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Unpacking Educational Disadvantage: Exploring the Complex Web of Factors

Welcome back to the second instalment of our four-week blog series on educational inequalities. Last week, we dissected the patterns of attainment for disadvantaged learners. We found that despite decades of policy attention, a substantial attainment gap exists, with disadvantaged students consistently trailing behind their peers from an early age, reaching a significant 27 percentage point difference in GCSE attainment by age 16.

White British pupils, especially from lower social classes, face greater polarisation in attainment and the intersectionality of disadvantage, gender, and ethnicity reveals nuanced disparities, such as disadvantaged boys from white British or black Caribbean backgrounds being least likely to achieve pass marks in GCSE English and maths.

Post-16, students eligible for free school meals are found to enter fewer qualifications, opt for lower prior attainment qualifications, attend university less frequently, and have lower earnings.

The 'London effect,' where the GCSE performance gap is smaller in London schools was also discussed.

Today, we delve deeper into the intricate web of factors contributing to this educational divide and next week we will explore ‘what works’ in relation to narrowing the gap.

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The contents of this blog are based on a systematic review of the research conducted by Capsule Research for Big Education who have been working on the ‘Inequalities in Education’ project co-funded by Bath and North East Somerset Council and St John’s Foundation.

Why does the divide exist? Is it to do with school, the home environment or difficulties faced by the pupils themselves?

When exploring the ‘reasons why’ such a divide exists, the research shows that there is a complex interplay between pupil level factors, the home environment and school influences.

Pupil-Level Factors

Academic Self-Concept and Identity: 

Research indicates that working-class children often enter schools without a familial history of educational success, impacting their self-concept and overall attainment. Lacking a sense of belonging correlates with lower grades, application to lower-ranked universities, and increased stress among pupils eligible for free school meals.

This sense of alienation has been proven to continue all the way up to university; 22% of the most deprived state school pupils drop out of university within two years, compared to 7% of the least deprived; reporting that they feel a sense of isolation, from both the middle-class university environment as well as from their own community (Crenna-Jennings, 2018). Further, children from deprived backgrounds tend to view themselves as scholastically less able and are less likely to believe that school results are important in life (Goodman and Gregg, 2010, Haroon et al., 2009).

Parents are also seen to have a role in self-concept and interactions with education. For example, Crenna-Jennings, 2018 takes us through a study by Lareau and colleagues which identified a strategy of ‘concerted cultivation’ among the middle-class US families they followed: parents tended to 

encourage their children to interact with institutions and communicate with authority figures, and  enrolled them in enrichment activities from a young age. In contrast, within working class families the researchers identified a strategy of ‘natural growth,’ in which parents were less invasive and did not structure their children’s daily activities. Studies from the UK have made similar findings.

Aspiration and Preferences: 

The research suggests that aspiration plays a pivotal role in educational outcomes. For example, Goodman and Gregg (2010) found that differences in attitudes and behaviours during primary school accounted for around 12% of the total age 11 attainment gap between the poorest and richest children.

The 14-16 age bracket is also a key time when differences in aspiration have a real impact on progress and relate particularly to the expectation of going to university. 

Interestingly, expectations for HE among parents and children are high across the board, especially at age 14 (Haroon et al., 2009). However, there is a ‘collapse’ in expectations regarding university between the ages of 14 and 16, particularly among children from the poorest backgrounds. In terms of aspiration young people who think (at age 14) that they will apply to higher education are significantly more likely to do well at Key Stage 4 than those who do not. This relationship holds even after taking into account prior attainment (at Key Stage 3) and many other aspects of the young person’s attitudes and beliefs.

Furthermore, disadvantaged young people, on average, have parents whose educational aspirations for their child are, on average, ‘lower’ than the educational aspirations of better-off parents (Haroon et al., 2009).

There is an important nuance in this debate however. And that is around whether or not disadvantaged pupil’s aspirations are ‘lower’ or instead might be perceived as just ‘different’. Could school staff and researchers alike be making judgements on aspirations based upon middle class ideals?


 Indeed, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) argue that aspiration is high across all social groups, stating instead that the difference between parents and children from richer and poorer backgrounds was the strength of their belief that they would be able to achieve such goals (Goodman and Gregg, 2010). Furthermore, Education Select Committee, 2014 cites research that suggests that working class children do not necessarily have low aspirations, but they are significantly less likely to see schooling as instrumental to achieving them (this would seem to be supported by the finding that White working-class performance reduces rapidly between age 14-16 when exams are taking place).


 This is an important point because if indeed the issue does relate more to their belief system and preferences than to aspiration, then students may be lacking knowledge on alternative progression routes which also require a good level of attainment (such as apprenticeships). 

Having a Special Educational Need or Disability (SEND)

SEND emerges as a significant risk factor throughout a child's educational journey, surpassing the impact of deprivation. The early and teenage years are particularly crucial, where SEND and mental health issues can impede progress and increase the likelihood of exclusion.

Mental Health

 Poorer pupils, especially after the pandemic, are more prone to mental health issues, leading to reduced engagement and increased anxiety about schooling. Mental health and wellbeing problems increase amongst pupils between the ages of eleven and fifteen (The Children’s Society 2016) and there are signs that mental health amongst teenagers has worsened over time (Shaw et al, 2017). The link between emotional well-being and academic achievement underscores the need for holistic support systems.


Gender differences in educational outcomes are evident, with boys facing challenges related to subject preferences, conduct issues, and attitudes towards education. Understanding neurological variances, such as brain development, adds another layer to the gender disparity discussion. For example, cited in Bromley (2021) is research by Gurian and Stevens (2005) who found that boys’ brains go into a “rest state” many times each day. For some boys – especially those with behavioural difficulties – self-stimulating and disruptive behaviours such as tapping a pencil (although it can be symptomatic of emotional or psychological problems in some boys) may reflect male brains trying to stay awake in a classroom that is not well-suited to their kind of learning. Boys under the age of 11 are more likely than girls to have a diagnosed behavioural or emotional disorder; hyperactivity conditions are most common amongst boys.



Family/Home-Life Factors: Nurturing Progress

What happens at home also plays a pivotal role in shaping a student's educational journey. Low-income households face significant challenges, from limited access to learning materials to less effective support for learning.

Disparities in Home Learning:

Data presented by McNally and Tahir (2022) reveals a significant gap in time spent on learning activities and available resources between disadvantaged pupils and their peers during the pandemic. The quality of housing and its impact on home learning become critical considerations in understanding the widening gap between FSM pupils and their counterparts.

Law et. Al. (2017), assert the impact of family income and the home learning environment in the early years. They explain that family income “is no doubt associated with the quality of the home learning environment. Not only does it increase children’s access to high-quality toys and experiences, it is also linked to parents’ level of education, which is also independently associated with children’s language development and other learning outcomes.”


Homework and Parental Engagement:

Homework emerges as a key factor in secondary school progress, with disparities in support among lower-income parents. Sammons et al. (2015) found that progress at secondary school was greatest for those completing two to three hours of homework per night.


Parents from more deprived families also differ in how much time they spend with their children (Farquharson et al, 2022). Eligibility for FSM is also associated with parents’ lack of confidence in supervising their child’s work, while parents with a degree felt better able to supervise their child’s home learning (Reay, 2022). Further, studies from the US and UK studies show that low-income parents are much more likely to underestimate the impact they have on their child’s cognitive development and learning (Crenna-Jennings, 2018).

Remember how parents can affect their child’s aspirations too? Parental engagement is beginning to appear pretty important.

Literacy Levels and Early Years:

Last week we detailed research which showed that gaps in attainment between disadvantaged learners and their peers begin to emerge as early as 11 months, with this pattern persisting.

 The importance of early years in child development cannot be overstated and the findings underscores the critical importance of addressing disparities from the early stages of a child's educational journey to mitigate the enduring effects on their academic outcomes.

The opportunity for parents to interact with their child or for children to experience wider interactions through early education settings are clear focal points of much of the research.


Oppenheim (2022) cites studies which reveal that parents with low educational qualifications spend less time on ‘developmental childcare’ (time parents spend reading, interacting and playing with their child than those with higher educational qualifications). Further evidence presented by La Valle and Jones suggests that parental stress and poor mental and physical health (often related to income status) can leave parents less able to respond sensitively to their children’s learning and development needs.

Inter-parental conflict (IPC) is also increasingly recognised as an important determinant of child  outcomes.


Stock et al. (2017) presents a family stress model which shows how economic pressure impacts on parents’ mental health; these difficulties can include ‘reduced parental sensitivity and time spent interacting with their child.


Stressful events which were most associated with lower educational attainment or worse wellbeing, but only when the event occurred when the child was older than 7 years, included parental divorce, parents arguing, not seeing parents/siblings as much as usual, and moving/attending a new school.


School Factors: Navigating the Educational Landscape

While school-level factors may not solely account for the attainment gap, they play a crucial role in either perpetuating or alleviating disparities. From teacher quality to streaming and expectations, we dissect the various elements that schools can influence.



There were some common themes across the literature pertaining to the role that schools can have in maintaining or widening the gap. These are as follows:

·       Teacher quality/effectiveness: Considered “the most important school-level factor for pupil attainment” (Crenna-Jennings, 2018)

·       Key Stage 3 provision failing to build on what pupils have learnt at primary school: (Shaw et al, 2017)

·       Streaming: Weak provision for pupils placed in lower sets or exam tiers holds back low-income pupils in particular (Shaw et al, 2017).  Further, pupils in lower sets and streams, who are disproportionately FSM-eligible, are more likely to be taught by less experienced teachers (Crenna-Jennings, 2018).

·       Lower expectations of pupils from low-income households amongst teachers (this is a tentative assertion and needs further evidence) (Shaw et al, 2017, UK Parliament, 2022).

·       Valuing vocational routes less highly. This is seen in large part due to government priorities and targets, which incentivise schools to focus on academic subjects (UK Parliament, 2022).

·       Quality of Information, Advice and Guidance is less available for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds (Farquharson et al, 2022, Crenna-Jennings, 2018) who will instead often turn to family and peers for information (Dickerson, Maragkou and McIntosh, 2018, cited in Farquharson et al, 2022); disadvantaged young people may lack social networks with the knowledge and contacts to replace guidance offered in school (Crenna-Jennings, 2018). ). This is compounded by the complexity of routes post-16 alternative to the simpler academic A-level to university route. A lack of information about career pathways may lead students not to realise how much progress is required at secondary school in order to achieve their future career goals (St. Clair et al. 2013, cited in Classick et al, 2021). Progress might therefore be hindered by a lack of knowledge about how GCSE attainment translates into career outcomes.



The ‘London Effect’

Did last week’s post leave you  wondering why London students in particular seem to have their own brand of academic success? A deep dive into the "London Effect" by Ross et al. (2020) sheds light on the interplay of structural and agency factors. This exploration goes beyond the commonly acknowledged systemic changes, such as the City Challenge and focused on factors such as differences in disadvantaged pupils' aspirations, expectations, self-belief, and behaviours, along with those of their parents and peers.

In 2015, the most influential agency factors contributing to the London effect were identified. These included disparities in parental aspirations and expectations, the time spent by pupils on homework, levels of self-belief, and marginal yet significant contributions related to attendance at parent-teacher evenings.


The parents of disadvantaged London pupils exhibited a higher likelihood of expecting their child to attend university and being slightly more engaged in parent-teacher evenings. Simultaneously, disadvantaged London pupils displayed a higher propensity to aspire to A levels and university, along with spending more time on homework compared to their counterparts in the rest of England.

What might have contributed to these contrasts in parental aspirations and expectations in London? Shaw et al (2017) attribute it to larger and increasing proportions (over the last decade) of ethnic minority pupils in London (ibid,) who, as we have seen in week 1 are more likely to make better progress than their White working class counterparts throughout secondary school (White working class pupils have also made progress in London but not to the same degree as ethnic minorities, (Farquharson et al, 2022). 


In conclusion, our exploration of educational inequalities has revealed a complex web of interconnected factors contributing to the persistent attainment gap among disadvantaged learners. From pupil-level factors such as academic self-concept and identity to family/home-life factors like disparities in home learning and parental engagement, each element plays a crucial role in shaping a student's educational journey. Additionally, school-level factors, including teacher quality, streaming, and the valuation of vocational routes, further impact the educational landscape. As we move forward, our focus turns to the specific findings of the 'London effect,' where the GCSE performance gap is notably smaller in London schools.


As we unravel the intricate tapestry of factors contributing to educational inequality, it becomes evident that addressing these challenges requires a comprehensive approach. Join us next week as we explore potential solutions and interventions to bridge the educational divide.

Stay tuned for two more instalments in our series on educational inequalities.


Has anything surprised you in this blog post? Learnt something new? Please feel free to share with colleagues, clients and your network.

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