How School Culture Impacts Student Mental Health: A Qualitative Study

As parents, educators and researchers we want students to succeed academically, but what about their mental health? A growing body of evidence shows that a positive school culture can significantly impact mental health. But what exactly is school culture, and how can we improve it?

To answer these questions, a qualitative study was conducted in three UK secondary schools. The study aimed to identify how school culture is conceptualized by students, parents and staff, and which components are perceived to be most important for student mental health.

Twenty seven staff and seven parents participated in in-depth interviews, while 28 students participated in four focus groups.  The data were then subjected to The Framework Method of thematic analysis.

The study found that respondents identified elements of school culture that aligned into four dimensions: structure and context, organisational and academic, community, and safety and support. These four dimensions are interdependent and shape the culture of a school.

Structure and context refer to the physical environment of the school, including its buildings and facilities, as well as its policies and procedures. Organisational and academic elements include: curriculum, teaching practices and extracurricular activities. Community refers to the social interactions within the school, including relationships between students, teachers and parents. Safety and support include measures to prevent and respond to bullying and other forms of violence, as well as support for students who may be struggling with mental health issues.

The study’s findings suggest that school staff who seek to shape and improve school culture as a means of promoting student mental health may have better results if this interdependence is acknowledged, and improvements are addressed across all four dimensions.

Improving school culture is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Different schools may require different interventions to improve the school culture’s various dimensions. However, interventions that focus on socio-cultural elements of school life, involve students actively in the process and address all four dimensions of school culture are increasingly understood to be important for promoting student mental health.

As we move towards a greater awareness of the impact of school culture on student mental health, it’s time to acknowledge that academic success is only part of the equation. By creating a positive school culture, we can support our students’ well-being and help them reach their full potential as they prepare for adulthood and the workplace – perhaps two missing legs of a three legged ‘education’ stool.

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