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Education and psychological distress in adolescence and mid-life


Education and psychological distress in adolescence and mid-life: Do private schools make a difference?


Sullivan A, Parsons S, Ploubidis G, Wiggins RD, Green F (online, August 2020). British Educational Research Journal .

What’s it about?

It is known that Britain’s expensive private schools in the late 20th century were beneficial on average for academic educational outcomes and subsequent higher earnings, and that they still are in the modern day.

This new study is one of only a few which look instead at how the type of schooling – private or state – is associated with pupils’ well-being, both while at school and in later life. It focuses on a cohort of people who were at secondary school in the 1980s.


The study analysed data from a representative cohort of over 17,000 children born in Britain during a single week in 1970.

Researchers have followed them regularly with surveys as they grew up and through their adult life.

Psychological distress was measured with an inventory of questions which the cohort members self-reported at age 16 and much later in 2012 when they were 42.

The research took a life course approach, which takes into account how experiences at each stage of life influence what happens at later ages through various channels. There is detailed information in the survey about these experiences.

What are the findings?

After allowing for childhood influences (including mother’s mental health), and for the effects of private schooling on going to university, the research found that:

  • For girls, private schooling was associated with greater ‘malaise’ – in effect, a higher chance of being mentally depressed – at age 16
  • For boys, private schooling made no difference to mental health at age 16.
  • For both men and women, their mental health at 42 was positively affected by their mental health at 16, and by going to university; but private schooling made no difference

In conclusion private schools, which in the 1980s were already successfully delivering improved academic education, did not on average improve children’s wellbeing at the time, compared to a state education, and girls were worse off.

What are the limitations of this research?

Schools, even in 1986, were varied in their affluence and in their ethos: the study could only measure the average effects, not the effects of each and every private school.

Perhaps being at boarding school was a factor.

Since the 1980s, mental health problems among adolescents have become more common, and women’s economic position in society has changed.

Today’s private schools, especially those with very high fees, are devoting increased resources to children’s well-being. More research is needed on modern-day schools.

Explained by: Francis Green, Professor of Work and Education Economics at UCL Institute of Education.


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