Preventing depression in secondary school pupils

Helen Christensen and colleagues conducted a cluster randomised trial to investigate the effectiveness of an intervention for the prevention of depression in secondary school pupils.

The study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, reported on the results of a trial of the SPARX-R programme, a gamified online cognitive behaviour intervention that is delivered to pupils prior to facing a significant stressor – in this case final secondary school exams.

A total of 540 final-year pupils from 10 secondary schools in Sydney, Australia, took part and clusters at the school level were randomly allocated to SPARX-R or the control intervention (lifeSTYLE, an online interactive control programme). Interventions were delivered weekly in class under teacher supervision, in seven 20- to 30-minute modules. Symptoms of depression were measured by the Major Depression Inventory (MDI).

Pupils in the SPARX-R group showed a greater reduction in MDI scores than those in the control group, both post-intervention and at the 6-month follow-up. Effect sizes were small post-intervention (+0.29) and at the 6-month (+0.21) and 18-month follow-ups (+0.33).

Source: Preventing depression in final year secondary students: school-based randomized controlled trial (November 2017), Journal of Medical Internet Research, vol 19 (11).

Later school start time may produce benefits but more evidence is needed

Many studies have been conducted to examine the impact for pupils of later school start times, some of which can be found in previous issues of Best Evidence in Brief. This Campbell systematic review summarises the findings from 17 studies to examine the evidence on the impact of later school start times on pupils’ mental health and academic performance.

The studies included in the review were randomised controlled trials, controlled before-and-after studies and interrupted time series studies with data for pupils aged 13 to 19 and that compared different school start times. The studies reported on 11 interventions in six countries, with a total of almost 300,000 pupils.

The main results of the review suggest that later school starts may be associated with positive academic benefits and psychosocial outcomes. Later school start times also appear to be associated with an increase in the amount of sleep children get. Effect sizes ranged from +0.38 to +2.39, equivalent to an extra 30 minutes to 2 hours of sleep each night. However, the researchers point out that, overall, the quality of the body of evidence is very low, and so the effects of later school start times cannot be determined with any confidence.

Source: Later school start times for supporting the education, health, and well-being of high school students: a systematic review (December 2017), A Campbell Systematic Review 2017:15

Do teacher observations make any difference to pupil performance?

An evaluation published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has found that introducing more frequent and structured lesson observations – where teachers observe their colleagues and give them feedback – made no difference to pupils’ GCSE maths and English results.

A randomised controlled trial of the whole-school intervention Teacher Observation was conducted in 82 secondary schools in England, which had high proportions of pupils who had ever been eligible for free school meals. In total, the study involved 14,163 pupils – 7,507 pupils (41 schools) in the intervention, and 6,656 pupils (41 schools) in the control.

Maths and English teachers in the intervention schools were asked to take part in at least six structured 20-minute peer observations over a two-year period (with a suggested number of between 12 and 24). Teachers rated each other on specific elements of a lesson, such as how well they managed behaviour, engaged pupils in learning, or used discussion techniques.

The evaluation, which was conducted by a team from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), found that Teacher Observation had no impact on pupils’ GCSE English and maths scores compared to those of pupils in control schools (effect size = -0.01).

Source: Teacher Observation: Evaluation report and executive summary (November 2017), Education Endowment Foundation

Impact of secondary school mindfulness programmes

Catherine Johnson and colleagues carried out a randomised controlled evaluation of a secondary school mindfulness programme (called “.b mindfulness” for “Stop, Breathe and Be!”) to measure impact on self-reported measures of anxiety, depression, weight/shape concerns, well-being and mindfulness.

Five hundred and fifty-five pupils in four secondary schools in South Australia participated (mean age = 13.44 years). Pupils were assigned using a cluster (class-based) randomised controlled design to one of three conditions: the nine-week mindfulness curriculum, the nine-week mindfulness curriculum with parental involvement, or a control (business-as-usual) curriculum.

The evaluation found no differences between the mindfulness groups with or without parental involvement and the control group at post-intervention or at the six- and twelve-month follow-up. The researchers conclude that further research is required to identify the optimal age, content, and length of programmes delivering mindfulness to teenagers.

Source: A randomized controlled evaluation of a secondary school mindfulness program for early adolescents: Do we have the recipe right yet? (September 2017), Behaviour Research and Therapy, Vol 99

The positive effects of vocational schools

More than 90% of high schools in the US offer a vocational training option for pupils, and more than one in five pupils participate in these career and technical education (CTE) programmes. Traditionally in CTE, career-training courses are offered during each school day, and non-career classes contain a mix of CTE and non-CTE pupils. Massachusetts has taken CTE a step further by offering 32 regional vocational and technical high schools (RVTS), where all pupils participate in CTE, alternating one week of schooling with one week of career training.

Shaun Dougherty of the University of Connecticut recently studied the effects of attending an RVTS. In this study, pupils had to apply to attend, with admission based on middle school (Key Stage 3) record of attendance, standardised test scores in maths and disciplinary record. Using state data and admissions applications, Dougherty compared 4,000 ninth grade pupils (Year 10) in three RVTS schools, 2,000 of whom were just above and below the cutoff points for admission, inferring that RVTS participation would be the main variable affecting their performance. Following these ninth grade pupils through to twelfth grade (Year 13), he found that, as compared to pupils who barely missed the cutoff, pupils who had participated in RVTS:

  • Were 7-10 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school
  • Were more likely to earn industry-recognised credentials while in high school
  • Were likely to receive comparable state test scores that qualified them for graduation

Given that state test scores in core subjects were similar for the pupils who did and didn’t participate in the RVTS, Dougherty concluded that RVTS schools positively influence graduation rates without sacrificing knowledge in core subjects.

Unlike traditional CTE programmes, where pupils may study one course one year and switch the next year, RVTS pupils stay within the same course of study from tenth to twelfth grade (Years 11–13), often with the same teachers and peers. They offer a larger selection of courses, and classes are taught within the same building, allowing vocational-training teachers to confer with traditional-course teachers and carry over career training into the traditional realms of maths, English and social studies.

Source: The effect of career and technical education on human capital accumulation: causal evidence from Massachusetts (October 2017), Education Finance and Policy doi: 10.1162/EDFP_a_00224

Effective reading programmes for secondary pupils

Ariane Baye from the University of Liege and Cynthia Lake and colleagues from the Center for Research and Reform in Education have updated their paper Effective Reading Programs for Secondary Students. Their review focuses on 73 studies that used random assignment (n=66) or high-quality quasi-experiments (n=7) to evaluate outcomes of 55 programmes on widely accepted measures of reading.

The authors found that specific programmes using one-to-one, small-group tutoring, and cooperative learning showed positive outcomes, as did a small number of programmes emphasising social-emotional learning, technology, or teaching of metacognitive strategies. Benchmark assessments did not affect reading outcomes. Leaving aside tutoring and benchmarks, programmes that provide additional instructional time (usually, a daily extra period) were no more effective than programmes that did not provide extra time.

The findings suggest that secondary readers benefit more from engaging and personalised instruction than from additional time on supplemental courses.

Source: Effective Reading Programs for Secondary Students (August 2017), Best Evidence Encyclopedia