Growing independence: Competent Learners at 14

Publication Details

This report is one of four that describes the cohort at age 14, with analysis of the experiences and resources that are linked to differences in performance and engagement in school and learning in mid-adolescence in New Zealand.

Author(s): Cathy Wylie and Rose Hipkins, New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Date Published: 2006

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Executive Summary

The Competent Children, Competent Learners study is following a cohort of around 500. It began in 1993, when the cohort was near-age 5, and attending early childhood education in the Wellington region.

We aim to describe what our sample was experiencing in five dimensions: their use of leisure, their relations with peers, their interactions with parents, their values and events in their lives, and their engagement in school and learning. Then we want to see how engagement in school and learning is affected by experiences in the other four dimensions of mid-adolescent experience, and how it reflects previous patterns.

Growing Independence is the title of this report because independence is a theme running through all these dimensions. The young people in the study were assuming more responsibility for themselves—not always in ways that seem positive to adults. They were spending more time with their peers, less with their parents. Yet they were not yet fully independent: they were still needing parental support and interest. And as we looked back over time, we saw that the kind of independence different individuals were growing could be linked to the earlier ways they had spent time and related to people, the habits in which they were comfortable.

There are many encouraging findings. Most of the sample had reached the venturesome stage of mid-adolescence in good shape. They have positive interactions with family and friends, and they value family and friends. Learning and school continue to engage them. They have out-of-school activities they enjoy spending their time on. At the same time, they are also exercising more independence, forming themselves more as distinct individuals. Feeling respected and known, by teachers as well as family, becomes increasingly important. This can mean that there is more questioning of adult expectations and structures, as independence and individual identities grow.

But some appeared to have already formed identities that did not find support or enjoyment with family or in school, and were focused on activities of risk, defiance, or manipulation (e.g. bullying relations). Their sphere of experience often seemed narrower, however, and less satisfying: a repetitive circle rather than the spirals of growing independence evident in the majority. These are the young people who are often of most concern to parents, teachers, other adults, other students, and policy makers.

The analysis reported here underlines the importance of early foundations; but it also shows that the die is not cast: that what teachers and parents do, and the habits they support in children and young people, and the learning environments they offer Year 9 and Year 10 students, do matter.

The Competent Children, Competent Learners study collects a wealth of material. In this report, we have aimed to strike a balance between too much detail, and too little. We summarise the statistical analysis that is described fully in a separate technical report. The chart at the end of this summary outlines the main variables used in this analysis.

Activities and Interests

Television remained a prime leisure activity for these young adults, as was being in the company of others—hanging out, or in a more organised way. Sport, reading, and computer use were also activities that happened often for many in the sample. There were marked gender differences: females more exercised by reading and the arts, and social communication; males by computer games, sport, and television. Family resources were also reflected: lower income or maternal qualification levels went along with less engagement not just with what one might expect: reading, computer use, homework, and arts classes, but also with less engagement in competitive sport.

Four clusters of young people were found:

  • Sports players (34 percent);
  • Electronic games~no strong interests group (24 percent);
  • All-rounders (reading/arts/sports) (28 percent); and
  • Creative interests (13 percent).


Those who were in the electronic game~no strong interests group had lower competency scores on average. Interestingly, we found in looking back to parents' reports of their children's favourite interests at age 5 that it was those who did not have a clear interest other than physical play, who had lower average scores at age 14.

Some signs of growing independence among the sample were the marked increases since age 12 in those who have a phone in their bedroom (probably mobile), those with computers, and Internet access. A third now had a TV set in their room.

Television use remained at much the same level as at age 12. Cartoons and sitcoms remained popular, but they were joined by increased interest in adult programmes, and to a lesser extent, reality TV and sport: all programmes with some narrative line. There were some gender differences in programme preferences.

Those who watched TV for 2 or more hours a day tended to have lower average competency scores, as did those who had watched this amount of television over the ages 8 to 14. This heavy use of TV in leisure hours was also associated with disengagement in learning.

Computer use was now almost universal, particularly the Internet. Main uses were for information for school, email, online chatting, surfing, games, and downloading material. At this stage, few were using it to bank or buy things. There were some gender differences here, with males more interested in games, installing software or writing programmes, and girls, emailing, seeking information, wordprocessing, or chatting online. ICT can be used to extend knowledge, extend the use of skills, or to support consumption. There was less use of ICT to extend individuals by those with non-qualified mothers. We found little association between computer use and competency levels, perhaps because by age 14 most of the sample were using a computer, and making similar kinds of use of it.

Enjoyment of reading—which turns out to be a key indicator for learning engagement as well as competency levels—had declined since age 12; there was less use of public libraries, though only half the sample had a reasonable number of books in their home. Social characteristics are reflected now in more differences in reading enjoyment and access to reading material than we saw at earlier ages. However, newspaper readers increased (to just over half).

Writing was also enjoyed less at age 14. Email writing had increased markedly since age 12, but there was a decline in reports and creative writing.

Just over a third of the sample now had paid work, mostly informal. There were no clear associations between having paid work and competency levels, though a non-significant trend to lower average scores was evident for those working more than 5 hours a week.

Club membership was slightly down from age 12, with a drop in those belonging to service groups. Participation in music had also dropped. Just under half had lessons outside school, mostly sports or performing arts. These opportunities continued to reflect family resource levels. At previous ages, we found positive associations between competency levels and participation in music and the performing arts.

The clusters we found for parent interests or use of leisure were somewhat different from their children—they include a dimension of involvement or extension. They were:

  • Literate and involved (44 percent);
  • TV and little involvement (27 percent);
  • Mixed interests (10 percent)—with lower reading levels than other clusters; and
  • TV and few interests (19 percent).


We found that children of those in the third group tended to have lower competency levels and lower levels of engagement in school.

Parents were also using ICT more. Otherwise, their use of leisure time remained much the same as 2 years earlier—contrasting with the changes in their children's use of leisure time, which signals how much the young people were growing in their adolescence, trying out new things, and spending more time communicating with each other.

Family Interactions

Parents were sharing fewer activities with their 14-year-olds, and the proportions of mothers in employment continued to show an increase. But around two-thirds of the sample came home from school to a parent.

Most parental expectations at this age were around schoolwork, housework, and language, and young people were largely aware of these. They were less aware that their parents might have expectations or rules around media use, particularly video games. Reflecting the young people's growing independence (but probably also causing some tension at times), there were more parental expectations than there had been when the sample was aged 12. Only 3 percent of the sample had never broken or ignored a parental rule. What parents see as discussion when this happens sounds to some young people like being told off.

Disagreements between parents and their 14-year-olds occurred almost universally. Growing independence saw more use of negotiation when this happened—but also more parents getting cross in order to get their way.

While their independence mattered more to the young people than it had 2 years earlier, they still largely saw their families as supportive and inclusive, though not as much as previously, and, to a lesser extent, communicating well. Family pressure was not a common experience. This is consistent with the general picture from parents: that they largely trusted their children as they started to engage in fewer shared activities. Parents were a little more positive about the quality of parent-child communication at this age, though some distance or friction was evident for around a fifth of the sample. Their child's friends were sometimes a source of unease for parents, though most liked their child's friends. The unease appears to be related to differences in boundaries or approaches that parents like to feel they have established for their own child.

While there were some differences between parental concerns for sons and daughters, and some ethnic differences in how parental authority was exercised where young people crossed boundaries, the social characteristics most associated with differences in the kinds of boundaries parents had (or had in mind) and their exercise of their responsibility for their mid-adolescents were family income and maternal qualification. But young people's views of positive relations with their family (their sense of being supported and included, and good communication), and parent views of good communication were largely not reflective of social characteristics. Feelings of family pressure were stronger among those who had non-qualified mothers, or young people who were Pacific, or male. Parent reports of friction in the home were also stronger among those who had non-qualified mothers, were in low-income homes, or who were Pacific.

These feelings about family interactions and relations are linked to ways that young people spend their time, and the two other major dimensions of their lives, friends and school. Consistently, we found more friction and pressure for those who were in the electronic games~no strong interests leisure group, and those in the standing out values group. Those who felt positive about their family also tended not to have friends who had risky behaviour, or to show risky behaviour themselves. They were more engaged in learning. While teachers' scores for young people's overall achievement were not related to the positive aspects of family interactions, those who experienced family pressure did have lower overall achievement and competency scores. Those who reported positive interactions and relations with their family were more likely to have higher average scores for reading and the attitudinal composite.

Relations with Peers

Friendships have grown between the ages of 12 and 14: they occupy more time, and carry more weight in the sample's lives. Most of the sample had solid friendships. Solid friendships were more likely where young people also had supportive and inclusive families, and were less likely where they had friends with risky behaviour. But having solid friendships did not necessarily mean that young people were less engaged in risky behaviour themselves.

Risky behaviour among friends was not common. This kind of behaviour was most likely to be getting into trouble at school, though, at this age, not necessarily evading school, or thinking positively about having sex before the legal age of 16. Having friends who show risky behaviour is also associated with risky behaviour for a young adult. Risky behaviour and having friends with risky behaviour were associated with lower scores for reading and mathematics, and the attitudinal composite.

The patterns here point to crystallisation of habits and behaviours that are not school-focused or learning-supportive: but nor do they point to positive family experiences, positive peer relations, or satisfaction with life. The interests are largely passive or consumer, not extending. Young people from low-income families were most vulnerable to what seems to be a negative spiral that probably began some time back, but which can crystallise as young people exercise independence.

Friendship went beyond sharing the present for around half the sample: friends pushed them to succeed and do interesting things they would not do by themselves, or talked about hopes and plans for the future. Around half also seemed to be able to share their own problems with their friends.

Perhaps the sharpening of independence and a sense of individual identity lies behind the jump in young people thinking of aggressive responses to our hypothetical situation of being given a hard time in school grounds. The drop in assertive responses, however, does not fit this interpretation so easily. The rise in those who would turn to their friends or a gang is consistent with the growing weight of friendship in their lives.

Yet bullying seemed to be happening less at age 14, and was now reported to have happened over the past few months by 18 percent. Almost all of this bullying was at school. Two-thirds of it was verbal, and a third, physical. Half of those who were bullied ignored it. Fourteen percent said they had bullied someone else. Parents of bullies are less aware of that than are the parents of those who are bullied: but in both cases, parents often do not know of this activity.

Young people who bully (some of whom are also victims of bullying) are less engaged in school and learning, have lower average competency scores, and are more likely to express dissatisfaction with life, and show risky behaviour. They share some of the patterns related to earlier habits that we see with those who have friends with risky behaviour. Involvement in bullying over time seems to have negative effects not just for habits, but also in relation to finding positive value and enjoyment from learning, family, and friends, suggesting some "vicious" cycles (or crystallisations, since it is likely that these patterns start from connected threads, rather than a single event). Nonetheless, the patterns that we see here are not set in stone: the die is not cast at an earlier age. Experiences and relations with others remain important avenues for providing alternatives.

Values and Experiences

While there have been changes in leisure activities and friendships, and signs of increasing independence, the sample's values were similar to what they had been 2 years earlier. At age 14, they did place somewhat more importance on doing well at school, and somewhat less on doing well at sport, both now and looking ahead to adulthood. Having an interesting job had become more important, as had having lots of money.

We found three clusters among the young people in terms of their values:

  • Anchored and achieving (37 percent) —valuing relationships, achievement at school and at work, including having an interesting job and influencing others.
  • Anchored (22 percent) —valuing relationships, achievement at school, but less emphasis on having an interesting job in future.
  • Standing out (41 percent). The standing out cluster put more emphasis on money, friends, clothes and looking cool, and an important job. We found this cluster had lower average competency levels, lower school engagement, less supportive families, more friends with risky behaviour, and showed more risky behaviour themselves.


Sixty percent would now like to change something in their lives, much more than the 40 percent at age 12. There was much stronger interest in having more money and improving a skill, and in changing appearance, becoming more confident, improving health, improving friendships, or changing a teacher.

Most of this sample (which includes more young people from very high-income and high maternal qualification levels than the population at large) was thinking of professional work, or work involving technical skills and working with people. However, young people who did not know what they wanted to do were found across the board.

Parental concern about their child and school had doubled since age 12 (34 percent cf. 17 percent at age 12). Otherwise, the patterns of concerns were much the same as 2 years earlier. Most parents had some concern about their child at either age 12 or age 14. Parents' concerns were often justified: young people's scores on the attitudinal composite and for mathematics and reading comprehension were lower if their parents had concerns about them at both ages, or three or more areas of concern at age 14.

Praise did not seem to be an everyday experience for the sample. This may mean that most of them saw praise as something more than a quick comment by parents or friends. Around half had been praised for achievement or included in a valued group often or more. Less than a fifth had never taken action over the past year about something that concerned them, or supported a friend in trouble. Praise and achievement for non-school things was more likely to occur in positive family environments, and for young people who were engaged in learning—and who used internal markers of achievement. But it was not strongly associated with these; nor with an absence of risky behaviour.

Two-thirds of the sample sometimes got bored, had difficulty trying to fit everything into their time, or fought with others at home. Around half the young people felt a lack of freedom or money at least sometimes, indicating their growing independence. Levels of dissatisfaction were relatively low.

Risky behaviour was also low at age 14. It was rare to have sex or be sufficiently drunk to do something that they regretted afterwards. Around a third drank at least sometimes, lied for others, or had broken up with romantic partners (suggesting that these may be short-lived at this age for many). Just under half the sample had fallen behind with their schoolwork at least sometimes. Getting into trouble at school at least sometimes was also relatively high: a sign of young people flexing their growing sense of independence? However, high levels of risky behaviour do seem to be more of an isolating experience than dissatisfaction: there are consistent signs of a "turn-off" from school, down to the class level, as well as difficulties within the home. This turn-off comes at the price not just of current achievement levels at school, but not having the attitude to learning that would support any future desire to re-engage with it.

There are some tracks from current risky behaviour back to lower competency scores at ages 10 and 12, and back to non-enjoyment of reading, and involvement in bullying, from age 8.

Twenty-eight percent of the sample had experienced at least one adverse event over the past year: these included family break-ups, and being hassled about culture or sexuality. Mäori and Pacific young people were more likely to experience being hassled about their culture; but the incidence of being hassled about sexuality was proportionately high. Adverse events did have associations with risky behaviour, school engagement, and reading and mathematics scores; but not with the attitudinal composite.

Engagement in School and Learning

There are two main patterns evident in student engagement at age 14. Around two-thirds enjoy learning, and show engagement in school. They were more likely to report that they had clear, helpful teachers who gave useful feedback on student work, than to report that they had teachers who seemed to pitch the work so it seemed relevant to the students, and showed interest in their students' ideas. Around a third do not find school engaging.

Just over half the sample had high attendance (less than 10 days absence over the year). Thirty-five percent were absent for between 2 to 5 weeks, and 12 percent, for more than 5 weeks. Absenteeism was related to patterns of disengagement in learning, but risky behaviour, being in the "standing out" values cluster, and disrupted or comparative learning environments carried more weight, suggesting that tackling absenteeism needs to address a number of dimensions.

There are precursors to high absenteeism. The high absence group at age 14 has consistently lower scores on the attitudinal composite from age 8, and on the cognitive competencies at ages near-5 and 6. It could be that early grasping of the work of school has some bearing on attitudes shown at school from age 8; and that both of these have some bearing on later attendance.

Most of this sample thought they would stay on at school until the end of Year 13 (84 percent). Eight percent thought they would leave school at the end of Year 12, and 3 percent at the end of Year 11, or as soon as they could. Four percent were unsure. Staying on till the end of Year 13 was not necessarily done to lead into further study. Just over a third wanted to go straight into a job.

We found three groups among the sample when we looked at a range of answers to questions about the current value of school, and adult aspirations to get a summary picture of individual motivation towards school. At age 14, only a minority had a high motivation level.

  • The "high" motivation group had high faith in gains from school, and a university-professional orientation (28 percent).
  • The "unsure" group was less sure about the gains from school, and their future goals (38 percent).
  • The "low" group had a low level of faith in gains from school, and were oriented toward skilled and unskilled work (34 percent).


Motivation levels were more likely to be high for those with high family incomes, and tertiary- or university-qualified mothers; but they were not universal among these advantaged groups. Motivation levels reflected current differences in competency levels. They also showed links with past competency levels, back as far as age near-5 for mathematics and reading; and with patterns from age 10 of enjoyment of reading, homework completion, and experiences of bullying.

Around two-thirds of the students showed confidence in the compulsory subjects, but between 14–21 percent would like to drop one of the subjects as soon as they could. The proportion of students who feel they are floundering is low overall, but twice as large in mathematics and science as in English. Mathematics and science were seen as having more challenging work than English classes. Otherwise, English and science classes seemed to have more in common than with mathematics classes.

Overt comparison with other students, not common in the sample's classes, did not appear to contribute to either positive learning environments or student performance. Challenging schoolwork did.

Students who were engaged in school and absorbed in learning were likely to be in positive learning environments—where there is good feedback, relevant teaching, challenging work, and a focus on learning at the students' pace. Students like teachers who provide positive learning environments. Students are also inclined not to be negative about a subject and their work in it where there is a positive learning environment. Disengagement with learning tends to be more passive than actively disruptive in class.

The factors that are positively associated with engagement in learning are not the exact mirror opposite of those that are associated with higher scores for being disengaged in learning and school. Being disengaged in school is not simply a matter of not having positive learning environments, or different values. Being engaged in school is not simply a matter of having non-disrupted classes, or non-comparative classes. Nor are students simply passive recipients or lodgers in particular contexts.

Analysis shows that students' views of their teachers, and experience of disruptive or comparative learning environments are related to their life outside school. Those who show signs of disengagement or who are in less supportive learning environments are also experiencing family pressure, or engaging in risky behaviour. They were more likely not to have interests that engaged them outside school, or alternative forms of recognition and inclusion, though standing out in some way was of more importance to them. Conversely, those who are engaged in school are also supported at home, have supportive friendships, and interests that can extend them.

The attitudes and values and practices of those who are engaged or absorbed in learning, and those who have developed internal markers of achievement are likely to have taken some time to develop—and vice versa. There are consistent links with earlier attitudinal composite scores (going back to the first year at school), and somewhat less consistently, with mathematics scores. There are also consistent links with the enjoyment of reading since age 8, and earlier enjoyment of school. Engagement in learning is also supported by positive experiences or relationships in all four of the main spheres of their life: school, family, friends, interests; and it is reflected in values.

Attitudes to current class experiences: learning environments, teachers, and views of subjects carry less of the past with them: indicating that student reaction is not preset, and that what teachers do with them does matter.

Subject Choice

English, mathematics, and science were the Year 9 and 10 compulsory subjects in the schools attended by the sample. Health and PE were also compulsory in all but one of the schools, and social studies in all but three of the schools. There was a wide range of options, with more at larger schools. Sorting students into "ability" streams for all their subjects is now uncommon, but some differentiation of classes within subjects occurred for around half the schools, particularly for mathematics. We also found evidence of some differentiation by clusters of options, with students with lower overall achievement and competency levels more likely to be in subject clusters that included technology, arts, and Mäori, compared with those in clusters that included French and economics, and Japanese and graphic design technology. Students in the first cluster also had higher levels of disengagement, and were more likely to encounter disruption in their classes.

Students' choice of subjects is constrained by what their school offers. School deans guide choices, and often see themselves making the final decision about a student's learning programme. Most students see themselves making the choice, however, guided primarily by their own interests. Options are changed when students realise they do not like them, or that something else appeals more. Most were happy with the choices made, though some would like more information to help their decision: more so for those whose families may not have educational experiences to equip them with relevant knowledge.

School Choice

Just over a fifth of the students—but a third of those from low-income families —said their current school was not their first choice. When we looked at whether students were attending the particular schools their parents named as their choice 2 years earlier, we found that 81 percent were at the schools they had preferred. However, while this was somewhat less likely for students from low-income homes, it was also less likely for those from high-income homes. This suggests that school choice reflects pragmatic reasons rather than ideal matching of students and schools.

Just under three-quarters of the students would choose the same school again with hindsight. Half of those who were not at their first choice school felt more positive about it, once they had experienced it. However, this was less true for students in decile 1–2 schools, and students from low-income families.

Students who were not in their first choice of school had lower levels of school engagement, school confidence, and being absorbed in learning, and lower competency levels. But they also showed lower levels of family and friend support, and higher levels of risk behaviour and adverse experiences; they were also more likely to have been unhappy at school since age 8, and had lower competency levels at age 12. Being at the school of first choice does not account for the variability in student engagement and overall achievement levels: it is outweighed by the other factors outlined in our analysis of student engagement.

Patterns of Performance

Family resources of income and maternal qualification are reflected in student competency levels. But in models that included factors that showed significant correlations with the competencies, and earlier competency levels and ways of spending time, we identified some factors that are also linked over and above these.

Positive factors are:

  • enjoyment of reading over time: this is particularly strong;
  • internal markers of achievement;
  • earlier levels of perseverance (and for mathematics, curiosity); and
  • comfortable family financial situation.

Negative factors are:

  • experiencing family pressure or parent-child friction;
  • being negative about mathematics;
  • being involved in bullying over the last 5 years; and
  • risky behaviour.

Parents of around three-quarters of the sample thought they were confident and clear in their interactions with adults, and around two-thirds saw their children as confident in the world around them: actively interested in it, able to enjoy new experiences, and asking questions. Although parents do show concern at times about their child's friends, most thought that their child did not act out of character because of peer pressure. Most thought their child was often persistent and attentive to detail, but persistence levels were lower when it came to problem solving or completing chores. Parent views of their child's effectiveness and responsibility, and to a lesser extent, their self-confidence were related to the risk variables in much the same way that teacher views were. Thus, those who were in the electronic games~no strong interests group, who had watched high levels of TV over time, or not enjoyed reading, were rated lower by their parents for effectiveness, responsibility, and self-confidence.

Parents do see their children in different contexts than do teachers, but there was a moderate correlation between teacher and parent views of students. The correlations between parent views of how their child approaches the world and their perspective on their child's enjoyment of school, and with students' views of their engagement in school were weaker. Parent desires to change something about their child's school were not correlated with either their child's view or teachers' views of their child's progress. Consistency between teachers' views of a student's approach to classroom life and work, and their overall achievement level, and with student reports of their learning engagement was moderate. The level of the correlations is high enough to suggest that there is some shared information, but low enough to affirm differences in perspectives in what is seen and understood.

High and Low Scorers in the Low-Income Group

Within the low-income group, there are some further differences in family resources that distinguish high scorers in this group from low scorers. High scorers had the advantage of higher maternal qualification levels (and probably linked to that), rising family incomes over the past 9 years. They seem to have had more stability in their housing, but otherwise, the low scorers have had no more, or less, volatility in their family lives.

As with the whole sample, high mathematics scorers were likely to have a good level of mathematics when they started school. There were indications that high scorers were more likely to have attended early childhood education that offered good staff-child interaction (including language use), and print-saturated environments. They were also more likely to have attended early childhood education services that served mainly middle-class children, and less likely to have attended decile 1–2 schools: suggesting benefits gained from advantaged peers.

The first year at school was more important for the high performers for reading comprehension in the low-income group. However, there were initial high performers among both low and high performers, indicating that for some individuals, early promise or gain is undermined by events and experiences occurring after age 8.

Literacy and the use of it—the enjoyment of it —was a key factor that appeared to distinguish the high from the low scorers in this group: this is also consistent with the patterns for the whole sample. There would appear to be somewhat more sharing of experiences between parents and students, whether school or leisure. Relations with peers tended to be more positive, and also involve more sharing (and communication). As with others, high scorers in the low-income group are more engaged in school, and more likely to use internal markers of achievement.

When we did this analysis at age 12, we saw similar patterns, but the differences relating to school engagement were not so clear. This may point to the cumulative frustrations for those with low levels of literacy and numeracy, and with them, the growing attractions of other ways of spending time. The patterns we found add weight to the importance of gaining literacy and mathematics knowledge and skills early on, and then working to ensure they are maintained—not simply for school or exam use, but as paths to enter other positive experiences.

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