Blog post based on an article in Journal of Social Policy

Early experiences can set children up for life. A plethora of research indicates that pupils’ development and performance at the beginning of their education can carry through to adulthood – so this formative stage is crucially important. But recent governments have presided over a system where there are stark gaps in recorded achievement at the primary level, and where the attainment of some children appears to fall far below that of their peers.

So how can the newly elected administration begin effectively to tackle these disparities? Given the longstanding nature of attainment gaps, a fresh, critical re-examination of their causes is urgently needed. The government should look again at the key factors that may shape pupils’ progress during the primary phase, and properly consider how these factors can influence and be influenced.

Do children’s own efforts, abilities and accomplishments play a part in their academic achievement? The evidence suggests that, to some degree, this is the case, and it seems reasonable that pupils who perform well and attain well should go on to be successful later in life.

But what if such capable performance is not recognised? What if some able children are systematically misjudged and under-assessed, and their progress and development penalised? And what if these inequitable experiences are related in part to their background and characteristics?

My research, using a sample of almost 5000 seven-year-olds in England taking part in the Millennium Cohort Study, shows overall, systematic patterns of bias in teachers’ assessments of children’s ability and attainment. I compare pupils’ performance on independent cognitive tests to teachers’ judgements of their capabilities – and find patterns of disproportionate over- and under-assessment that reflect the national attainment gaps that have persistently been reported under the last two governments.

For example, teachers in my research tend more often to judge boys as performing ‘below average’ at reading, even when they score equivalently to girls in reading tests. Similarly, the girls in my study who score at the same level as boys in a maths cognitive test are less likely to be judged ‘above average’ at maths by their teachers.

National statistics suggest higher recorded levels of attainment at reading and lower levels of attainment at maths for girls during primary school – and vice versa for boys. Particularly because much ‘attainment’ at the primary level relies on assessments by teachers, it seems that there might be a vicious circle at work here. Teachers’ notions of pupils’ ability may be informed by their knowledge of national norms, and the biases in judgement that this creates may feed into, reinforce, and sustain these norms.

When children are systematically under- or over-rated, and perceived differently according to their characteristics, stereotyping can have an effect not only on this teacher-assessed, official attainment, but on everyday classroom interactions and instruction. My research argues therefore that stereotyping might be instrumental in perpetuating attainment gaps, and I find biases according to many of the characteristics underpinning reported disparities. Gender, family income-level, special educational needs diagnosis, and, to a lesser extent, spoken language, and ethnicity, are all associated with biased perceptions of the Millennium Cohort pupils’ ability and attainment.

Stereotyping is an enduring, universal, human process, and teachers are no more or less likely than the next person to be prone to this cognitive bias. Indeed, given the relentless portrayals of between-group difference and within group-similarity with which teachers have been bombarded under the monitoring and accountability measures of recent governments, it would be surprising if stereotyping did not manifest within education.

Through characteristics-based monitoring, through target-setting, and through ostentatiously ring-fenced and publicised funding, teachers are reminded continually of the groups of children who are expected to excel and succeed – and the groups who are not. Though assumedly well-intentioned, these overtly explicit policies and processes may inadvertently feed into and reinforce stereotypes and biases – producing an effect opposite to that anticipated.

Against this backdrop, and given the patterns demonstrated by my research, it is more important than ever that the psychologies of the teachers and pupils within our schools are acknowledged and addressed. If the incoming government is serious about closing gaps and alleviating differentiated attainment, these factors must be considered.

The existence and the effects of stereotyping and bias need to be recognised: in policy-making, in implementation, in training, and in the everyday messages and norms that are conveyed to both school staff and children. If this takes place, an education system within which all pupils have a more equal chance of progression, of development, and of success, can begin to be created

We encourage you to read the full paper ‘Stereotyped at Seven? Biases in Teacher Judgement of Pupils’ Ability and Attainment’ here

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