How stereotypes reinforce inequalities in primary school

Teachers have different expectations for different children. Geoff Caddick / PA Wire

There are enduring gaps between the way different groups of children do at primary school: between boys and girls, between children from richer and poorer backgrounds and between children from various ethnic groups. Despite efforts by recent governments to close these attainment gaps, the performance of pupils from low-income homes, for example, seems to fall far below that of their peers.

My research suggests that one way of tackling these disparities is to look at the stereotyping that influences teachers’ measurement of their pupils’ abilities. Because the performance of certain groups of children has been reported and discussed so widely, teachers seem to have become unconsciously biased in the way they expect these pupils to perform.

I used a sample of almost 5,000 seven-year-olds in England taking part in the Millennium Cohort Study to show systematic patterns of bias in teachers’ assessments of children’s ability and attainment. These biases paralleled the patterns of over- and under-attainment consistently reported in national statistics.

I compared pupils’ performance on independent, survey-administered cognitive tests to teachers’ judgements of those same pupils’ capabilities. I found disparities according to gender, family income-level, diagnosis of special educational needs, the language children spoke, and their ethnicity: all characteristics long-reported as underpinning gaps in primary school achievement.

For example, teachers in my research tended to more often to judge boys as performing “below average” at reading, even when they scored equivalently to girls in a reading test. Similarly, the girls in my study who scored at the same level as boys in a maths cognitive test were less likely to be judged “above average” at maths by their teachers.

National statistics show higher recorded levels of attainment at reading and lower levels of attainment at maths for girls during primary school – and vice versa for boys. I suggest one of the reasons for this is that teachers’ assessments of pupils’ ability are informed by their knowledge of national norms around gender, and by top-down monitoring and target-setting from government that is premised upon these norms.

Vicious circle

Alongside previous quantitative and qualitative research, my study indicates that stereotyping in judgements of primary school children may be instrumental in creating apparent attainment gaps. I’d argue that the reality of the nationally reported disparities is not as straightforward as it seems.

Within the current system, various pupil groups are publicly reported – and, consequently, perceived – as being generally less able. Much attainment up to the end of primary school is teacher-assessed, so when stereotypes are created which inform the evaluation of children, they go on to play a part in constructing the average “attainment” of each group. Published statistics on relative over- and under-attainment based on certain pupil characteristic incorporate these biases, and then feed straight back into sustaining the stereotypes. So the vicious circle continues.

In order to alleviate the role of stereotypes in perpetuating attainment gaps, the psychologies of the people working within our schools should be acknowledged. Teachers are no more or less prone to the universal processes of cognitive bias than the next person. In fact, it would be surprising if stereotyping did not manifest within education, given the information on different groups teachers continue to be bombarbed with under the monitoring and accountability measures of recent governments. One possible solution is to offer teachers training and development opportunities which explicitly confront our human tendency to bias.

Beware of the consequences

Alongside this, consideration should be given at the policy level into how initiatives and communications with educators may inadvertently create or reinforce stereotypes. If the way teachers and schools are asked to monitor and assess children based on their gender, income-level or ethnic group actually sustains attainment gaps between and within those groups, then this monitoring and assessment should be questioned.

Stereotypes built into the system. Teacher marking via Luba V Nel/

The same goes for the ostentatious implementation of targeted policies, such as the pupil premium, through which schools are given more funding for each child from a low-income background. If there is any possibility that initiatives like this could bring unplanned consequences – such as embedding the stereotype that poorer children are inherently less able – their methods and means of implementation should be reconsidered.

Above all, it’s important to understand that seeming inequalities in the attainment of different pupils are not always down to the pupils themselves. Gaps in the way different children do at primary school are a manifestation of a complex web of components: including pupils’ family background, their schools and their teachers and the education system overall. Untangling this web may help to create a school experience which is fairer, more equitable and more effective.