Steering with others in mind- measuring the effect of boarding education on the mind

By Dr Simon Walker, STEER April 2017

Dr Simon Walker will today announce findings from a large study into the effects of different kinds of education on the developing minds of young people. The study involving nearly 4,000 11-18 year old students from 20 UK state and independent day and boarding schools. Key lines:

  • Boarding and day schools form the developing minds of students in distinct and different ways
  • Boarding develops minds with greater social flexibility and emotional responsiveness, often desired by employers
  • Pressurised day schools can develop minds which drive fast but which are more vulnerable to emotional crashing
  • The positive effects of boarding can be transferred to other schools through greater focus on communitarian schooling
  • These results show how education can both tackle mental health problems and improve employment skills

Dr Walker’s team measured a function of the mind which they call ‘steering cognition’ in more than 4,000 students from 20 state and independent day and boarding schools. Lead researcher Dr Simon Walker said “If you think of a child as a car, then IQ is like the engine. By contrast, steering cognition is the steering, brakes and accelerator of the mind. Just as good drivers in a real car steer carefully, so children who are able to steer their thinking are socially and emotionally more heathy.” Poor steering has been shown to increase mental health risks in children such as self-harm, anxiety, not coping with pressure and social risk taking.

This new research showed that students at boarding schools developed steering which was more attuned, responsive and collaborative to others than students at day schools. By contrast, highly academic performing day schools, whether state or independent, led to student steering patterns linked to greater risks of self-harm and not coping with pressure.

Walker provides an analogy to explain these findings. “It’s as if high performing day schools create drivers focused in on their own dashboard. They are too solitary, under pressure to drive fast, and are vulnerable to crashing. By contrast, students at boarding schools are better at looking out of their mental windows and adjusting how they drive to the needs of others round them. The minds of boarding students showed greater social flexibility and emotional responsiveness.”

Significantly, whether the day school was fee paying, or state funded, made no difference to this finding. The source of the difference lay in the strong communitarian experience of being in a close-knit social group which a boarding school house provides. Contrary to some assumptions, the boarding experience did not lead to a dominating, ego-driven young mind, but a mind more attuned to sharing, compromise, getting on with others and working together.

This is the first time the effect of boarding and day education has been measured through the impact they respectively have on the way students’ minds are actually developing.

The lead researcher suggests that certain features of a boarding education could be applied to all schools, to improve mental health and future employability skills. These educational features include a rounded school day, with greater emphasis on communitarian rather than individual outcomes. They also include experiences such as strong group competition, community service, coupled with proactive emotional tracking.

He suggests “A narrow, pressurised education could create more isolated individuals at greater risk of future mental health problems. By contrast, we now know what educational features contribute positively to both mental health and employability outcomes for young people.”

Dr Walker has experience of what corporate businesses want, having spent a decade working as a consultant for firms like Accenture and PWC. “Employers like Deloittes and Penguin are increasingly looking for graduates with emotional resilience, team-work, and negotiation skills rather than just top grades; the behaviours we observed developing through a more rounded education.”

The government is currently conducting an inquiry into what education can do to tackle a growing mental health crisis amongst adolescent children. It is also looking to make education more effective in producing graduates able to compete in a tough employment market.

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