualifications so crucial for employment. In fact, enjoyment of school aged six was almost as strong a predictor of educational achievement aged 16 as other factors such as sex and socioeconomic status.
It may seem obvious that enjoyment of school has an impact on grades. But it’s striking that enjoyment at age six may impact grades aged 16, particularly when you consider its relative importance alongside factors like gender and cognitive ability.
The results also appear promising for potential interventions. Enjoyment is potentially more modifiable than socioeconomic factors; designing interventions that target school enjoyment and promote positive feelings about school could therefore have a significant impact on attainment many years down the line.
The team notes that the results should not be taken as a definitive way to address inequality in education, an issue which is clearly complex and multi-layered; future research could also explore why children do or do not enjoy school and how this interacts with external, social factors. However, thinking carefully about enjoyment could be one piece in the jigsaw of academic attainment.