Early educational disadvantage: Aristotle was right

Earlier this week, a posting on the Higher Education Policy Institute website gave us an overview of the role that stereotyping plays in children as young as five in determining their career outcomes. It mainly cites a recent research publication from the USA that revealed “Stereotypes that girls are less interested than boys in computer science and engineering emerge early and may contribute to gender disparities”. The effect spans ethnic and socioeconomic boundaries implying that gender stereotypes are deeply embedded in the thinking of children early on. The idea attributed to Aristotle (perhaps incorrectly) “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man” probably holds true and cements inequality into our society. However, even allowing for the same effect in women, the gender blindness of Aristotle shows something that goes back over two thousand years. But adding other effects, such as socioeconomic disadvantage, would also impact what children think about possible jobs and aspirations.  This may be just as deeply embedded in our society. There is a mass of research that shows there is a clear impact and many recommendations about how to make the situation better. The lesson is that children fall behind early on and find it hard to catch up.  Resources and encouragement at home are clearly very important in developing a sense of what is possible. For those with little support, the long-term negative effect of combining ‘who they don’t know’ with ‘what they don’t know’ is profound.  Improvements must start early at home and be reinforced by more support at school. Ability alone is not enough without information and a road map to follow. The lesson is that resources at home and throughout school are also needed in parallel to inform and inspire children about possible career paths. This should be taken much more seriously by the government to avoid dashing their hopes and abandoning ‘levelling up’.

The report, ‘New research on the stereotypes formed at a young age, their long-term impacts and what can be done to tackle them successfully’ by Nick Chambers, Head of the Education and Employers charity, is an excellent summary of the research and main issues surrounding how and when children decide what job they would like. The offering is mainly related to gender differences and highlights research published in in the USA in November  in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, ‘Gender stereotypes about interests start early and cause gender disparities in computer science and engineering’.  The study itself was confined to gender choices in computer science and engineering, nevertheless it revealed “common societal stereotypes that girls are less interested than boys in computer science and engineering, are endorsed by children and adolescents in a large and socioeconomically diverse sample, across multiple racial/ethnic and gender intersections, and as early as age six”.

The overall conclusion may not be a great surprise, yet the effect spans socioeconomic and racial boundaries. This is troubling and implies that gender stereotypes are very deeply embedded in the minds of a very wide range of children from an early age.

Some detail.

The research results comprised an amalgamation of four different studies (total n of 2,449).  Interestingly, in the small print of supplemental information was the observation that 47 duplicate responses were removed. Also, that 410 participants were excluded from the analyses after failing the ‘attention check’ in a question “Please choose ‘slightly disagree’ to show that you read this question”. This was ‘preregistered’ and the answer to the question might have reflected more the reading and comprehension ability of the person than their attention.

By their own admission, the studies were confined mostly to children who were “White (72%), and most children in these districts were from middle- and upper-class households”. The exception was Study 2 that “included a larger sample in a more racially and economically diverse district”.  These were 1,544 students covering all ages from 5 to 18 years in six schools in the smallest US state, Rhode Island.

The findings on gender are what many scientists categorise as ‘low hanging fruit’. This means the results are more easily accessible and easier to explain.  More difficult to tease out are the myriad of other effects such as ethnicity, and especially the range of socioeconomic disadvantages. Effects related to these are likely to overlap with other influences caused by a wide range of family circumstances.

The question is, how much is motivation affected by access to information and resources at home?

Disadvantages are suffocating motivation at school.

There have been many studies related to this topic and all appear to conclude that coming from a disadvantaged background is not doing those school students any favours. A study by the Joseph Roundtree Foundation back in 2007, ‘Experiences of poverty and educational disadvantage’ is a good review of the evidence.  They concluded “deprived children are more likely to feel anxious and unconfident about school”.  The result is they often achieve less at school and develop below optimal “attitudes to education at primary school that help shape their future”. However, the effect of the school is only a part of the story since family and “Out-of-school activities can help build self-confidence”. The outcome is that “Children from advantaged backgrounds experience more structured and supervised out-of-school activities”.  All these differences conspire to hold back many young students from achieving their full potential.  But without the information and the means to progress, motivation alone cannot be effective.

A personal observation.

Getting some encouragement and support at home is critical to surviving school and the expectations they set. This holds true for the advantaged and disadvantaged. But overshadowing this is the provision of fewer resources and exclusion from activities as a result. Better-off children tend to access more out of school activities and build relationships in a peer group. For others, the rule of ‘no money, no go’ applies. Bridging the gap between the two requires a sense of what resources are needed to get the best out of children. Children from families who cannot add extra resources are always going to struggle to fit in and achieve as much. Missing out on many of the extra activities numbs the sensibilities. Emerging from a home with no books meant that I had to make more effort to access resources at school or the public library, that was a two mile walk along a route that was not very safe. The equivalent today might be having no internet access at home and running a gauntlet when seeking access elsewhere. Mentoring about possible careers for me was absent until far too late. The only formal careers advice I received was at the age of fifteen from a careers advisor who informed me that “university is not for the likes of you”. But some teachers did later say more was possible.  I write this as a science professor retired from a Russell Group University with thirty-seven years of experience, in part driven by a need to prove him wrong. 

But it is important that advice and encouragement are also matched by access to the resources needed to make it possible.  Otherwise, it’s like sending Hercules on an impossible mission into the underworld to capture Cerberus without a guide or a map (a bit like a Hermes driver perhaps). It would have been useful if someone had provided me with at least a map and where the destination might be. The same holds true today.

Attainment and more support.

Most emphasis by the government has been placed upon schools closing the attainment gap between most and least advantaged students.  This gap is seen as politically embarrassing with plenty of data to show the chasm is real and ongoing through the Covid era (TEFS 28th August 2020 ‘Levelling up? No, the educational equality decline has just started’).

However, settling on ‘attainment’ as the priority must be accompanied by looking at what motivates children. But schools cannot easily extend that influence beyond their gates. This means reinforcing resources in school with other wider measures reaching into families.

A report for the Department for Education in 2015 ‘Supporting the attainment of disadvantaged pupils: Briefing for school leaders’ is a good example of attainment focus. This was in the context of the ‘Pupil Premium’ introduced in 2011. However, cuts are eating into its effectiveness (‘Schools set to lose £118m funding for poor pupils’ BBC News 21st May 2021). It should be more valued as offering a lifeline, but there are doubts about the resources getting to those who need it most. There is some evidence that this is happening with schools plugging staffing gaps by using the extra funding.

Schools are afforded a considerable degree of flexibility and autonomy in how they deploy the additional funds. This leads to the suspicion that they are plugging other gaps in their budgets arising from overall cuts elsewhere. This is understandable given the situation, and retaining experienced staff would be a very high priority. The evidence for this came out in a survey of schools in England conducted by the Sutton Trust and released earlier this year, ‘School Funding and Pupil Premium 2021’ (Sutton Trust 29th April 2021). It reinforced earlier conclusions from 2019 arising from research by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) ‘Teacher Voice Omnibus Survey’. Both secondary heads (28%) and primary heads (35%) admitted that pupil premium funding was being used to plug budget gaps elsewhere. Secondary heads (33%) and primary heads (47%) said they had cut teaching assistants for financial reasons this year. Moreover, 33% also reported cutting teaching staff and support staff at secondary schools. Such stringencies partly explain why some funds do not reach the disadvantaged students more directly.(see TEFS 7th May 2021 ‘Funding lifeline for disadvantaged students in schools under the spotlight’).

Linking into preschool support.

The realisation that very early-stage support is vital for all children has brought about some government action. The ‘Sure Start’ initiative began its life in 1998 and slightly different versions across the UK jurisdictions went some way to supporting families with children. However, the current government doesn’t adopt a strong position and the service has been gradually cut. There is no doubt that subsequent cuts to the number of centres and overall funding have impacted the service. A study in the British Medical Journal in 2016 concluded that ‘Austerity cuts are eroding benefits of Sure Start children’s centres’. By 2017 a House of Commons Library report ‘Sure Start (England)’ reviewed the negative impact of the changes and cuts over time. An earlier report from the London School of Economics  Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, ‘The Coalition’s Record on the Under Fives: Policy Spending and Outcomes 2010-2015’ concluded that “The cold climate for social policy and those most affected by it will remain into the foreseeable future”.

The Sutton Trust in 2018 with, ‘Stop Start: survival, decline or closure? Children’s centres in England’ surveyed local authorities and revealed the extent of the attrition with “the drop since 2009 was more than 30%, suggesting that more than 1,000 centres nationally might have closed”.  These have not been reversed despite growing evidence of their positive impact, especially on children’s health.  A recent report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies in November, ‘The Health Effects of Universal Early Childhood Interventions: Evidence from Sure Start’ offered clear evidence of the economic benefits of improved health. They also observed that “To accurately measure the full benefits of Sure Start against its cost, it will therefore be crucial to look at additional outcomes that the program could have improved. In work in progress, we will study the impacts of Sure Start on children’s attainment, use of social care, and offending behaviour”

It seems obvious that ‘Sure Start’ could also extend the chances of less advantaged children into their early school years. It would seem logical that educational development and health work together. Supporting both of these equally into the school years should be a given. However, the children transition from support at home to support at school and find that attainment takes over as the priority. 

It’s who you know, not what you know.

This is a commonly used term that is bandied about to signify gaining an advantage through contacts.  However, in the case of many students with fewer advantages, it might be more a mix of ‘what you don’t know’ and ‘who you don’t know’ combined to exacerbate the gaps in opportunity.

An earlier study in 2018 conducted by Education and Employers, ‘Drawing the Future’ (.pdf) revealed a fascinating insight into how children were preforming their perceptions about work and careers. The survey simply asked over 20,000 primary school children aged between seven to eleven to draw a picture of the job they wanted to do when they grow up. Submissions were from several different countries with the majority of 13,070 from the UK. The UK results covered different regions, ethnicities, and a measure of social disadvantage.  However, assessing disadvantage was not done by asking the children directly. Instead, the schools were asked what percentage of their children were eligible for Free School Meals (FSM). This was a shortcoming in that the individual circumstances of the family were not known, only the likelihood of disadvantage “within a disadvantaged socio-economic area”.  Despite this, the results were telling. The overall impression is that children are simply not able to draw some jobs at all if they do not know what they are.  Knowing someone in a job through family contacts certainly helps in their creativity, otherwise they fall back on TV, Sports and other media for inspiration. They confirmed that “children’s aspirations are shaped from a young age” and “36 % of children from as young as seven years old, base their career aspirations on people they know”.

The solution to this information shortfall is take it to its logical conclusion and offer mentoring. 

The ‘Education and Employers’ charity runs two programmes for schools. One ‘Inspiring the Future’ for secondary schools and the other ‘Primary Futures’ for younger children.  Both rely on the 68,851 volunteers who have registered to give a little time to schools. The aim is to give “children access to role models from the world of work and empowering teachers to connect directly with employer volunteers to organise high-quality career-related learning”. To this end, the ‘Primary Futures’ initiative runs virtual activities for schools that have a rapid impact. Their research report earlier this year in March,  ‘Starting Early: New research shows that career-related learning for primary-aged children works…and more is needed(.pdf ‘Starting Early: Building the foundations for success’), came from this activity and showed the power of this approach.

They are not the only ones and other charities, such as ‘Inspire’ are offering a similar service to primary schools.  There are now quality awards available from the ‘Quality in Careers’ consortium to recognise careers teaching at this level. As a result, many more children will become aware of the possibilities for them. But the hope is that this doesn’t only affect those with advantages already.

Matching aspiration with resources.

There is no doubt that showing children there are interesting jobs they didn’t know about will expand their horizons. The effect could be powerful with real people they can meet to answer their questions. This will surely alter many gender and ethnicity perceptions of what is possible. However, there is a caveat. If the children return at the end of the school day hungry to a home steeped in disadvantage and lack of resources, then the effect could wear off fast. There must be support at home to support and convince parents and carers that the excitement and enthusiasm of the child is not dashed by a stark reality.

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