Remarks given in London, United Kingdom on 19 April 2017
Ladies and Gentlemen
I am delighted to come to London to launch the third volume of global results from the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
PISA illustrates the extent to which education systems are providing quality education, and how capable 15-year-old students are at applying what they learn in school to solve real life problems.
At the OECD, we have been working hard to ensure that we go beyond growth and put people’s well-being at the centre. This is why we launched initiatives on New Approaches to Economic Challenges (NAEC), on “inclusive growth”. This is why we launched the Better Life Index, which measures subjective well-being across the world according to 11 essential dimensions.
And we are doing the same with PISA. We have to go beyond testing and performance and look at well-being. being.
This volume of results from PISA 2015 focuses on how education systems can promote not only cognitive capabilities, but also the psychological, social and physical capabilities that students need to live a happy life today, and be equipped with 21st century skills.
Happy students, but challenges remain
The good news is that PISA data shows the majority of 15-year-old students are happy: on average they rate their satisfaction with life at 7.3 on a scale from 0 to 10.
But about 12% of students are not satisfied with their lives. In some countries, it’s over 20%. This is not about grades. There is little difference in reported life satisfaction between top-achieving and low-achieving students.
But gender and disadvantage do make a difference. Girls and disadvantaged students are less likely than boys and advantaged students to report high levels of life satisfaction.
On average across OECD countries, around 29% of girls but 39% of boys reported that they are very satisfied with their life. This is a 10 percentage point difference ! Disadvantaged students report themselves around 0.4 points lower than advantaged students on the 10-point life satisfaction scale.
Self-evaluation in comparison to more advantaged students, and obstacles to achieving material, education, health and leisure goals are likely behind this difference.
But the lower life satisfaction reported by 15-year-old girls in PISA is possibly a reflection of girls’ harsh self-criticism, particularly related to their image of their own bodies at a time when they are undergoing major physical changes. PISA 2015 does not collect data on students’ body image, but the results on eating habits reveal that girls were much more likely than boys to skip breakfast and more likely to skip dinner. In the UK the percentage point difference between girls and boys skipping breakfast was particularly high at 14 percentage points, almost double the OECD average (8 percentage points).
Research suggests that exposure to images of overly thin girls and women in traditional media and social media has a negative impact on girls’ satisfaction with themselves. I was shocked to hear from UK Minister of Health, Jeremy Hunt, when he visited the OECD in January for the Health Ministerial, that the number of girls treated as inpatients in the National Health Service after cutting themselves has almost quadrupled in the last 10 years. This is a shocking wake-up call.
The causes of this are complex and multi-faceted, but the role of the media in promoting gender stereotypes seems to be undermining girls’ well-being and the OECD is starting to look at this issue intensively.
Motivation without anxiety is key for well-being
However, anxiety about schoolwork is one of the sources of stress most often cited by all school-age children and adolescents. In fact, it is strongly correlated to life satisfaction.
On average across OECD countries, students who reported the highest levels of anxiety also reported a level of life satisfaction that is 1.2 points lower than students who reported the lowest levels of text anxiety. In the UK it was even more pronounced, at 2 points lower.
Schoolwork-related anxiety is complex and variable, but common sources of anxiety are a highly competitive learning environment, and long study hours. For example, in Belgium and Israel, students in schools with long study time are at least 11 percentage points more likely to report that they feel anxious for a test even if well prepared than students in school with short study time.
The key is to reduce anxiety, while promoting motivation. Across all countries and economies that participated in PISA 2015, students with greater overall motivation to achieve reported higher satisfaction with life.
So who is getting it right?
This slide highlights three key countries that I would like to focus on. The Netherlands, Finland and Switzerland.
Not only do students in these countries have relatively high levels of life satisfaction, but they also perform above average in science on PISA.
Here we see that students in these countries are less likely than their peers to report feeling anxious for tests. Across OECD countries, 56% of students reported they feel anxious for a test even if they are well prepared; but this was 49% in Finland, 39% in the Netherlands, and only 34% in Switzerland.
On average 37% of students reported they feel very tense when they study, but only 21% of students in Switzerland, 18% of students in Finland and a mere 14% of students in the Netherlands did.
The key therefore is to foster motivation, without excessive external pressure to be the best or fear failure, because this causes anxiety.
In this slide, we see that students in the Netherlands, Finland and Switzerland feel much less the pressure to be the best in their class. Given they still achieve high scores in PISA, their motivation to perform seems more positive, more intrinsic, more confident.
To increase well-being and raise performance, teachers and parents need to find ways to encourage students’ motivation to learn and achieve without generating an excessive fear of failure. Indeed teachers have a vital role to play.
Teachers are key for student well-being
PISA tells us that schools where students are happy (they report a higher life satisfaction than the country average) are also schools in which students report higher levels of learning support from their teachers. After accounting for students’ performance, gender and socio-economic status, students who reported that their science teachers adapt the lesson to the class’s needs and knowledge were less likely to report feeling anxious even if they are well prepared for a test, or to report that they get very tense when they study.
This is important. Teenagers are looking for strong social ties, acceptance, care and support from others. When students feel supported by their teachers and that they are part of a caring school community, they are more likely to perform better academically and be more motivated in school.
On the other hand, negative student-teacher relationships are strongly linked to a low sense of belonging and psychological distress. On average across the OECD, students who reported that their teacher grades them harder than other students are 44% more likely to get very tense when studying. And students who feel their teacher does not think they are as smart as they really are, are 60% more likely to get very tense when studying.
Another worrying association is that in most countries, schools where students felt offended or treated unfairly by their teachers are also schools with a higher frequency of bullying.
This suggests that teachers are important role models of fair behaviour and respect, and should be trained in basic methods of observation, listening and intercultural communication to help them better support students.
Unfortunately, PISA 2015 data show that an alarmingly large proportion of students reported being victims of bullying at school.
On average across OECD countries, around 11% of students reported that they are frequently made fun of, 7% reported that they are frequently left out of things, and 8% reported that they are frequently the object of nasty rumours in school. Around 4% of students – roughly one per class – reported that they are hit or pushed at least a few times per month. Here in the UK, bullying in all its forms is above the OECD average.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to prevent bullying, effective anti-bullying programmes involve a whole-of-school approach, with co-ordinated engagement among teachers, students and parents.
For example, in the Castile Leon in Spain, only 1.7% of students reported feeling threated by other students, compared to the OECD average of 3.7%. The region’s anti-bullying plan incorporates measures like supporting victims, re-educating offenders, updating bullying protocol and co-ordinating actions to help fight against bullying.
Other countries can learn from these best practices to ensure schools remain safe and supportive environments for learning and socialising.
Well-being outside school and the role of parents
But well-being is a dynamic and fragile balance to be achieved. If it’s undermined in one part of our lives, this harm can spill over into other parts. So what happens outside school, affects how children feel inside of school, and vice versa.
Parents, family and carers have a critical role to play.
Students whose parents reported “spending time just talking to my child”, “eating the main meal with my child around a table” or “discussing how well my child is doing at school” as little as once a week were between 22% and 39% more likely to report high levels of life satisfaction than students whose parents reported engaging in these activities less frequently.
And other activities outside school are also related to science performance and well-being.
On average across OECD countries, students who reported taking part in some moderate or vigorous physical activity are 2.9 percentage points less likely to feel very anxious about tests, 6.7 percentage points less likely to feel like an outsider at school. Yet on average across OECD countries, about 5.7% of boys and 7.5% of girls reported that they do not participate in any form of physical activity outside of school, with disadvantaged students being most affected.
And while many don’t do any exercise, students are spending a lot of time watching television, playing video games and increasingly, going online.
Between 2012 and 2015, the time spent on line outside of school increased by 40 minutes per day on both weekdays and weekends. Across OECD countries, 90% of students enjoy using digital devices, but PISA 2015 results show that, in most participating countries and economies, extreme Internet use – more than six hours per day – has a negative relationship with students’ life satisfaction and performance.
After accounting for students’ socio-economic status, “extreme Internet users” score around 30 points lower in all subjects PISA assesses than students who use the Internet less.
What are the implications for policy?
The good news is that there are policies and practices that are effective in fostering the healthy psychological, social, cognitive and physical development of students.
Countries can design interventions to promote psychological health, motivation and confidence at school. For example, in Korea, the Free Semester Initiative, offers a students a semester free of exams and formal assessment, in which they split their time between academic subjects, extracurricular activities and careers training.
It’s also important to train teachers to recognise and anxiety. For example, here in the UK, the Preservice Health Education Programme includes applied health and well-being elements within teacher training.
Another key policy implication of these results is identifying and sharing good practices to raise intrinsic motivation to achieve. Finland’s “Schools on the Move” national action strategy takes students into their local environment, getting them moving, setting goals, designing activites and evaluating results.
The report also recommends fostering a caring school environment, characterised by positive peer and teacher-student relationships. For example, the “Chimale emozioni” (Call them emotions) programme in Switzerland, focuses teacher skills on fostering socio-emotional learning.
Finally, it’s also important to design education policies that promote positive synergies between the school and home environments. Programmes like the Australian Student Wellbeing Hub involves the whole school community, including parents, providing information, resources and training on issues as diverse as cyberbullying, gender identity, and healthy habits.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The great English novelist Graham Greene once said that “there is always a moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in”. PISA is a powerful tool to seize that opportunity.
These results will be key to designing polices that can foster student well-being in the future, and better prepare our young people to thrive in the jobs and societies of tomorrow.
I look forward to hearing your views.