Girls suffering higher anxiety levels in small schools - ESRI
Small schools where students are placed in mixed-year classrooms can have a detrimental effect on the emotional and mental wellbeing of girls, a major new study has shown.
The report, which charted some 7,500 children's school experiences between the ages of nine and 13, shows smaller schools may be causing young girls to suffer from anxiety and become negative about their appearance.
The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) Growing Up in Ireland study says that girls in multi-grade classes report poorer behaviour and are less confident as learners than those in single-grade settings with one teacher per class.
They also see themselves as less popular and tend to make negative self-evaluations.
This may be because they tend to compare themselves with older girls who share the same classrooms.
Children struggle more with self-image if they attend a school with fewer than 100 pupils, a problem that the report's author, Dr Emer Smyth, described as being an "issue which will pose a challenge for teachers".
The report indirectly raises questions about the long-term viability of small rural schools, which are already under the spotlight as part of the Government's money-saving exercises.
At present, there are 1,305 primary schools with fewer than 100 students, and 827 primary schools with 100-200 students.
In February, the Irish Independent revealed a Government plan to close a number of small rural schools this September.
In stark contrast, larger schools in urban areas found children's self-image tends to be more positive. Other issues examined included:
• Schools and classrooms can make a difference to a child's view of themselves.
• Discipline problems are a driver and symptom of poor self-image.
• Young people see themselves as more popular at age 13 than at nine.
• Involvement in sport enhances all aspects of children's self-image, in both boys and girls.
Dr Smyth added that students who had a good relationship with their teacher were less negative in their outlook than those who never liked their teacher.
"Again teachers in smaller schools with multi-grade classrooms tend to be more critical.
"Another issue highlighted by children was continued inconsistent, unfair treatment and discipline methods, which can affect a child going forward," said Dr Smyth.
She said teachers must handle children with different views, and this needed to be taken on-board during teacher education, adding: "A positive experience in primary school offers a better transition for children into second level."
The study finds poorer self- image among young people who have experienced difficulties settling into second-level education. Second- year students report poorer self-image than those in first year.
Meanwhile, seeing friends was associated with greater happiness for girls, while popularity gave boys a boost in their body image. The report suggests that having a large group of male friends can enhance masculinity.
Sarah Fitzpatrick, deputy CEO of the National Council for Curriculum Assessment, said the study went beyond academic achievement to a more profound understanding of the role of education.
She said it shows the responsibilities that teachers have "in nurturing children's wellbeing".
She added that it puts greater emphasis on life-skills and on children's social and emotional development.