New study shows how stereotyping holds poor children back at school

Teachers appear to assess children differently depending on their background

 

A study published yesterday by the Institute of Education at the University of London finds that social prejudice is deeply ingrained in UK classrooms.

Researcher Tammy Campbell analysed almost 5,000 seven-year-olds at English state schools and looked at how teachers’ perceptions of their ability related to their gender ethnicity and socio-economic backgrounds.

The results are striking. They show how stereotyping can impact on the assessment, and therefore on the ultimate attainment, of pupils from low-income backgrounds.

Teachers were asked to say whether individual pupils were ‘well above average’, ‘above average’, ‘average’, ‘below average’ or ‘well below average’ at both reading and maths. Their answers were then compared with the results of cognitive tests that the pupils had taken in the two subjects.

Some of the key findings were that:

Children from low-income families are less likely to be judged ‘above average’ at reading, despite having similar scores to their comparison counterparts on the reading test. Pupils from higher income families had a 52.3  per cent chance of being rated as ‘above average’ in reading, compared to 26.6 per cent for low-income pupils.

Children who speak other languages in addition to English are less likely to be judged ‘above average’ at reading than children only speaking English – despite scoring the same in the tests.

Black African and Bangladeshi pupils score relatively highly on the reading test – but are again less likely to be judged ‘above average’ and more likely to be judged ‘below average’ by their teacher

Indian children have a 46.9 chance of being judged above average at reading, compared to 28.6 for Black Caribbean children.

The disparities are slightly smaller for maths; however, boys are more likely than girls to be judged ‘above average’ at maths (42 per cent compared to 37 per cent) inverting the general trend.

Children from families of above median income have a 45.6 per cent chance of being judged ‘above average’ for maths, compared to the 24.2 per cent chance of their poorer counterparts.

In general, teachers’ assessments did not appear to be linked to children’s ethnicity (discrepancies were mitigated by the fact that, for example, Black Caribbean children did score lower on the reading test that Indian children).

But even once other characteristics were taken into account, Black Caribbean girls tended to be under-rated in reading and maths, while Pakistani girls were more likely to be under-rated in reading and Bangladeshi boys’ maths skills were more likely to be over-rated.

Commenting on her findings, Campbell said:

“Unless these tendencies are addressed, they may continue to play some part in creating and perpetuating inequalities.”

It is difficult to measure the point at which a perceived lack of ability becomes actual, through lack of attention or aspiration. But we know that socio-economic background has a huge effect on pupils’ performance.

A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released in April found that pupils who receive free school meals do significantly worse at school. Of those eligible for free school meals in 2013/14, 63 per cent did not achieve at least five GCSEs A* to C (including English and Maths) compared to 35.8 per cent of pupils not eligible for free school meals.

Campbell’s report also seems to bolster the claims of the Education Committee that income background has more of an impact on underachievement than race and ethnicity. They found that just 32 per cent of poor white British children achieve five good GCSEs including English and mathematics. That figure is 42 per cent for black Caribbean children eligible for free school meals, and 61 per cent for disadvantaged Indian children.

Campbell stressed that the findings were in no way designed to condemn teachers, who are equally exposed to society’s stereotyping and therefore can be expected to hold the same social biases as the rest of the public.

But she suggested that even well-meaning attempts to give disadvantaged children a better chance actually make the problem worse; for example initiatives aimed at ethnic minority children may create the idea that these pupils are less able.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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