Michelle Obama’s support for a school in the UK – including an emotional personal visit - had a direct impact in improving students’ exam grades, an academic study has concluded.
The First Lady visited the London school for 11-16 year-olds when accompanying her husband to a G20 summit back in 2009.
In moving scenes, she told the students at the girls' school that like many of them she had grown up in a poor neighbourhood, but through her determination and hard work had been able to attend Princeton University and Harvard Law School.
If she had been able to follow that path, similar success was open to them, she told the students at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in Islington, north London.
Following her initial visit, Mrs Obama invited students to meet her in Oxford two years later, and then brought 12 students to the White House in 2012.
Professor Simon Burgess, from Bristol University, has now studied the impact of her association with the schools on the girls’ exam results.
He analyzed the GCSE scores – taken when students are 16 years-old - from over the past decade, compared to London state secondary schools. He found a slight rise in scores from 2009 to 2010, while the 2012 score was substantially above 2011.
Professor Burgess said: "Those results focus on the overall effect, but since Michelle Obama was encouraging very high performance and aspirations it is important to look specifically at high performance too.”
He found a “very striking” rise in the number of top grades relative to the rest of London in 2012. “If this is really a result of Michelle Obama’s interventions, then it is a big effect," he said.
"In general terms: 'I did this; you could too', can be a very powerful message if delivered by the 'right' person. Michelle Obama was that person, and her words had an effect – you only need to watch the news videos to see that the pupils were genuinely inspired.”
“What can we learn from this? First in terms of what matters for achievement, this supports the idea that inspiration and aspiration and effort are important, potentially very important.
“Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was by no means a low performing school, and yet this injection of inspiration made a big difference.”
Professor Burgess also said schools need to better understand what motivates students.
“Finally, the policy implications are both easy and hard,” he added. “We need to get inspirational role models into schools to talk about the importance of education. … The hard bit is finding speakers with that close connection to the specific pupils, to make it believable to say 'I was like you; you can be like me'."
The First Lady has continued to campaign for better education and recently returned from a visit to Africa to push for better access to school for girls.
Jo Dibb, the principal of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, said the most important thing was that schools nurture students.
“Having inspirational women who can speak to the girls is all part of what we do but if schools cannot nurture the seed that is planted and help the girls to become resilient when things get rough, then nothing is going to happen as a result of that,” Ms Dibb told the Times of London.
'Michelle Obama and an English School: the power of inspiration' by Simon Burgess
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