Mental Toughness to Join League Tables?

In the week when DfE performance data are published, a group of independent schools have a different set of data by which to be judged. Last summer, pupils from 58 schools took part in tests to judge their so called ‘soft skills’: their confidence, commitment, control and challenge. The study into ‘mental toughness’ was designed to investigate the hypothesis that pupils in independent schools are particularly likely to develop such soft skills and that these qualities support both their educational achievement at school and their subsequent career success. (In 2016, a report by the CEM Durham group concluded that independent school pupils achieve higher academic success than state school pupils,even after prior ability and socio-economic factors have been taken in to account. When compared with graduates of equal academic ability, those who initially attended independent schools have been shown to out-earn their state school counterparts.)

‘Mental toughness’ is a term which embraces qualities such as resilience and grit, themselves often described as being significant in helping young people cope successfully at school. It can be affected by both genetic and environmental factors and is a personality trait which is capable of change. Mental toughness has a close correlation, not only with educational outcomes, but also with well-being, positive behaviour, student motivation, and ability to deal with change. The development of such mental toughness is therefore an important life skill, both for the young person and for society in general.

The independent pupils tested showed a particularly high level of ‘commitment’, which is their sense of goal orientation and of doing what it takes to achieve such goals. Similarly, their score for ‘challenge’ was high, meaning they were particularly open to new things, including new learning. At Bolton School, we aim to provide a well-rounded and comprehensive education for all our pupils so that we develop their confidence, creativity and mental courage alongside their academic achievements. We took part in this survey because we wanted to demonstrate how our positive and aspirational school ethos has such a profound impact on the girls. In order to gain definitive proof, we shall need to test girls at the start and end of their school careers and that is a study which the ISC (Independent Schools’ Council) hopes to support.

This week, parents will be able to see how well last summer’s Year 11 pupils in their children’s school achieved in at least eight key GCSEs, including Maths and English. They will also have information about the progress which pupils have made in these subjects since Key Stage 2 in relation to pupils nationally having the same prior attainment at KS2. With the Prime Minister’s recent comments about the importance of schools supporting children’s Mental Health, can it be long before ‘mental toughness’ sits alongside ‘attainment 8’ and ‘progress 8’ as key indicators of how well a school is performing?


Sue Hincks

Sue chairs the GSA Education committee and is Head of Bolton School Girls’ Division.

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