Good marks, bad vibes

George Monbiot tells us that pushy parents are ruining their kids’ lives. Although, of course (and as George recognises), we don’t know whether pushy parents are ruining their kids’ lives. There aren’t many trials conducted of parenting techniques, and even if there were it would be impossible to make them properly randomised and controlled. It’s just not realistic that we could impose different parenting styles on two equivalent groups.

So we are left with a series of hints and suggestive facts. George mentions a few from a UK perspective: more children are in mental health care, more are admitted to hospital for self-harm and more have counselling for exam stress. Alongside this is a general feeling that we are putting more pressure on kids to succeed in school. This really isn’t much evidence. There’s no reason why we would link the first two (admittedly worrying) trends to pushy parents. And it seems just as plausible that the third is driven by increasing use of counselling as increasing levels of exam stress.

But perhaps we can do better. If parents are putting pressure on kids to do well at school, what effects would we expect to see? Well first, we would presumably see kids doing better at school. I’m not willing to believe that making kids study harder doesn’t generally improve their grades. The question then is whether this is accompanied by any negative outcomes, such as stress, unhappiness or mental health problems.

As it happens, we have some internationally comparable data on these things. The OECD’s PISA tests assess how well children in countries across the world’s perform in exams; and George’s article points us towards a recent international survey of children’s wellbeing, which asks kids from a number of countries how they feel about their home and school life. To minimise confounding factors, I’ve chosen a question closely linked to exam performance (satisfaction with grades) and compared this to the country’s performance on the PISA tests.*

Children from countries that do better on PISA tests are less satisfied with the school marks

The results are quite striking. I had really expected to find no correlation (that’s what usually happens when I have an idea like this) but in fact there is a strong negative correlation. Children from countries that do better on PISA tests are less satisfied with their grades.

Of course this doesn’t prove anything about causality. I’m not sure it’s plausible that higher marks cause lower satisfaction, but it seems possible that never being satisfied might drive kids on to do better. It’s also possible that something else (pushy parents, say) is making kids perform well in exams, but at the same time making them feel bad about it. Or of course, further investigation might reveal this result to be a fluke.

At the very least, though, this should make people question the hand-wringing that accompanies the release of the OECD’s PISA ranking, in which the UK is invariably at best stagnant, at worst declining”. Emulating countries like South Korea, which sit near the top of the rankings, might amount to making our kids do better at exams but feel rotten about it. It’s not obvious to me that this is the route to a happy and successful life.


* The data don’t refer to quite the same year, or to children of quite the same age, but I think that it is still a relevant comparison.


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