Issues in Educational Research, 7(1), 1997, 69-86.

Does school size affect quality of school life?

Magdalena Mok
Macquarie University
Marcellin Flynn
Australian Catholic University

This paper examines two related research questions. First, is size of school a predictor of students' quality of school life? Second, what attributes of small and large schools contribute to quality of school life? Two samples were included, furnishing both quantitative and qualitative data. The first sample comprised 4,949 Year 12 students from 44 Catholic high schools and the second 570 students from 1 independent and 9 government schools in NSW. Both qualitative and quantitative data analyses found no apparent relationship between school size and quality of school life.


Changing the size of a student body by merging or closing smaller schools is one of the panaceas that policy makers put forward for enhancing educational outcomes and optimally utilising state resources. For example, about one thousand state schools were closed in Victoria in 1992 to reduce the cost of education. Similarly, in New South Wales, the Director-General of Education, Dr Ken Boston, proposed to review the viability of smaller schools in terms of curriculum offerings and to close those not deemed viable (Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Jan 1997, page 1). The recent quality assurance movement in New South Wales and other states provided further impetus for the restructuring of the school system towards much larger schools, which were argued to be more effective than smaller ones.

There is evidence from recent research in support of such arguments. That is, larger schools were observed to be more able to capitalise on economies of scale and students enrolled in larger schools were found to perform better at public examinations, even after accounting for initial differences in school type and students' home background (Mok & Flynn, 1997a). However, it is unsettling that such fundamental reform movements as the amalgamation, or closure, of smaller schools be established on grounds of cost efficiency or academic achievement, which is only one of the many dimensions of schooling.

Responses from the Australian school communities concerning the essence of school effectiveness led McGaw and his associates to conclude that, "Learning and the love of learning; personal development and self-esteem; life skills, problem solving and learning how to learn; the development of independent thinkers and well rounded confident individuals; all ranked as highly or more highly as the outcomes of effective schooling as success in a narrow range of academic disciplines" (McGaw, Piper, Banks, & Evans, 1992: 174).

Working from the premise that a school is a community of people who come together in pursuit of a common goal - the development of the physical, intellectual, vocational, social, emotional, aesthetic and moral dimensions of the young person; it is necessary to discern not only the impact of school size on academic outcome but also the effect of size of school on other facets of school life. This is the purpose of the current study. The research questions addressed here are:

  1. Is size of school a predictor of students' quality of school life?
  2. What attributes of small and large schools contribute to quality of school life?

Literature review

Quality of school life has been accorded special significance by educators because it is viewed as important in its own right and also because of the relationship between students' quality of school life and their academic achievement (Bourke, 1993; Mok & Flynn, 1997b). Thus, there is extensive research on students' reports of their well-being at school (see, for example, review in Smith, 1997).

Whereas numerous research studies undertaken in the past decade have examined quality of school life, only some have investigated the concept in relation to school enrolment. These exceptions have suggested that the claim that construct school size is a significant determinant of school life quality is highly contestable. It seems that school size influences quality of school life in a complex fashion and at least two opposing sets of forces are at work, one of which is economic and the other social. Whether or not students enjoy life at school is likely to depend on the net effect of these countervailing forces.

The first set of forces involves economies of scale (Conant, 1959; 1967), which is realised in larger schools. In this regard, the effect of school size on quality of school life is mediated through students' satisfaction with the breadth and depth of the formal school curriculum. Several pieces of independent research confirmed that human and fiscal constraints associated with small size very often precluded small schools offering a varied academic program (Barker, 1985; Bryk, 1996; Bryk, Lee, and Holland, 1993; Haller, Monk, Spotted-Bear, Griffith, & Moss, 1990; Poole 1987). The limited choice of subject offering in very small schools could lead to student dissatisfaction.

Nevertheless, it is dangerously simplistic to conclude that the effect of school size on curriculum comprehensiveness is invariant across all school types and social contexts. In reality, school size is only a global measure that is related to a host of other school structural characteristics and may itself be dependent on district size (Williams, 1990). Contemporary research on the school size effect that has included other structural features indicates that school size has different curriculum implications depending on the social class of the school (Bryk and Frank, 1991; Friedkin and Necochea; 1988), school governance (public sector versus Catholic system; Bryk, Lee, & Holland; 1993), subject area, course level (advanced versus remedial), school location (rural, suburban, urban) and unionisation (presence or absence of a teachers' union within the school) (Monk & Haller, 1993). Bryk (1996) also observed that although school size could facilitate instructional differentiation, size itself might not be a direct cause.

Another advantage of larger schools over smaller ones in generating economies of scale is that the former are more able to recruit better qualified teachers and have superior school physical environment and facilities (e.g. Haller, Monk, Spotted-Bear, Griffith & Moss, 1990). Although there is no explicit attribution in the school effectiveness literature of the quality of school life to the school's physical environment, several environmental features have been highlighted as contributing factors to school effectiveness. These features include decoration of buildings (Rutter, 1980), low noise level (Reynolds, 1992) and a quiet and orderly atmosphere (Creemers, 1992). In addition, the easy availability of abundant, appropriate instructional materials and resources (Levine, 1992) has also been shown to contribute to effective schooling.

The second set of forces operating between school size and quality of school life concerns the affective aspects of schooling. The advantages of economies of scale offered by large schools may be counter-balanced by this opposing set of forces which can have adverse effects on the school's community. At the administrative level, larger schools are found to have more centralized decision making, lower levels of staff cooperation (Rowan, Raudenbush & Kang, 1991), more formal modes of communication, more extensive bureaucratization and a higher level of work specialisation (Bryk, 1996). In contrast, a small school size tends to facilitate personal interaction and social intimacy (Bryk, 1996). Teachers in smaller schools are more likely to feel satisfied about their work than their counterparts in larger schools (Bryk, Lee & Holland, 1993).

On the student-benefit dimension, smaller schools are found to be associated with higher participation rates in extracurricular activities (Oxley, 1994; Stevens & Peltier, 1994), higher and more socially equitable engagement (Lee & Smith, 1995), more opportunities for developing leadership potential (Bryk, Lee & Holland, 1993), better school discipline (Haller, 1992; Rowan, Raudenbush & Kang, 1991), better school climate (Gregory, 1992; Lindsay, 1984; Oxley, 1994), better student attitudes (Fowler, 1992) and lower school dropout rates (Kleinfeld, McDiarmid & Hagstrom, 1989; Toenjes, 1989; Fetler, 1989). However, the effect of school size is not invariant across all school types. For example, Bryk and his associates noted that, within the Catholic sector, school size has little influence on student outcomes and reported specific examples of positive effects for large schools (Bryk, Lee & Holland, 1993). Their findings were supported by Berkey (1996) who maintained that if student services, staff development and curricula are properly managed, large schools can be as efficient and effective in establishing a good learning atmosphere as small schools.

The current study distinguishes itself from earlier studies in two regards. First, this study is undertaken in the context of Australian schools and second, it combines qualitative and quantitative approaches to collecting data from students' perspectives. Thus, this study adds to extant literature and is the first of its kind to provide an insider's viewpoint on how Australian Year 12 students' well-being is related to size of school enrolment.


The study design

Two independent investigations sharing the same theme contributed data to this study. The first was a large scale longitudinal survey of the culture of Catholic schools (Flynn, 1993) and was undertaken between May 1990 and March 1991. The second, a separate survey undertaken in 1993, was concerned with the culture of New South Wales (NSW) schools (Mok, 1994).

The Catholic school culture study is a component of a larger investigation (Flynn, 1993) in which Year 12 students enrolled in sampled Catholic High Schools in New South Wales, Australia, were consulted regarding their academic aspirations and expectations, attitudes toward the school curriculum and psycho-social aspects of their school life experiences. Responses from students concerning their quality of school life on standardised questionnaires contributed quantitative data for analysis in relation to the first research question, namely, "Is size of school a predictor of students' quality of school life?".

The second study of New South Wales school culture was exploratory, with the aim of identifying prevalent themes and the essence of school size in relation to school effectiveness from the insider's perspective. Year 12 students were consulted utilising open-ended questions in July 1993. Their written responses furnished qualitative data for the second research question, "What attributes of small and large schools contribute to quality of school life?"

Thus, together, data collected in the two instances provided information on the structural relationships between school size and quality of school life, as well as reasons underpinning the effectiveness of large and small schools, without presupposing the investigators' knowledge of what was most important to the students. The samples and procedures for the two studies are described separately in the sections below.

Study 1: The culture of Catholic schools study

Sample of the Catholic school culture study
The subjects of the Catholic School Culture study comprised a representative sample of 4,949 Year 12 students from 44 Catholic schools in New South Wales (NSW) and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). At the time of the study, there were 102 Catholic Year 12 High Schools educating almost 12,000 final year students in that year. The sample therefore represented about 41% of the population. The sampling procedure adopted ensured that Year 12 students in each of the 13 Dioceses were adequately represented. There were 13 boys' schools, with 1,217 male subjects, 10 girls' schools, with 1,002 female subjects and 21 co-educational schools, with 1,405 male and 1,325 female subjects in the study (Flynn, 1993).

In this study, after obtaining informed consent from school principals, students and their parents, students were consulted utilising a self-administered questionnaire in class under the supervision of the second author or his research assistants between May and July 1990. The questionnaire was designed to solicit information on students' academic expectations, motivation, values, religious practice and other aspects of school life. Only responses to the 40 Quality of School Life items, students' gender and home background characteristics and school level information, comprising school size and coeducational or single-sex status of the school were included in this study.

Study 2: The NSW school culture study

Sample of the NSW school culture study
A total of 570 Year 11 students participated in the second study. These students were enrolled in classes drawn from 10 schools which were located in the four metropolitan regions (metropolitan North, East, South West and West) of Sydney, New South Wales. The schools comprised 1 independent and 9 government schools. Nine of the schools were co-educational and the remaining, a government one, was a single-sex school. The age of the students ranged from 15 years to over 21 years, with 65% of the sample in the 16 years' age group.

Procedure of the NSW school culture study
In this study, permission was obtained from the NSW Department of School Education followed by appropriate informed consent from school principals, students and their parents. Students' responses were obtained utilising self-administered questionnaires completed in class under the supervision of their classroom teacher, the first author or her research assistant between July and September 1993. Only responses to two open-ended items were included in this study. The items are:

  1. Describe the characteristics of a school which you would enjoy studying in.
  2. Describe the characteristics of a school which you do not want to study in.

Measurement of quality of school life

Students' quality of school life was measured by the Quality of School Life (QSL) scale originally developed by Williams and Batten (1981) at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), Melbourne, from work by Epstein and McPartland (1976). Much development work has been undertaken since the scale's original construction, including Ainley and Bourke (1988; 1992), Bourke (1986; 1993), Bourke and Frampton (1992), and Flynn (1993).

The scale has been used widely by researchers in the context of Australia schools (for example, Ainley, 1995; Bourke and Smith, 1995; Rowe, 1989; see also review in Smith, 1997). In general, these studies supported the construct validity of the scale. Construct validity of the scale has also been established utilising confirmatory factor analysis of responses from the 4,949 students in this study (Flynn, 1993; Mok & McDonald, 1994). The analyses identified seven distinct factors confirming the constructs hypothesised by Williams and Batten (1981). The seven factors in turn formed a higher order factor, which was interpreted as a proxy measure, labelled as the Quality of School Life, or QSL factor and represented students' general well-being at school.

The Quality of School Life scale was originally designed for secondary school students. However, forms for use at both secondary and primary levels are currently available (Bourke, 1993). In this study, the secondary school version of the Quality of School Life scale consists of 40 Likert items with five response categories: Certainly true, probably true, uncertain, probably false, certainly false. All items shared the common stem, which read: "My school is a place where..." The quality of school life was conceptualised in terms of the following dimensions, each in turn being represented by a subscale.

  1. Positive affect, which reflects students' general satisfaction with school as a whole. Examples of items are: "My school is a place where I really like to go each day"; "My school is a place where I find that learning is a lot of fun". There are 5 items in the corresponding subscale, which is labelled SATISFACTION in this study.

  2. Negative affect, which refers to students' negative reactions towards school such as feelings of alienation, loneliness and depression. Examples of items are: "My school is a place where I feel restless or upset"; "My school is a place where I feel lonely". There are 5 items in the corresponding subscale, which is labelled ALIENATION in this study.

  3. Satisfaction with two specific dimensions of school.

    Curriculum-related factors

    1. Relationships with teachers, which reflects students' perceptions of the adequacy of their interaction with teachers. Examples of items are: "My school is a place where teachers treat me fairly in class"; "My school is a place where teachers take a personal interest in helping me with my school work". There are 6 items in the corresponding subscale, which is labelled TEACHER in this study.

    2. Sense of achievement at school, which refers to a sense of confidence in the student's own ability to succeed at school. Examples of items are: "My school is a place where I am a success as a student"; "My school is a place where I always achieve a satisfactory standard in my work".. There are 6 items in the corresponding subscale, which is labelled ACHIEVEMENT in this study.

    3. Opportunity, which refers to students' beliefs that school is relevant to their lives and that they see it as opening up future opportunities. Examples of items are: "My school is a place where I have acquired skills which will be useful when I leave school"; "My school is a place where the things I am taught are worthwhile learning". There are 6 items in the corresponding subscale, which is labelled OPPORTUNITY in this study.

    Social development factors

    1. Sense of identity, which refers to students' developing an awareness of themselves, together with an ability to relate to others at school. Examples of items are: "My school is a place where I get on well with other students in my class"; "My school is a place where I learn to get along with other people". There are 6 items in the corresponding subscale, which is labelled IDENTITY in this study.

    2. Students' self-esteem and status, which refers to students' feelings of self-worth and importance accorded by significant others within the school. Examples of items are: "My school is a place where people look up to me"; "My school is a place where I know people think a lot of me". There are 6 items in the corresponding subscale, which is labelled STATUS in this study.

Measurement of school size

School size was measured by the total full-time enrolment of the school. The smallest Catholic school in that first study had 234 students and the largest had 1274. The mean and median Catholic school sizes in the study were 759 and 769 respectively. The 10 schools involved in the New South Wales School Culture study had enrolments ranging from 510 to 1150 students, with a mean of 827 and a median of 850 students.

Multivariate multilevel analysis

The Quality of School Life data from the 44 Catholic schools described above have distinctive hierarchical characteristics:

While students bring to school their own personalities, aspirations, values and talents which shape their collective well-being at school, the school itself as a social system exerts a reciprocal influence on individual students through its school culture. In view of this schooling influence on students, data collected at the students' level cannot be attributed solely to student characteristics. A schooling component is also at work which influences student's individual quality of school life.

Many writers in recent years, such as Aitkin and Longford (1986), Bryk and Raudenbush (1992), Goldstein (1995) and Keeves and Sellin (1988), have warned that the use of ordinary least squares regression models, in which data collected at the students' level are then used to draw conclusions at the school level, tend to produce misleading results. These and other writers have recommended the use of multilevel models for data with hierarchical characteristics.

The general approach of multilevel modelling takes into consideration the clustering effect of micro units (students) within macro units (schools) and attributes the appropriate variance to each level inherent in the data. This approach recognises the fact that the 4949 students were drawn from 44 schools. However, the data for this study require a multivariate multilevel model because the seven dependent variables, that is the seven dimensions of quality of school life, are themselves correlated. Analysing the relationships between school size and each of the seven quality of school life dimensions separately would inflate the chances of wrongly rejecting the null hypothesis. Accordingly, two multivariate multilevel analyses are undertaken on the data (Goldstein, 1995).

The first multivariate multilevel analysis involves estimating the structural relationship between school size and the seven domains of quality of school life without controlling for other school and student background variables. It provides an estimate of the total school size effect on students' quality of school life. The second analysis concerns the effect of school size after accounting for school type (co-educational versus single-sex), school socio-economic status, student gender, and the highest education level of both parents. Initial descriptive analysis showed that the raw quality of school life data were not normally distributed. Normalised data were subsequently used in the multivariate multilevel analyses.

Several computer packages are now available for analysing multilevel data. All analyses reported here were computed using the MLn computer package (Goldstein, 1995; Rasbash & Woodhouse, 1995). Content analysis

Qualitative data from students' responses to the two open-ended questions listed above were content analysed to determine the themes with reference to school size identified by students in relation to preferred and not-preferred schools. This content analysis is guided by four steps. In the first step, recurring themes that concerned school size are noted. In the second step, the prevalent themes are defined in statements expressed by the informants. In the third step, this content analyst proceeds to re-read and code the transcripts according to the meaning of each theme as defined by the informants. The fourth step involves discerning a pattern of relationships between themes with the help of the NUD.IST computer package (Q.S.R. NUD.IST Revision 3.0, 1994).


Is size of school a predictor of students' quality of school life?

Multivariate multilevel analyses confirmed that there was no significant (in a statistical sense) linear relationship between school enrolment size and any of the quality of school life dimensions, irrespective of whether school size was taken as a sole predictor, or after controlling for other school and student background characteristics. These results are given in Appendix 1. Instead, student gender, parents' educational level and whether or not the school was co-educational were found to be better predictors of quality of school life than school size itself. To the extent that the data represent students enrolled in New South Wales Catholic schools, the analyses showed that, even after controlling for school size and school socio-economic status,

What attributes of small and large schools contribute to quality of school life?

Similar themes with different emphasis emerged from statements made concerning characteristics of schools preferred by the students and those made concerning schools not preferred. Most statements made in relation to unfavourable schools mirrored those made with respect to preferred schools but were expressed negatively. Nevertheless, issues related to school size received much more emphasis in students' descriptions of preferred schools than in remarks made concerning not-preferred schools. The study identifies four prevalent major themes from the open-ended questions. The first theme concerns psycho-social aspects of school life, the second physical aspects of the school, the third learning and the last the school's organisational aspect. Positive inter-personal relationships was the most important theme identified with preferred schools while the lack of freedom was the most significant characteristic of schools not preferred. A schematic representation of the relationships among the themes is given in Figure 1. The connections between the emerging themes and school size are discussed in the sections below.

Relationship between the school psycho-social aspects and school size
The psycho-social dimension of school life was the most often-mentioned theme. More than 400 such references were found. These expressions were predominantly concerned with student-teacher relationships or student-student interactions. They revealed students' explicit yearning for friendship and care within their school life. A good school was seen to be one where teachers are friendly, helpful, understanding, enthusiastic, caring and good listeners, and students are friendly, helpful, encouraging and committed. Other statements, although more ambiguous, carry the same theme. They expressed favourable schools in terms of a friendly environment, good students, good principal where they feel happy and have fun, where there is good, cooperative and encouraging atmosphere. Respondents made explicit connections between positive psycho-social school environment with the size of schools. Interestingly, small schools or small classes were perceived to be associated with warm and caring school environments. The relationship between a favourable school atmosphere and school size is best illustrated by the following statements made by students:

... preferably not too big. It's a supporting feeling if everyone knows everyone else.
The classes are small so attention can be directed to each student, not just the bad or smart students.
Friendly teachers, small classes, friendly peers.
Friendly, quiet atmosphere. Small but big enough.
Small school and caring atmosphere.

A breakdown of these comments by actual school size showed that perceptions were not related to actual experience. Students from large schools were as likely to associate favourable school atmosphere with small schools as their counterparts from small schools were.

Relationship between the school physical aspects and school size
The physical aspect of the school was, surprisingly, the next significant determinant of whether or not a school was considered favourably amongst students. There were 126 references to the school's physical aspects made by the 570 respondents; about half of these remarks concerned a clean or tidy school campus. The other concerns were in connection with the school's maintenance and its physical environment. For example, students preferred schools where the buildings are modern, comfortably furnished and well equipped (such as with heating and air-conditioning) and their preferences depended upon whether or not the school's location and surroundings are green, open, quiet, peaceful and safe. Although there is no direct connection made by the students between school enrolment and physical aspects of the school, several students attributed a comfortable physical environment to spaciousness of the school campus. There is evidence of this last point in the language used by students in describing preferred schools:

A school that provides a good working area for everyone.
Spacious and comfortable environment, tidy and bright...
Clean rooms, tidy rooms, big rooms.
There are lots of space for the activities such as lunch, sport and cultural matters, more opportunities for people.
(A school which I do not want to study in is) one with demountable rooms which are extremely cold in winter; one without a library.

Relationship between learning aspects and school size
Expressed in various forms, there were 122 references made with regard to the need for a diverse, flexible and balanced curriculum. Sports, music, drama and vocational subjects were all seen as important. High school standards, in the form of good academic records, discipline or prestige (good name) were also amongst criteria used by students to determine the school's popularity. Relatively fewer mentions were made concerning either opportunities created by the school (15), the satisfaction of achievement needs (7), preparations for job, the Higher School Certificate Examination or university (6), or subject relevance (1). Students did not explicitly associate the breadth of curriculum with school enrolment. Instead, the general feeling expressed is that students want small classes, a large campus and a range of subject offerings, as illustrated by the following remarks:

A school with a wide variety of subjects.
A school with space - places to study, sit and (have) lunch.
A small school with a great variety of subjects and sporting activities.
Big, clean school; (with) good sociable teachers; small classes, friendly students.
Nice, clean environment, friendly, big, variety of activities and subjects.

Relationship between school organisational aspects and school size The last theme identified by analysis of open-ended responses concerns school facilities and governance. A school with good library, large canteen, excellent sport facilities, many extra-curricula activities and adequate supply of laboratory equipment was favoured by students. For example, students said:

A school with more than enough open space, enough clean classrooms and buildings, all necessary facilities - including computers, sports equipment.
A large school with sufficient facilities.

However, there is no overt connection between the provision of these facilities and school enrolment. A small number of students expressed preferences with respect to school governance and organisation, such as private versus government, co-educational versus single-sex, multicultural as opposed to mono-cultural, but no direct association is established between these and other aspects, or with school enrolment.

Figure 1: Themes identified in relation to school size


This research examines the effect of school size on Year 12 students' quality of school life using two independent studies involving both quantitative and qualitative approaches.

An a priori expectation based on recent literature was that students in smaller schools experienced more favourable school climates than their counterparts in larger schools. Nevertheless, empirical data do not substantiate such an expectation. Results indicate that the effect of school enrolment on students' well-being at school as measured by the Quality of School Life questionnaire is likely to be only modest and does not reach statistical significance. This finding counters most contemporary research but concurs with results from a study by Bryk and associates (Bryk, Lee, and Holland, 1993) who noted that within the Catholic sector school size had little influence on student outcomes.

However, the fact that a hypothesis derived from previous research, most of which is American based, is not confirmed in the setting of New South Wales Catholic high schools does not seriously undermine the validity of research undertaken in America. The absence of a clear linear relationship between school enrolment and quality of school life is most probably due to the weak association between the number of students at school and quality of Catholic school life which tends to be highly positive in most instances. Other things being equal, a dependent variable (in this case, quality of school life) with a wide range will have more scope for its variance to be explained by other variables (in this case, school size) than a dependent variable with a narrow range. The restricted range (being mostly positive) of quality of school life experienced at Catholic schools in this study could have been responsible for the lack of relationships found with school size. Nevertheless, the findings suggest that within the range of school size studied and to the extent of the sample being representative of New South Wales Catholic schools, there is no reason for policy makers to be hopeful of advantageous affective outcomes, nor fearful of deleterious ones, by forming larger schools.

On the other hand, school size is such a global measure with embedded organizational structure, fiscal and curriculum implications, that if Catholic school size were to have an effect in the sense suggested by the literature, it would be difficult to see how the effect transcends these other operating factors. Perhaps more importantly, there has not been any intervention study to discern the mechanism through which school size works.

From an equity perspective, perhaps one would have had hoped that quality of schooling would not have been affected by school structural variables such as the size of the student body. It is pleasing to note, from students' nominations of preferred school characteristics, that the quality of interpersonal relationship was given the most significant attention. Schools with warm staff-student and student-student relationships, good school discipline, high teaching and learning standard, varied and relevant curricula are viewed favourably by students. These characteristics are mentioned more often by students than are school size, the school's prestige, resources and governance. According to the students, small classes facilitate intimate people relations and a spacious campus provides a comfortable working environment but otherwise there is at most an uncertain association between school enrolment and quality of school life.


The authors would like to thank Dr John McCormick, University of New South Wales, and Mrs Louise Kobler of Macquarie University for their very helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.


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Authors: Dr Magdalena Mok is a senior lecturer in the School of Education, Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW. She has a particular interest in multilevel modeling of educational phenomena.

Dr Marcellin Flynn is a senior lecturer in the School of Education, the Australian Catholic University, NSW. He has published extensively on the Catholic education system including the latest of a series of four research-based books, The culture of Catholic schools (1993).

Please cite as: Mok, Magdalena & Flynn, Marcellin (1997). Does school size affect quality of school life?Issues in Educational Research, 7(1), 69-86.

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