The Surprising Truth About Teenagers And Mental Health Conditions with John Jerrim

The Surprising Truth About Teenagers And Mental Health Conditions with John Jerrim

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Many teachers and parents associate the rise in mental health needs we see in teenagers with the move to secondary educationâ€Ã where they are faced with increased exam pressure, given greater independence and responsibility, and have to cope with the expectations of many teachers across a range of subjects.

But is there any evidence to support this idea? Or is it a myth? In this week†s interview with John Jerrim, we explore his surprising research into secondary education and the mental wellbeing of teenagers.

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Show notes / transcription

John Jerrim  0:00  

One of the key things that we found was if you compare young people of a similar biological age, but happened to be in different school year groups, they seem to have very similar mental health outcomes. So for instance, if you compare a summer born children in year 10, to an autumn born child in year 11, their mental health outcomes that measured in terms of their propensity to kind of seek mental health treatment seems to be pretty similar. And that holds true for almost all the adjacent year groups between year six and year seven, and year 10 and year 11.

Simon Currigan  0:35  

Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to another episode of school behaviour secrets. We're broadcasting exclusively from our home in behaviour towers, where we produce most of our heat sustainably by burning the sacks of complaint letters we receive each week in never ending dumpster fires. I'm joined today as ever by my co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma. 

Emma Shackleton  1:36  

Hi, Simon. 

Simon Currigan  1:37  

Emma, I've got a question for you. Can you tell me something you believed when you were younger, that turned out not to be true?

Emma Shackleton  1:44  

Yeah, well, this is kind of embarrassing now. But when I was at school, somebody told me that if you swallowed chewing gum, it would get wrapped around your heart and you would die. This is going to be forever. And I really, really believed that this was true. And I was absolutely petrified of chewing gum just in case. Anyway, one day I did pick up the nerve to chew gum, and I accidentally swallowed it. And guess what happened? Nothing. And it turns out that that wasn't true. after all. Go on then what's the tenuous connection to this week's interview?

Simon Currigan  2:20  

Well, this week, I'm interviewing John Jerrim, who's a professor at University College London, and he decided to see if there was any evidence to support the idea that many children experienced mental health difficulties because of the transition from primary to secondary school, which is something many teachers believe certainly in primary. He wanted to know were the increases we see a mental health challenges because of the different approaches of primary compared to secondary schools, or was there something else going on?

Emma Shackleton  2:49  

Oh and what did he find? 

Simon Currigan  2:51  

Well I think his conclusion will surprise you. But you'll have to wait to hear the interview to find out more.

Emma Shackleton  2:57  

Before we get to that interview. If you've got a colleague that would be interested in this information, or the kinds of ideas and strategies we cover in general on school behaviour secrets, then be a good friend and let them know, simply open your podcast app, tap the Share button, and you can send them a direct link to the show. It takes about 10 seconds. And now here's Simon's interview with John Jerrim.

Simon Currigan  3:24  

I'd like to introduce John Jerrim to the show. John is professor at UCL Institute of Education, he has worked extensively with the OECD  Programme for International Student Assessment data better known as  the PISA charts, and his research has been reported widely in the British media. John's research interests include the economics of education, access to higher education, intergenerational mobility, cross national comparisons and educational inequalities. And I've invited John onto the show today to discuss some fascinating research he has been involved with about the mental health well being of students as they move into secondary school. But more on that in a moment. John, welcome to the show.

John Jerrim  4:08  

Thank you very much for having me. 

Simon Currigan  4:09  

Now I started my career as a primary school teacher. And I think it's fair to say that there is an accepted wisdom among primary school teachers, that many kids who move from year six and into year seven and beyond they struggle in secondary school because of the change in teaching approach. So moving from a small school having one teacher who takes care of them most of the time in a single room to a situation whether moving from teacher to teacher from classroom to classroom, even building to building and that change in teaching approach and that changing environment are obviously the cause of some of the challenges they experienced in terms of their well being. Right? And yet, you found there was surprisingly little research on this. So before we get to the conclusions of your research, I'd like to start by asking, is there a measurable impact on pupil's mental health as they reach secondary school? and beyond?

John Jerrim  5:00  

Yeah, that's an interesting point, an interesting question. There's certainly been some research evidence from the United States going along the lines that you've suggested where the school transition and the school transitions have an impact on young people's well being self confidence, how they're kind of feeling academically, which then feeds through into their grades and attainment. I think there's less quantitative research puts kind of a figure on how bigger impact that is with the English secondary system. And I think that's going to be a really valuable place for future research actually to be done. I don't think we have a good answer to that question. In terms of how big is that impact? I think from the anecdotal evidence that we are reasonably sure there is some impact, at least on some students, I think we need to know more about the size of the impact. And on top of that differences between different subgroups as well.

Simon Currigan  5:55  

And this is important, isn't it? Because a lot of primary schools and secondary schools spend a lot of time and money invested in having a smooth transition for their kids. And we have to ask how much of that money is being effective? How much of that investment in time is effective? And how much isn't?

John Jerrim  6:12  

Yeah, I think that's right. And one of the I think the big issues in the well being research within education is there are some fixed ideas and fixed views about things that do and don't impact upon well being. Whereas the evidence comparing those different things and their different impacts is a lot weaker than I think people tend to suggest. So the transition is one. The other big one for me schools is the impact of testing and Key Stage Two testing, right, where there is a lot of noise by certain groups about the link between key stage two tests, and the impacts on people's well being but the evidence there is a lot weaker of they're being impacted than a lot of people think.

Simon Currigan  6:55  

And this is established in inverted commas, truths that we have about kids. I mean, I remember when I was younger, certainly there was this belief that you could somehow help kids with dyslexia by putting yellow pieces of acetate over pieces of paper that turned out not to be true. So it's important that we question these kinds of established wisdoms from the profession. Can you tell us a little bit about which factors we do know, affect the mental health and well being of adolescents?

John Jerrim  7:21  

Yeah, so a lot of correlational evidence, right. So it's really difficult in this field of research to tease out cause and effect. But that's one thing to flag straight from the off. But various things like peer pressure's social media has been our very hot topic recently, where there's some evidence and growing evidence. And actually, one of the really interesting things to come out from the international study of teachers two years ago was England stood out from many other countries in the percentage of head teachers that said, online bullying and social media issues are a problem in this country compared to elsewhere, like have already mentioned, there's a lot of views that testing does link to the well being of young people. Now, of course, that may well differ between primary and secondary at different points. And yet, you've got the kind of social here group pressures and just, you know, adolescence, the fact that children are growing up, children are changing, there's big biological changes, newsflash to everyone, that happened as children kind of move particularly through secondary school, right. And that's one of the really difficult things right to try and tease apart. The environmental changes that happen such as moving to a different school moving to a new class starting to take GCSE, and versus the fact that kids are just growing up and going through adolescence at the same time. So to tease apart the environmental impact of changing environment within the school, changing peer influences, and those biological differences is not an easy thing to do.

Simon Currigan  8:53  

Can you tell us about what research has been done on the effect of moving from primary to secondary education in the past on what that research discovered, or that point at which children sort of move into adolescence and how it affects their mental well being 

John Jerrim  8:56  

What I might do actually is pick up there the thing that I probably know the most about, and that's within the area that I live, actually, in Kent, where we have the grammar school system, right. So here, you've got a very particular transition to primary and secondary school, where young people take the 11 Plus test, and they're segregated, you know, into grammar schools or not into grammar schools based upon the results. We actually did the research behind that a few years back, because there's a big view that this not only has big academic consequences, but also potentially long lasting impacts upon young people's well being. Actually, then we found another kind of challenge, I suppose the conventional wisdom that at least by age 14, so a fair point after they've been within their secondary school. Actually, you don't see any difference between selective and nonselective education systems, but also within a selective education systems. You don't didn't see much change in the well being between those that do get into grad school and those that don't. So I think that again, that's all around the transition, right, to some extent, because that group makes a very particular transition in a very particular way. And I think is really interesting to see those large potential differences in those transitions into different types of schools don't make too much of a difference to young people's kind of well being.

Simon Currigan  10:22  

So when you're talking about looking at Children's well being, how are you assessing or measuring or looking at that or making judgement?

John Jerrim  10:30  

That varies across different pieces of work, and different pieces of research. And you end up thinking about this as kind of a big jigsaw puzzle, not one piece of research or evidence or measure is going to give you everything, different thing can tell you different aspects, and you kind of got to look holistically and join up the dots. So we've in some aspects of my research, I've done what I suppose most people have done in this era, and used drawn upon questionnaire data. So young people are asked about their feelings about what's going on in their life, if they're kind of upset about their schoolwork, things like that. In other pieces of evidence, we've drawn upon similar questions, but it's asked to their parents about how young people are and behaving. But then in some of the most recent research, I've also drawn upon GP records, where you're looking at the much more severe end of the mental health spectrum, but to look at who's gone to the GP about potential mental health issues, or received a referral, or taking prescription medication, horses for courses, those measures have kind of pros and cons. You know, the good thing about the GP records is that it's objective data, you might think, well, that's the gold standard to begin with. But there's problems with it as well, right? So who actually goes to seek treatment might well differ between different groups, different socio economic groups, things like that come into it. Whereas the questionnaire measures, it's all very much How seriously do people take it when they're filling in those questionnaires? Do people put in their maximum? Are they revealing the truth? So again, yeah, you have to look across these different sources to come to a holistic view, in my in my opinion.

Simon Currigan  12:05  

And when you look at those surveys and questionnaires, you're getting a snapshot of what someone says it had moment in time, and when I read your research, he said there was surprisingly little attempt to track the mental health of cohorts longitudinally, can you explain to our listeners what that means and how that's different from taking a snapshot?

John Jerrim  12:21  

I'll take a step back and think, Well, if I could do any research study that was possible into this issue, what you would want is a really good measure of mental health, well, being, stress or whatever, collected really, really regularly from the same kids at loads of different points in time. Why do you want that? Well, then you could see something happens in that young person's life. And you can see how that will end up changing their stress, their well being levels, their levels of anxiety with outlaw chooser or data, you can't do that tracking the same child over time, right? So you've only got at one point in time is really difficult to end up working out what's impacted, what's affected, what's driven, that kind of level of well being amongst that kid? Is that just how the kid always feels? Or has something happened? That's kind of triggered it off. And that's one of the problems with just having a snapshot. The other thing is to answer questions such as How does the well being of that young person change as they move through the schooling system? How's it impacted by things like the keystage two test? Or GCSE's? How things like that the pandemic? That's another great one, how has that impact impacted by the pandemic? Yeah, it's very difficult as you've had measures pre pandemic to work out what impact the anti because had on that kid?

Simon Currigan  13:37  

So can you tell us about your research? How did you conduct it? And what kind of impact did you find on children changing from primary sector to the secondary sector and beyond in terms of their mental health and their well being?

John Jerrim  13:49  

Yeah, so one of the really unique things I think about the work that I've recently done is that we've drawn on data from GP and hospital records to track a cohorts, roughly around 10% of the population from when they've reached it at that GP through to the end, or almost the end of secondary school. And what that data collects is basically every interaction that those children have had with primary and secondary healthcare services. So if they've been to the GP that's recorded, and then the outcome of that GP consultations recorded such as whether there's kind of suspected anxiety or prescription of medication for anxiety and things like that. So we're able to then track those young people, you know, over a long period of time to look at, well, how regularly are they accessing such services.

Simon Currigan  14:41  

And how many children were you looking at in that research?

John Jerrim  14:44  

Good question. I have to remember off the top of my head and it was different ways of cutting the data was different parts, but it differed between different parts of the analysis, but it was around about 20 to 30,000. I believe we had in the final piece. 

Simon Currigan  14:57  

So this is a significant number of children. 

John Jerrim  14:59  

Yeah. It wasn't small data. And that's one of the advantages of using things like GP records, right that you end up having a large sample size to be able to look into such issues.

Simon Currigan  15:13  

And what were your results? What did you find?

John Jerrim  15:16  

One of the key things that we found was actually, if you compare young people of a similar biological age, but happened to be in different school year groups, then actually, they seem to have very similar mental health outcomes. So for instance, if you compare  summer born children in year 10, to an autumn born child in year 11, actually, their mental health outcomes that measured in terms of their propensity to kind of seek mental health treatment seems to be pretty similar. And that holds true for almost all the adjacent year groups between year six and year seven, and year 10 and year 11. So what we ended up concluding from that was, well, actually, those differences between school year groups don't seem to be driving the large increase in mental health issues that we know to occur during secondary school, we think it's probably more driven by biological change, rather than changes in those young people experiences through education.

Simon Currigan  16:18  

So it's not the changing of setting or environment or school, what's happening is the child is growing, and the biological changes are actually accounting for more of that difference in well being over time.

John Jerrim  16:29  

That's very much consistent. We believe we've our conclusion. So like I said, it's really hard to definitely tease out the two. But that's how I would interpret our findings. I think the fact that we find children in different school year groups, adjacent school year groups have very similar mental health outcomes in terms of going to see GP's or whatever, it would suggest, it's probably not being driven by the school or the education system.

Simon Currigan  16:57  

So what do you think the implications of this research is for school leaders and head teachers and adults and services who support pupils with mental health challenges in school?

John Jerrim  17:07  

I think what it means for those particular audiences is to understand it's probably not the school system that's driving these issues at the moment. I mean, one way of looking at it is well, actually, the support that young people get, as they make this transitions between the different year groups is probably working pretty well, because we don't see much difference moving between year nine year 10, year 10, and year 11. So I think it's partly to understand that those particularly changes, those transition points don't seem to be driving the increasing mental health issue. I guess one of the other things I would suggest people question is the usual stresses that people point out, are they really driving what we see? A good example might well be the GCSE exams, right? It's very easy to always point at the GCSE exams and say, well, that's driving the stress, because they happen at that age, but we see year 9, year 10, year 10, year 11, kind of having various kind of similar levels, despite the different pressures from those exams, that would happen are those different points, and you could well be, you know, if those exams weren't there, they'll just be something else to stress about. There'll be something else in its place. And I suppose that's consistent with the work that I've looked at earlier, in young people's lives around the key stage two tests as well, where we find there's no particular link with the key stage two tests and young people's well being happiness, happiness at school, or whatever. And it could well be because well, you say one thing out, something else will kind of just jump in, in its place. So I think it does question the conventional wisdom of Well, that's the reason why young people are feeling anxious, or they're stressed, or there's issues with their well being.

Simon Currigan  18:51  

And I suppose the lesson is, we have to sort of question assumptions that we've had for years and years and years and years and years, and just not thought about them. Just because two things happen. At the same time, or roughly the same time, it doesn't mean one cause the other a correlation isn't causation. They just happen to happen at the same time. And we are drawing a link that might not be there

John Jerrim  19:12  

Yes. And that's certainly the case. And like I said, it's a particularly difficult time, right? As young people are growing up, there is a lot of kind of biological change in young people, as they're going through secondary schools. And there's certain things that happen at certain points in secondary school, when those changes will be happening anyway. So to tease those two apart is always going to be really, really difficult. So we do have to challenge our conventional view of, well, this happens during this year group, that must be what's driving it.

Simon Currigan  19:43  

If you're a teacher or a school leader who's listening to this podcast. What's the first step you can take today to find out more about your research and what it means for schools?

John Jerrim  19:51  

That's a very good question. The politically correct answer would be to go to UCL website, you can find the details on there. The better answer is to go on my own personal website, which is And you can find most of my research papers on there and link various links to it, or drop me an email,

Simon Currigan  20:13  

And I'll put a copy of that URL in the show notes. So if you're listening, and you're driving, we have to do when you've stopped driving is open up the show description attached to this podcast. And you can click straight through. John, we ask this of all of our guests. Who's the key figure that influenced you? Or what's the key book that you've read, that's had the biggest impact on your approach to working with children?

John Jerrim  20:35  

So the two people that's had the biggest impact, I would say, on my career, are being an academic. He was a my PhD supervisor who was an absolute superstar. And he really put a lot of time and effort into kind of developing me my knowledge, my approach my thinking, my own education, John Micklewright, Professor John Micklewright, He's now retired, but he was a fantastic chap. And I look back actually, to the stuff I was producing. And in terms of the presentation of my work, and things like that, and he just really taught me those details matter. So if anyone looks at the detail, that kind of attention, both paid to graphs or anything like that, I can thank John for that. And then the second person is another professor called Anna Vignoles, who was my first boss, just post my PhD who was a real kind of superstar, an absolute mentor, for me, who kind of yet really helps me a lot in my career. So if I was to take an opportunity to thank two people in the world, I think those two people very much.

Simon Currigan  21:38  

John, your research has been really interesting. And I know our listeners will have been questioning some of their assumptions right now. Thank you for being on the podcast.

John Jerrim  21:46  

Lovely. Thanks a lot for the invite.

Emma Shackleton  21:48  

Okay, so that's thought provoking. And I guess it shows that you shouldn't always accept received wisdom at face value. And we've got to keep on questioning our assumptions.

Simon Currigan  22:01  

And if you're working with pupils who struggle with their emotions, we've got a range of resources to help inside our Inner Circle. We've got a video training on subjects like how to use emotional scaling, which is all about helping kids take action when they experience strong emotions like anger or anxiety. We've got how to coach people through strong emotions, which is a simple framework for teaching kids the skills to manage big emotions for themselves and not overreact to situations and how to de escalate, which is our deep dive into successfully managing kids when they've lost control of their emotions and actions.

Emma Shackleton  22:35  

Right now, you can get access to all of that training and over 28 other modules with our Inner Circle membership, and you can get your first seven days for just one pound and you can cancel your subscription at any time. To take advantage, visit  and click on the big Inner Circle picture near the top of the page. And we'll also drop a link in the show notes.

Simon Currigan  23:02  

If you enjoy today's episode. Make sure you don't miss next week's by opening up your podcast app and hitting the subscribe button and then your app will automatically download each and every episode so you never miss a thing in Apple podcasts. That's now called the Follow button. And you know subscribing is going to bring you the long term peace of mind that you can normally only get by buying a high quality box of tissues Now stay with me. I'm talking triple ply, the suit that's going to retain its integrity even on high velocity sneezes. Go you!

Emma Shackleton  23:30  

Have a great week. I will see you next time on School Behaviour Secrets. Bye now.

Simon Currigan  23:35  


(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)