Socioeconomic Status, Mental Wellbeing and Transition to Secondary School

This is a brief summary of an open access research article published in the October 2020 issue of the British Educational Research Journal on “Socioeconomic status, mental wellbeing and transition to secondary school”. This seems to be an important issue particularly at a time we are concerned about young people’s wellbeing as a result of lockdown and school closures.

What the article highlights is that we live at a time of growing wealth inequality, which enhances a growth in health inequalities which will be experienced particularity by young people through a decline in wellbeing. Already there is evidence from the Office of National Statistics of a decline in young people’s mental wellbeing with a decline in young people’s satisfaction with their health in the UK, and feeling more disconnected from their communities. Whilst schools work to support struggling pupils, some schools appear to enhance inequality through their practices.

It is clear that poor pupils do less well at school, as a direct result of being poor, and current studies are turning to social and structural explanations rather than individually pathologizing the children. This encourages an understanding of the way that pupils are integrated into both the pedagogic and the regulatory strategies. For many pupils, schools are seen as not fair, and not theirs, which contributes to feelings of alienation, anxiety and disconnection, all leading to reductions in feelings of wellbeing. A key point of tension is at school transition, which poses a threat to young people especially those in poverty. Often the transition to secondary can be felt as a feeling of rejection by parents who might have experienced strong school relationships at Primary, but virtual side-lining at Secondary; such outcomes are organised along socioeconomic status lines. Schools can play a positive part in enhancing pupil wellbeing, but only by recognising the real existence of structural poverty and social exclusion and the role that schools play in this.

The focus of the research article is to explore the effect of the level of school affluence on children as they move from year 6 to 7 especially for those children living in relative poverty moving into a school representing a more diverse and affluent community.


Within the present structure of schooling in the UK one critical point in young people’s lives, is the transition stage from Primary to Secondary, occurring almost universally at the very vulnerable age of age 10-11, between years 6 and 7. Schools will take this stage seriously and implement various transition arrangements, though there are also tensions on either side of the transition. This article looks at the transition from the viewpoint of young people’s wellbeing.

Although this article appears in our foremost educational journal, this is an empirical study by researchers from Cardiff and Exeter universities all of whom are from the field of public health, with various areas of expertise, one of whom specialises in mental wellbeing. It is a good example therefore of the importance of multi-disciplinarity within education.

The study itself is an investigation into the effect of young people’s socio-economic background on their mental wellbeing as a result of the transition from primary to secondary school in Wales. They argue that the characteristics of the schools across the transition influences young people’s sense of self, and self-worth and the study looked specifically at moves between schools with various levels of affluence. This is an area which has not received a great deal of attention.

The study was part of the Welsh School Health Research Network (SHRN):

The School Health Research Network (SHRN) brings together secondary schools and academic researchers, policy-makers and practitioners from health, education and social care to improve young people’s health and wellbeing in the school setting. It is a partnership between Welsh Government, Public Health Wales (PHW), Cancer Research UK and the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods. It is led by the Centre for the Development and Evaluation of Complex Interventions for Public Health Improvement (DECIPHer) at Cardiff University. It aims to improve young people’s health and wellbeing by:

* Providing robust health and wellbeing data for school, regional and national stakeholders;

* Working with policy-makers and practitioners from health, education and social care to co-produce high quality, school-based health and wellbeing research for Wales;

* Helping schools, and those who support schools, to understand health research evidence and how it can be used in schools.

The Network, based in Cardiff, organised the recent 2017 Student Health and Wellbeing Survey which is supported and part funded by the Welsh Office. a report on the survey has been published and is publicly available.

The data for the study was based upon 45,000 responses from pupils in year 7 and 8 from all 212 state-maintained secondary school in Wales. It uses a now well-validated measure of young people’s mental wellbeing, and links this to objective sources of information on school characteristics. The method of analysis was a cross-classified linear mixed-effects model which they used to explore three research questions:

  • RQ1: What is the contribution of primary and secondary school contexts in explaining variance in young people’s mental wellbeing in early secondary school years?
  • RQ2: Is mental wellbeing following transition to secondary school associated with the relative socioeconomic composition of the young person’s primary and secondary school?
  • RQ3: Is the socioeconomic composition of the primary and secondary school attended by the young person independently associated with mental wellbeing?

The theoretical background to the study is built upon the following.

  • There is international evidence that adolescent health inequalities have recently widened in line with growing international economic inequality.
  • While some school-based actions reduce inequality, others increase it.
  • A substantial body of the literature demonstrates socioeconomic inequalities in educational attainment, with children from poorer backgrounds, and attending schools with more deprived socioeconomic compositions, achieving less positive educational outcomes overall.
  • Some research locates human functioning within social structure, by stark contrast to the dominant tendency for use of more individualistic psychological models in school health.
  • When students are alienated from the instructional order, the regulatory order, or both, they may become disconnected from the learning environment and the values of the school, diminishing opportunities to develop practical reasoning and affiliations.
  • Studies of the lived experience of poverty and its impacts on young people’s experiences of schooling SES, wellbeing and transition to secondary school concluded that their ‘narratives of school life were often infused with anxiety, uncertainty and a sense of unfairness’, leading to insecure social integration and work to ‘hide’ poverty from peers and school staff with schools therefore becoming a stressful environment for pupils from poorer backgrounds.
  • Studies on the impact of school transition on attainment have found the greatest drop in attainment through the transition amongst more socioeconomically deprived groups, but fewer studies have focused on how socioeconomic status impacts mental wellbeing on transition to secondary school.
  • Previous literature has emphasised the importance of young people’s engagement with the instructional and regulatory order of their school, with greater commitment to the school community associated with better wellbeing outcomes.
  • Previous analyses have shown that the FSM entitlement of a secondary school predicts the largest portion of variance in pupil attainment between schools

The perspective of their study is to look at the effect on pupil wellbeing on young people from deprived backgrounds (or “relative poverty”) moving to a secondary school that is relatively affluent.

  • A recent systematic review emphasises a convergence of findings around the importance of positive parent–school–child relationships in ensuring a successful transition to secondary school.
  • There is substantial evidence that these relationships vary by socioeconomic status; achieving high levels of parental engagement with schooling for example is commonly more challenging for schools in areas of deprivation.
  • For parents from poorer backgrounds whose children transition into a more affluent secondary school, relative social status within the more affluent networks of parents surrounding this new school may also impact on their own engagement with the norms of the school, exacerbating disconnections between school and family and contributing to inter-generational reproduction of inequalities.
  • School transition may provide an important intervention point during which socioeconomic inequalities in wellbeing might be reduced, or indeed amplified. There is therefore substantial need to understand the independent and combined roles of primary and secondary schools in reducing (or amplifying) socioeconomic inequalities in wellbeing during this period.


Clearly, schools are only one of many important influences on young people’s wellbeing and cannot fully compensate for structural inequalities and the unequal distribution of health outcomes. However, they have a role to play, and efforts to improve mental wellbeing through action within the education system need to understand the individual and combined influences of primary and secondary school contexts on pupils’ wellbeing.

  • Attending a poorer primary or secondary school predicted lowered mental wellbeing.
  • Family-level affluence remained a significant predictor of mental wellbeing throughout all models, consistent with a hypothesis of independent school and family socioeconomic effects on mental wellbeing.
  • The affluence of a pupil’s secondary school, relative to their primary school, was significantly inversely associated with mental wellbeing.
  • these finding position the transition to secondary school as a key point in the child’s school career, during which socioeconomic inequality in mental wellbeing is likely to widen.

The way in which this comes about for poor pupils moving school is understood to be through the change in school population resulting in a lowered social status within the school’s socioeconomic hierarchy. This is reinforced by school procedures and structures, e.g. punishment routines (as part of the regulatory order), attainment grouping (as part of the instructional order) and other elements of school culture, which are often seen by schools as essential, constructive and benign.

What schools may be unaware of is the impact their procedures are having upon the mental wellbeing of certain groups of young people.

The Authors close with the following suggestions for the future.

Consistent with the theory of human functioning and school organisation, the dynamics of school systems can positively or negatively influence wellbeing through their impact on pupils’ engagement with the instructional and regulatory order of the school. Previous research has highlighted the importance of comprehensive transition interventions that are multi-faceted and long term, including involvement of parents and the creation of a sense of community and belonging to address the disjuncture between familial and impersonal environments. It is, however, plausible that parents whose children move into a more affluent school may also be less well connected to the school, due to their position within the socioeconomic hierarchies surrounding the school.

However, back in 1970, Basil Bernstein said “education cannot compensate for society“, and we cannot with any justification expect schools to put right the evils caused by a divided society. Yet, schools do have a role to play, in first understanding, and secondly making positive changes where they can. For we all know there are possibilities for action when working with vulnerable and impressionable young people.

While schools have an important role to play in supporting young people’s wellbeing, poverty remains a structural issue requiring structural solutions, with schools one of many interconnected systems which impact young people’s wellbeing. Indeed, where schools do have a role in supporting wellbeing, making positive changes requires external support, including from higher policy levels within the education system. While in England, plans for education look likely to move towards harsher disciplinary structures which alienate many young people from school.

This alone surely behoves us as a profession to move away from those “harsher disciplinary structures which alienate many young people from school“. but this requires us to remove those isolation booths, silent corridors, officious dress codes and discriminatory grouping practices, and organise our schools along the lines of entrancing pupil wellbeing. That won’t be easy for some.

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