Younger teenagers felt less anxious and more connected to school when they were away from it during the coronavirus lockdown, a study finds.

The research led by the University of Bristol raises questions about the impact of the school environment on young people’s mental health and calls for more support to help them when they return to the classroom.

More than half (54 per cent) of the 13 to 14-year-old girls surveyed last October showed they were at risk of anxiety, compared to around a quarter (26 per cent) of boys of the same age.

When surveyed again in May, during the pandemic which forced schools to shut, the figures dropped among girls to 45 per cent and to less than one in five boys (18 per cent).

“With the whole world in the grip of a devastating pandemic, which has thrown everyone’s lives into turmoil, the natural expectation would be to see an increase in anxiety,” said lead author Emily Widnall, senior research associate in population health sciences at the University of Bristol’s medical school.

“While we saw anxiety levels rise for a few of our participants, it was a big surprise to discover quite the opposite was the case for many of them. Of particular interest, those students who felt least connected to school before the lockdown saw a larger decrease in anxiety which raises questions about how the school environment affects some younger teenagers’ mental well-being.”

Depression levels remained fairly consistent over time, with a 2 per cent decrease of boys at risk of depression and a 3 per cent increase in girls at risk of depression.

“This was again unexpected and arguably shows the resilience of young people and their ability to adapt to challenging situations,” Widnall said.

Many students’ sense of well-being also improved during lockdown, with boys showing a bigger improvement than girls. Those with the lowest levels of well-being pre-pandemic benefited most, with their scores increasing by 14 per cent compared to no increase in those with average to above average well-being.

The survey involved more than 1,000 year 9 students from 17 secondary schools across the South West.