Teachers perceive children from poor backgrounds as less able, study suggests

UCL analysed results from standardised tests by nearly 5,000 primary school pupils in England and compared them with teacher assessments of pupil ability. The findings indicate that poorer children tend to be perceived as less able than richer classmates who achieved similar test scores.

Researcher Tammy Campbell said: “I want to stress that this isn’t something unique to teachers. It’s human nature. Humans use stereotypes as a cognitive shortcut and we’re all prone to it.”

She added: “This research is showing how that cognitive process is manifesting itself in education. Given that it is a problem, we need to talk about how we are addressing it. Teachers need to recognise explicitly the psychological processes that teachers – like everyone else – are prone to.”

Pupils from low income families had a 29 per cent chance of being rated below average at reading by teachers, compared to 20 per cent of equally able classmates from high income backgrounds. In maths, poorer children had a 26 per cent chance of being rated below average, compared to 19 per cent for richer pupils.

In addition to an unconscious bias regarding economic backgrounds, the research also highlighted gender stereotypes that girls are seen to be better at reading while boys are better at maths.

Campbell put forward concerns that perceived differences could lead to a “vicious circle” that perpetuates inequality, which could have implications for pupil’s future attainment, subject choice and even careers. She said: “I can’t say definitely based on my research but we do know that teacher expectation and assessments can have a longterm effect on pupil progress, because it can affect their interaction, in terms of the groups they are put in… If you are an average-scoring boy from a lower income family, or an average-scoring girl in maths, and you are placed in a lower set then that is going to potentially depress your longterm trajectory.”

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