Good teachers can make the difference between the academic success and failure of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, large-scale research has found.
Successful children are also far more likely to have been offered booster, homework or remedial classes by their schools than less successful children from the same backgrounds.
The Government-funded Effective Provision of Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE) project is a long-term study, following the progress of 3,000 children between the ages of three and 16. This data was used to look at the differences between children from disadvantaged backgrounds who exceeded academic expectations and consistent low-achievers from similar backgrounds.
EPPSE research has previously shown that children's academic success can be dictated as much by the educational activities parents offer at home as by parental income and level of education. This was confirmed by the current study. Children who succeeded against the odds tended to have parents who read with them, played educational games with them and talked to them about school.
"These parents ... were prepared to go to great lengths to provide these experiences and demonstrated determination and creativity in doing so," say the EPPSE academics.
Possibly as a result, the successful children began school with far greater literacy than their disadvantaged peers. They then benefited more from school, improving quickly and significantly.
But it was not only parental influence that made a difference. Parents and pupils attributed a significant part of academic success to teaching quality. Good teachers, they say, were able to explain topics clearly and enthusiastically, and communicate their expectations unambiguously.
"Students bonded with these teachers," the researchers say. "Although they enjoyed the classes, more important was their feeling of being encouraged to work to achieve beyond their predicted attainment."
Successful children also talked repeatedly about teachers who were happy to help them out when they experienced difficulties. Their schools offered booster, homework and revision classes to help them to catch up. Such classes reinforced pupils' positive perception of learning.
Meanwhile, the low-performing children talked about high numbers of supply teachers at their schools, leading to disorganised, uninspiring lessons. Their parents were often frustrated and angered by headteachers who failed to deal effectively with these problems. Such parental negativity reinforced children's own negative attitudes towards school.
As successful children progressed, their parents continued to provide academic and emotional support. And they encouraged children to take up extra-curricular activities.
"The parents ... reinforced high standards for behaviour and academic aspirations for the child," the researchers say. "They explicitly expressed their high esteem for education."
High-achieving children also helped one another out with homework and revision, reinforcing the knowledge that they had gained in the classroom. This contributed to a sense of themselves as effective learners.
By contrast, low-achieving children tended to have little sense that education could be fun. Many had parents who felt unable to support their children at school or even to encourage them to do well.
This cycle was self-perpetuating. Children who were seen as clever, and who enjoyed working hard and doing well, met with praise at home and at school. This, in turn, encouraged them to stretch themselves further. Meanwhile, children who struggled at school often had a negative self-image. This led to decreased motivation and a sense that ability to learn was an inbuilt quality; one which they lacked.
"These students more often had friends and peers with negative attitudes to school and learning," the researchers say. "Their problematic ... behaviour and negative attitudes towards school and learning were reinforced by such friends."
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Department for Education
THE POWER OF PRE-SCHOOL
Average or good pre-school education can help mitigate the effects of social disadvantage at home, claims research by EPPSE.
This is particularly marked for boys from disadvantaged homes, who experience significant long-term benefits from good pre-schooling, the researchers say. By the age of 11, such boys were likely to be more successful than their home circumstances would have predicted.
But such boys were far less likely to be enrolled in a good-quality pre-school than girls from a similar background.
Similarly, disadvantaged girls were far more likely than boys to have parents who created a positive attitude to learning at home. Many parents believed their daughters' ability to manage their own learning in adolescence was directly linked to the decision to teach them practical life skills in early childhood. Parents therefore emphasised these skills as part of their child-rearing strategy.
However, most parents also believed that pre-schools offered their children a range of educational and social advantages. They felt it was important for children to become accustomed to school routines and rules, and to develop basic literacy and numeracy, before beginning formal schooling.
The researchers concluded that a strong emphasis on education at home, coupled with good pre-schooling, was a strong predictor of academic success, regardless of a child's academic background.
This, they say, "underlines the significance of this combination of experiences early on in children's learning life course".