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How Michelle Obama’s visit to a London school helped boost students’ grades

You go girl. Dominic Lipinski / PA Archive

Something extraordinary happened to the pupils of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in London in 2009. Michelle Obama visited that April while in London with her husband for a G20 summit, then asked pupils from the school to meet her in Oxford two years later, and finally invited a dozen pupils to visit her in the White House in 2012.

Despite her title as first lady of the United States, the identity of her spouse is not the only remarkable thing about Michelle Obama. She grew up in a poor neighbourhood in Chicago’s South Shore, but made it to Princeton and then Harvard Law School before taking a job in a prestigious law firm. She credits education and hard work as the reasons for her successful career.

Having Michelle Obama visit your school would be exciting enough even if she simply waved and gave a general speech. But she didn’t. She talked about how the pupils of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School had the capacity to do as she did, to use education to really get on in life. In general terms: “I did this; you could too”, which can be a very powerful message if delivered by the right person. You only need to watch the news videos to see that the pupils were genuinely inspired.

There have been many debates among researchers about how important aspirations are in influencing attainment at school. By studying what happened to the GCSE performance of the students at the school Obama visited, my research shows that her inspirational visit boosted their grades.

Back to the books

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson is a high-performing inner-city, all girls school with a very high percentage of non-white British children.

Using data from the Department for Education, I found that average performance in GCSE exams taken by 16-year-olds at the school improved substantially following her visits. Of course, establishing a robust causal relationship is hard, and probably impossible for just these two events, but the results do provide strong suggestive evidence.

The first graph below shows total GCSE points achieved in the school she visited compared with the average over all other London schools. The scores are measured relative to all of London, proportional to the overall variability in test scores – in the graph below a difference of 0.1 is considered large. It is clear that the school’s 2010 result is somewhat higher than 2009, though not dramatically so, but the 2012 score is substantially above that of 2011.

These results focus on the overall effect, but since Obama was encouraging very high performance and aspirations it is important to look specifically at high performance too.

The second graph shows the school averages of the number of A*, A or B grades its pupils achieved. The result is very striking: there was a sharp increase in the school’s performance relative to the rest of London in 2012. If this is really a result of Obama’s interventions then it is a big effect.

To get some sense of the magnitude of the effect it’s useful to translate them into GCSE grades. I found that the impact on total GCSE points is huge, equivalent to moving each pupil up two grades – for example, from C to A – in each subject. When I looked at the best eight scores for each pupil, the impact was equivalent to moving each pupil up one grade in each subject. These are dramatic changes.

Of course, the big jumps up in performance at the school in 2012 might just be chance: an issue which I discuss in my research. In fact, these results are strongly significant as I calculated that there is only about a 1% probability that they are just chance.

The money’s on Michelle

What about the difference in impact between the visits? Given that the 2012 impact was greater than the 2010 impact, the question arises: was it Obama or was it Oxford? Or maybe the transatlantic trip to the White House? The media attention around the visits may also have contributed.

Strictly speaking, these different components cannot be separated, but many schools have visits to Oxford University which would have a much less dramatic effect on its own – and the White House trip only involved a dozen pupils. So my money is on Obama being the true catalyst for inspiration.

These results support the idea that inspiration, aspiration and effort are potentially very important for achievement. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was by no means a low-performing school, and yet this injection of inspiration made a big difference. So if pupil effort is important, then we need a much better understanding of pupil motivations and how to inspire pupils to greater engagement. This seems to be me to be a key question, one deserving much more research.

We need to get more inspirational role models into schools to talk to pupils about the importance of education. Of course this already happens – for example the Inspiring Women Campaign does precisely this on a large scale, including one meeting at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson in 2014. 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”. Harder still of course is to find speakers with the inspirational power of Michelle Obama.

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