Canberra students are less likely to feel they belong at school compared to their Australian peers, according to new research which also shows the nation languishing at the bottom of international rankings.
The Australian Council of Educational Research found students in the ACT and the Northern Territory scored lowest in Australia on a "sense of belonging" index, which surveyed more than 14,500 15-year-old students across 750 Australian schools and compared their answers with teens in the 35 OECD countries.
Victorian students felt the least alienated in Australian schools, when asked to agree or disagree with questions such as "I make friends easily at school" or "I feel like an outsider", but all jursidictions fell below the OECD average.
Spanish students had the strongest sense of belonging worldwide and Turks the weakest, while one in five Australian students reported they felt awkward at school, and 16 per cent said they were lonely.
Girls, those from disadvantaged backgrounds as well as Indigenous and rural students were the hardest hit.
ACER deputy chief executive of research Dr Sue Thomson said a student's socio-economic status made the biggest difference to their sense of belonging, with the least advantaged more likely to feel alienated or lonely.
She admitted it was strange to see the ACT almost faring as badly as the Northern Territory on the index, considering 68 per cent of Canberra students surveyed fell into the two most advantaged SES categories.
In the ACT, fewer students reported they made friends easily and felt other students liked them compared to most other jursidictions, and more said they were lonely.
The research, published late Wednesday, was based on data from the Programme for International Student Assessment, which compares the results of 15-year-old students across 72 countries every year.
Dr Thomson said literacy scores, also tested in the PISA assessment, fell between 2003 and 2015 in the ACT.
While it was hard to tell exactly what was behind the figures, it wasn't all bad news. Across Australia a majority of students still felt like they belonged and more reported their peers liked them compared to the OECD average.
"Of course if we have 20 per cent of kids who are feeling like outsiders, that's not healthy," Dr Thomson said.
"Kids spend such a high proportion of their day at school, it's hard for them to engage in their learning if they don't feel like they fit in there.
"If we were in a full-time job where we didn't feel we belonged, we'd want to leave but students, they can't leave school."
While there was not specific data on bullying included in the report, Dr Thomson said it would be an important next step in research.
She hoped the findings would spark conversations in classrooms and staff rooms about how to best make students feel at home.
Australia's latest belonging results, recorded in 2015, had taken a significant dive since the assessment was first rolled out 15 years ago. That matched similar declines worldwide in all countries except Japan. Girls' sense of belonging was also shrinking faster than boys, who, along with city-dwellers and students from socio-economic advantage, scored the highest in Australia.
Foreign-born students also reported feeling more comfortable in their schools than those born in Australia.
"We've been wondering here if it's something they brought over with them or if it's something the schools here do [for] migrant students," Dr Thomson said.
Find a headspace centre or chat online at headspace.org.au