Public Release: 

English children are less enthusiastic about school than French or Danish children

Economic & Social Research Council

A new study shows that, compared to their European counterparts, English schoolchildren enjoy school the least, are most likely to want to leave school as soon as they can, and feel that school gets in the way of their lives. In contrast, Danish children were more positive about learning and teachers, seeing the school as helping them to work with others and to fit into adult life.

The research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), was carried out by a team at the University of Bristol Graduate School of Education in collaboration with two researchers in France and Denmark. It shows how three very different European educational systems are responding in quite different ways to the need to produce young people who are flexible lifelong learners.

The team studied the educational experience, attitudes to schooling and approaches to learning of 13-and 15-year-old school children in England, France and Denmark. The 1,800 second-year secondary school children in the study came from a cross section of comprehensive schools in each country.

Dr Marilyn Osborn, who directed the research, explains: "These differences are largely a reflection of different approaches to education in the three countries." Danish schools are concerned with the development of the 'whole child' with pastoral care being a key part of the teacher's role. There is also a strong emphasis on participatory democracy and lessons in citizenship. "As a result, Danish pupils like their teachers, are interested in building friendly relationships and they feel they can be successful," she adds.

French schools, on the other hand, have a much stronger emphasis on academic objectives and pastoral care is often left to outside agencies. Teachers maintain a professional distance from parents and concentrate mainly on ensuring they get as many pupils as possible to the correct level for the following year.

In England, teachers theoretically have pastoral responsibilities as well as responsibilities for certain subjects. However, in an attempt to raise standards this role appears to be changing with a greater emphasis on a learning support role. "There is now relatively little time to explore pupils' personal concerns or to build up relationships," say the researchers. On a more positive note, English schoolchildren also believe that school is a place where they can express their own ideas and opinions.

The English experience shows that pupils are more concerned with their social identities than their academic achievement. "They fall into three main groups. Those that work hard, known as 'boffins', 'swots' or 'keeners', those that mess around in class, and those that do both. These social groupings tend to dominate children's experience at school and a lot of pupils' energy goes into balancing achievement against getting on with their peers," says Dr Osborn. In contrast, the French and Danish approaches lead children to feel that they share a sense of commonality with other pupils regardless of their social background or attainment level.

"It is clear from the research that in spite of the many pressures to bring European education systems closer together, the national culture and educational traditions of these three countries create significant differences in pupils relationships with both their schools and their teachers," says Dr Osborn.


For more information, contact Dr Marilyn Osborn, University of Bristol, Graduate School of Education, 35 Berkeley Square, Bristol BS8 1JA Tel: 0117-928-9000 Or, Lilian El-Doufani or Lesley Lilley in ESRC External Relations: Tel: 01793- 413032 or 413119 Or, The Press Office at the University of Bristol. Tel: 0117-928-9000.

Notes to editors

  1. Dr Marilyn Osborn is Reader in Education and Director of the MPhil/PhD Programme in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol.

  2. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It has a track record of providing high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and government. The ESRC invests around £46 million every year in social science research. At any time, its range of funding schemes may be supporting 2,000 researchers within academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences, thereby nurturing the researchers of tomorrow. The ESRC website address is

  3. REGARD is the ESRC's bibliographic database accessible via the World Wide Web. It provides a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards and all associated publications and products. The website can be found at

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