The impact of psychological distress on the educational achievement of adolescents at the end of compulsory education

  • Catherine Rothon
  • Jenny Head
  • Charlotte Clark
  • Emily Klineberg
  • Vicky Cattell
  • Stephen Stansfeld



Poor academic performance at school can have a substantial effect on opportunities in adult life and as such it is imperative that researchers establish the chief causes of underachievement. This paper examines performance at the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), examined at age 16, with reference to psychological distress and depressive symptoms as measured at age 13–14.


The data come from a school based prospective epidemiological study of a representative multiethnic sample of adolescents attending East London secondary schools in Tower Hamlets, Hackney, and Newham. Logistic regression analysis was carried out using STATA to test for differences in the impact of different types of psychological distress on achievement.


The overall score for psychological distress, as measured by the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ), was negatively associated with achievement at GCSE for both boys (OR = 0.41, 95% CI 0.24–0.69) and girls (OR = 0.60, 95% CI 0.41–0.87). There was evidence for an association between achievement and depressive symptoms, as measured by the Short Moods and Feelings Questionnaire (SMFQ), for boys only (OR = 0.58, 95% CI 0.43–0.79). There was weak evidence for an interaction between ethnicity and SMFQ for girls. Results from a subset of analyses adjusting for prior achievement suggested that the association between psychological distress at age 13–14 and GCSE achievement could not be explained simply by achievement at age 13–14.


The results suggest that psychological distress is associated with educational achievement. Low achievement at school can have a substantial effect on opportunities in adult life. This implies a greater need for support within the school for children with psychological difficulties in order to achieve the best possible outcomes in the long term.


adolescents mental health SDQ SMFQ achievement 



Yasmin Khatib provided invaluable comments on a draft of the paper. We are grateful for the support of the schools, parents and students involved in this study. We also thank the field team, including Wendy Isenwater, Giash Ahmed, Sarah Brentnall, Sultana Choudry-Dormer and Franca Davenport for the collection of data. This research was approved by the East London and City Research Ethics Committee. The research was funded by the East London and The City Health Authority and by the ESRC under the Human Capability and Resilience Programme. Tower Hamlets, City and Hackney and Newham Primary Care Trusts provided additional funding. The research is independent from the funders. The first author is funded by a Medical Research Council Special Training Fellowship in Health Services and Health of the Public Research.


  1. 1.
    Angold A, Costello E, Messer C, Pickles A, Winder F, Silver D (1995) Development of a short questionnaire for use in epidemiological studies of depression in children and adolescents. Int J Methods Psychiatr Res 5:237–249Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Arnot M, Gray J, James M, Ruddick J (1998) A Review of Recent Research on Gender and Educational Performance. The Stationary Office, LondonGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Biederman J, Monuteaux MC, Doyle AE, Seidman LJ, Wilens TE, Ferrero F, Morgan CL (2004) Impact of executive function deficits and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) on academic outcomes in children. J Consult Clin Psychol 72:757–766PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Connolly P, Smith M, Connolly W, Connolly P, Neill J (2006) The effects of social class and ethnicity on gender differences in GCSE attainment: a secondary analysis of the Youth Cohort Study of England and Wales 1997–2001. Br Educ Res J 32:3–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Demack S, Drew D, Grimsley M (2000) Minding the Gap: ethnic, gender and social class differences in attainment at 16, 1988–95. Race Ethn Educ 3:117–143CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    Department for Education and Employment (1997) Excellence in schools. Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, LondonGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    Department for Education and Skills (2006) Trends in education and skillsGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Drew D, Gray J (1990) The fifth year examination results of black young people in England and Wales. Educ Res 32: 107–117Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Fergusson DM, Woodward LJ (2000) Educational, psychosocial, and sexual outcomes of girls with conduct problems in early adolescence. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 41:779–792PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    Fergusson D, Woodward L (2002) Mental health, educational, and social role outcomes of adolescents with depression. Arch Gen Psychiatry 59:225–231PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 11.
    Feshbach ND, Feshbach S (1987) Affective processes and academic achievement. Child Dev 58:1335–1447PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Forsterling F, Binser M (2002) Depression, school performance and the veridicality of perceived grades and causal attributions. Pers Soc Psychol Bull 28:1441–1449CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    Goodman R (1997) The Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire: a research note. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 38:581–586PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Gray J, Peng W-J, Steward S, Thomas S (2004) Towards a typology of gender-related school effects: some new perspectives on a familiar problem. Oxf Rev Educ 30:529–550CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Heath A (2000) The political arithmetic tradition in the sociology of education. Oxf Rev Educ 3 and 4:313–331CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    Jonsson J, Mills C (1993) Social class and educational attainment in historical perspective: a Swedish-English comparison. Part I. Br J Sociol 44:213–247CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    Jonsson J, Mills C (1993) Social class and educational attainment in historical perspective: a Swedish-English comparison. Part II. Br J Sociol 44:403–428CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 18.
    Kessler RC, Foster CL, Saunders WB, Stang PE (1995) Social consequences of psychiatric disorders, I: educational attainment. Am J Psychiatry 152:1032Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Leavey G, Hollins K, King M, Barnes J, Papadopoulos C, Grayson K (2004) Psychological disorder amongst refugee and migrant schoolchildren in London. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 39:191–195PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 20.
    Meltzer H, Gatward R, Goodman R, Ford T (2003) Mental health of children and adolescents in Great Britain. Int Rev Psychiatry 15:185–187PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 21.
    Miech R, Caspi A, Moffitt T, Wright B, Silva P (1999) Low socioeconomic status and mental disorders: a longitudinal study of selection and causation during young adulthood. Am J Sociol 104:1096–1131CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    Mullick M, Goodman R (2001) Questionnaire screening for mental health problems in Bangladeshi children: a preliminary study. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 36:94–99PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 23.
    Muris P, Meesters C, Van den Bergh F (2003) The Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ): further evidence for its reliability and validity in a community sample of Dutch children. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry 12:1–8PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Owen J (2006) Could do better. The GuardianGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Owen D, Green A, Pitcher J, Maguire M (2000) Minority ethnic participation and achievements in education, Training and the Labour Market. Stationary Office, LondonGoogle Scholar
  26. 26.
    Portes A, Zhou M (2001) The new second generation: segmented assimilation and its variants. In: Grusky DB (ed) Social Stratification: Class, Race and Gender. Westview Press, Oxford, pp 597–608Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Power C, Manor O (1992) Explaining social class differences in psychological health among young adults: a longitudinal perspective. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 27:284–291PubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. 28.
    Preiss M, Franova L (2006) Depressive symptoms, academic achievement, and intelligence. Stud Psychol 48:57–67Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Prior M, Virasinghe S, Smart D (2005) Behavioural problems in Sri Lankan schoolchildren. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 40:654–662PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 30.
    Reinherz H, Frost A, Pakiz B (1991) Changing faces: correlates of depressive symptoms in late adolescence. Fam Community Health 14:52–63Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Rucklidge JJ, Tannock R (2001) Psychiatric, psychosocial, and cognitive functioning of female adolescents with ADHD. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 40:530–540PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 32.
    Shahar G, Henrich G, Winokur A, Blatt S, Kuperminc G, Leadbeater B (2006) Self-criticism and depressive symptomatology interact to predict middle school academic achievement. J Clin Psychol 62:147–155PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 33.
    Smithers R (2006) Boys narrow gender gap as top grades rise to nearly 20 per cent. The Guardian August 25Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Stansfeld S, Haines M, Booy R, Taylor S, Viner R, Head J, Bhui K, Hillier S, Isenwater W, Choudhry-Dormer S, Brentnall S, Klineberg E, Ahmed G (2003) Health of young people in East London: The RELACHS Study 2001. The Stationary Office, LondonGoogle Scholar
  35. 35.
    Warrington M, Younger M, Williams J (2000) Student attitudes, image and the gender gap. Br Educ Res J 26:393–407CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. 36.
    Wiest D, Wong E, Kreil D (1998) Predictors of global self-worth and academic performance among regular education, learning disabled and continuation high school students. Adolescence 33:601–618PubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. 37.
    Wilson JM, Marcotte AC (1996) Psychosocial adjustment and educational outcome in adolescents with a childhood diagnosis of attention deficit disorder. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 35:579–587PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. 38.
    Woodward LJ, Fergusson DM (2000) Childhood peer relationship problems and later risks of educational under-achievement and unemployment. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 41: 191–201PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. 39.
    Younger M, Warrington M, Williams J (1999) The gender gap and classroom interactions: reality and rhetoric? Br J Sociol Educ 20:325–341CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Steinkopff Verlag Darmstadt 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Catherine Rothon
    • 1
  • Jenny Head
    • 2
  • Charlotte Clark
    • 1
  • Emily Klineberg
    • 1
  • Vicky Cattell
    • 1
  • Stephen Stansfeld
    • 1
  1. 1.Centre for Psychiatry, Old Anatomy Building, Barts and the London Queen Mary’s School of Medicine and DentistryUniversity of LondonLondonUK
  2. 2.Dept. of Epidemiology and Public HealthUniversity College LondonLondonUK

Personalised recommendations