In pursuit of happiness in our schools

Written by: HTU | Published:

Happiness is a fairly nebulous concept, but with the right support it can be measured to provide insights into the wellbeing of your school. We consider how this can be achieved.

We all want our children to be happy, well-rounded individuals, and recognise that the huge amount of time they spend in school plays a crucial role in their sense of wellbeing. But how can individual schools determine the emotional health of their own pupils or, indeed, the whole school community, in a meaningful way? 

In search of an answer, the Centre for Statistics at NFER looked back at the data from the last two years of NFER school surveys completed by parents, pupils and staff – more than 90,000 respondents.

With the original questions based around the Every Child Matters format, they were conscious that the data could potentially be developed to provide more evidence on wellbeing in schools. They were right. This data-rich environment gave the statisticians some interesting initial findings, suggesting two distinct measures for pupils.

  1. School wellbeing measures pupils’ perspectives on the overall values and ethos of their school. The values the school instils into their pupils include behaving well, working hard, helping others, and keeping fit and healthy. The ethos the school creates for the pupils includes fairness, friendliness, confidence-building.
  2. Emotional wellbeing measures pupils’ happiness and is based on questions exploring, for example, how they feel about how they look and whether they like the way they are. It measures their feelings (sadness, happiness, loneliness, etc) and how well they feel they get on with others. The measure is similar to some of the domains identified by the Office of National Statistics that would be relevant to children and young people (see What do we mean by ‘wellbeing’ panel opposite).

Using these measures, the statisticians and researchers have been able to build-up a good picture of the school and emotional wellbeing of pupils who have taken part in the NFER school surveys over the past few years (see graphs above). The results paint an interesting picture of the range of happiness of pupils, schools’ ethos, and the ways they instil values in their pupils, all from the pupils’ perspective.

What developing these measures actually means in practice is to give schools the ability to base changes and improvements on detailed evidence related to the hugely subjective issue of “happiness”. Being able to compare their results for these measures against an average weighted to be nationally representative would show significant differences and could, therefore, contribute to planning. Indeed this data can be tracked over time to help evaluate any changes schools introduce to tackle wellbeing issues – such as particular interventions or new practices.

Measuring staff engagement

The NFER researchers did a similar exercise for school staff using the data from the NFER staff surveys. This resulted in an overall measure of staff engagement, which looks at involvement, commitment and enthusiasm from staff about their work.

In the business world, several studies have looked at the correlation between engagement of staff and business outcomes. The same can apply to a school setting. School leaders can use the information from measuring and tracking staff engagement levels to help drive improvement plans and tailor CPD more effectively to the specific needs of individual teachers.

So what is included in staff engagement measures? The researchers believe there are 16 elements in the education arena that sit together to create an overall engagement measure of either “engaged”, “not engaged” or “actively disengaged”. Some of these include staff job satisfaction, whether they feel part of the school community, and how they feel they can contribute to the school’s goals. Changes in leadership or status of a school could potentially have an impact on staff engagement, so monitoring engagement levels in these situations could be important too.

Data from the NFER school surveys on staff engagement is represented graphically comparing individual school results to a weighted nationally representative sample, showing the split between engaged, not engaged and actively disengaged staff. As with the pupil measures, comparing themselves to this wider picture can provide schools with a solid evidence base for changes to improve or maintain staff engagement.

From measurement to action

Of course, measurement should only be the starting point: what really matters is what school leaders then do with the findings. NFER would recommend that these surveys are used as part of a three-step improvement process:

  1. Establish the current situation. What do the survey results tell you about what’s going well, and where there’s room for improvement? The inclusion of comparisons with samples that are weighted to be nationally representative can help with this process
  2. Plan and implement a response. You may already have a strategy in mind, you may look to the experiences of other schools you know, or you may look for solutions from research that has already been shown to work elsewhere
  3. Evaluate progress. Have the changes you made led to the improvements you expected? The NFER surveys enable changes over time to be tracked, so can help you again here.

The majority of schools are actively running parent, pupil and staff surveys, whether they are developed by the school or a bought-in professional service, but many are not getting the most out of the data. 

It is not just about whether a parent would recommend the school (although Ofsted might be interested in this one), it is about how the school is developing happy individuals who will go into the workplace enthused, motivated and ready for life. 

It is also about how schools provide a workplace for staff who are committed to their jobs and will make positive contributions to the school. And those, for sure, are reasons to be cheerful.

New for 2014: School Surveys

The emotional wellbeing measures for pupils, school wellbeing measures for pupils and staff engagement measures developed by NFER have been included in NFER’s new School Surveys service. 

Devised by experts and developed with the help of more than 330 school leaders, the service offers professionally written questionnaires and extensive online reports that compare the results of a school with nationally representative results from other schools in the sample.

It has been designed to be as flexible as possible, to make it easier for schools to get precise, useful and detailed information about how parents, pupils and staff feel about their school. 

Schools can follow-up a general survey that indicates potential problem areas that need to be investigated further with a themed survey. 

For example, if there is a known issue with home-school communication, running the themed survey on communication for parents will highlight exactly where the issues are. They are shorter surveys and the themes, which have been chosen by headteachers, are: curriculum, behaviour, and safety and bullying (for pupils); communication, teaching and behaviour (for parents). 

Headteachers have also said they want to include their own school-specific questions in their survey, so NFER has made it possible to do that too. For details, visit

What do we mean by ‘wellbeing’?

At the 2007 OECD World Forum a declaration was issued calling for the production of high-quality facts-based information that can be used by all of society to form a shared view of national wellbeing and its evolution over time. 

Within the UK, there is a commitment to developing wider measures of wellbeing so that government policies can be more tailored to the things that matter. The Office for National Statistics has an ongoing programme to develop wellbeing measures across the UK which include 10 domains: personal wellbeing, our relationships, health, what we do, where we live, personal finance, economy, education and skills, governance, and natural environment. 

This is all well and good for adults, but what is relevant to our young people? And how can we best measure their wellbeing? 


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