Can after-school activities help reduce attainment gap for poorer pupils?

In praise of non-formal learning. Choir via SpeedKingz/www.shutterstock.com

Children from poorer backgrounds are not always getting the same opportunities to take part in extra-curricular activities as their better-off peers, according to a new report from the think-tank Demos.

The kind of semi-structured activities mentioned in the report, which was backed by the Scout Association, include scouting and guiding, music, drama, debating and sport, as well as social or community action and volunteering. This non-formal learning takes place largely outside the classroom and its advocates believe it can improve levels of academic attainment and character development.

Demos asked just over 1,000 young people aged 14 to 18 (and 800 teachers) about their participation in extra-curricular activities, the chances they had to participate and the impact they thought it might have on their lives. More than 40% of the pupils said that their schools did not provide enough opportunities to take part in uniformed activities such as police cadets, and around 25% said that their schools did not provide enough other activities, such as debating or working with charities.

The figures were slightly higher for those pupils eligible for free school meals – a common measure of economic disadvantage. Pupils on free school meals were also slightly less likely to take part in each of the categories of extra-curricular activities. Those teenagers who did take part in these activities also reported more positive attitudes to schooling.

The problem with all of this, and with the prior evidence cited in the Demos report, is that the research is based on a snapshot design with no evidence on what happens later as a result of taking part in extra-curricular activities. This means that we cannot tell whether extra-curricular activities are valuable for the children who may have not have ready access to them. Or whether those taking part in the survey were already more positive about school and social action, and so also less likely to be negative about the opportunities provided by their schools.

Most evaluations of character studies tend to use these weak research designs, collecting evidence from snapshot interviews or surveys. For example, an evaluation by the Jefferson Centre for Character Education reported improved pupil behaviour and a decline in discipline problems, but this was based only on interviews with school administrators. Such studies are likely to introduce bias as there are no comparisons made between the educational outcomes of those who received the programme and those who did not. Similarly weak, but more recent, studies in the UK reporting the positive outcomes of extra-curricular activities are cited in the Demos report.

Keen to take part

In a move to gather more robust evidence, at Durham University, we have been commissioned by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) charity to undertake two very large randomised controlled trials – one in primary schools related to the Children’s University and one in secondary schools involving Youth United, an umbrella body for uniformed groups such the Sea Scouts and St John’s Ambulance Brigade.

Learn to find your way. Boy scouts via RossHelen/www.shutterstock.com

Results for the difference in attainment and attitudes between the groups of children who did the activities and those who didn’t will be published in 2016-17. However, the findings from before the interventions are largely in line with those of Demos: pupils who are eligible for free school meals and those with prior low attainment at school are at least as keen to take part in extra-curricular activities as other pupils, but slightly fewer report having taken part so far. However, the good news is that participation in these activities, and the attitudes and aspirations they are intended to improve, are already much more fairly distributed among different socio-economic groups than exam results are.

Where evaluations have used experimental designs before (so far largely in the US), there is no clear benefit from extra-curricular activities, either in terms of attainment or long-term character development. It is easy enough to get pupils to report a change of attitude, but much harder to show that this makes any real difference – especially to the poorer children reported to be at a disadvantage. A recent randomised controlled trial, also funded by the EEF in the UK, introduced acting, singing and drama to largely disadvantaged pupils in Year 2 (aged six to seven). The findings suggested no impact on any academic outcomes.

Weighing up the costs

Non-formal learning and extra-curricular activities could have an impact on wider and longer-term outcomes, such as a child’s enjoyment of school or their subsequent participation in education and training. However, not only are these possible outcomes very varied, the activities are very broad as well.

Some extra-curricular activities are relatively cheap and simple to conduct, for example using citizenship or personal, social, and health education (PSHE) lessons to encourage responsible action, such as the removal of litter and graffiti in a local park, or fund-raising for charity. Others are more expensive and require special equipment and trained staff, such as scouting or guiding, or the provision of some specialist sessions in sports, music or drama. These are the kind of extra-curricular activities that are likely to be most unfairly distributed between poorer and better-off pupils.

Research in this area needs to be both clearer and stronger. While it seems unlikely that extra-curricular activities have any benefit for attainment in general, it seems more likely that the culture of a school can make a real difference to character development.

This is not primarily about what is taught and rather more about how schools behave as societies: it is harder to teach active citizenship in a school where there is no pupil input to management, or teach about inclusion in a selective or faith-based school. This is the case, however good the teaching methods involved.