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Effects of school environments on student risk-behaviours: evidence from a longitudinal study of secondary schools in England
  1. Chris Bonell1,
  2. Emma Beaumont2,
  3. Matthew Dodd2,
  4. Diana Ruth Elbourne2,
  5. Leonardo Bevilacqua3,
  6. Anne Mathiot3,
  7. Jennifer McGowan3,
  8. Joanna Sturgess2,
  9. Emily Warren1,
  10. Russell M Viner3,
  11. Elizabeth Allen2
  1. 1 Department of Public Health, Environments and Society, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK
  2. 2 Department of Medical Statistics, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK
  3. 3 Institute of Child Health, University College London, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Professor Chris Bonell, Department of Public Health, Environments and Society, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London WC1H 9SH, UK; chris.bonell{at}


Background The theory of human functioning and school organisation proposes that schools with rigid ‘boundaries’ (weaker relationships), for example, between staff and students, or learning and broader development, engender weaker student school commitment and sense of belonging, particularly among disadvantaged students, leading to greater involvement in risk-behaviours. Existing studies provide some support but rely on a proxy exposure of ‘value-added education’ and have not explored effects by disadvantage.

Methods We used longitudinal data from English secondary schools from the control arm of a trial, assessing school-level measures of rigid boundaries, and student commitment and belonging at age 11/12, and student risk-behaviours at age 14/15.

Results Our direct measures were more strongly associated with risk-behaviours than was value-added education. School-level rigid boundaries were associated with increased alcohol use and bullying. Student belonging was more consistently associated with reduced risk-behaviours than was student commitment. Some school effects were greater for students from disadvantaged subgroups defined in terms of poverty, ethnicity and family structure.

Conclusion Our results provide direct support for the theory of human functioning and school organisation and suggest a sense of belonging in school might be particularly protective factor among secondary school students. School effects on risk are generally stronger among disadvantaged students as theorised.

Trial registration number ISRCTN10751359

  • adolescents cg
  • cohort studies
  • education
  • health behaviour
  • multilevel modelling

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  • Contributors CB and RMV directed the trial from which the data are drawn. CB conceived of the paper. EA, MD, EB and CB designed the analysis for this paper. EB and MD implemented this design and undertook the analysis. DRE provided additional statistical expertise. CB drafted the paper with inputs and editing from all other authors.

  • Funding This project is funded by a grant from the National Institute for Health Research Public Health Research programme (grant PHR 12/153/60).

  • Disclaimer This report presents independent research commissioned by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). The views and opinions expressed by authors in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NHS, the NIHR, MRC, CCF, NETSCC, the Public Health Research programme or the Department of Health.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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