The ‘Pupil Premium Gap’ as it’s known, is a problem. Honest, it says so here.
The gap in Pupil Premium students’ attainment is something that all teachers want-or should want-to change. And they are keen to offer solutions to the problem. Here’s a few of them that I’ve heard, or read:
- Spend more time marking PP work.
- Ensure that you sit PP students at the end of rows so you can give them more attention.
- Buy PP students revision guides to GCSE texts.
- Pay for PP students to go on trips.
- Differentiate work for PP students.
- Buy books for PP students.
Perhaps it’s because I work in a distinctly middle-class school but these suggestions have often, no, always, left me inclined to respond: “That’s bollocks.” I’ve always felt that suggestions such as these are part of a big tick box exercise; part of a desire to be seen to say the ‘right thing’ without truly believing in what you’re saying. Like people who proudly tell you they ‘love gay people’ without realising that there’s nothing more homophobic than assuming something about a person based purely on their sexuality.
I have no reason to be so cynical. Or at least, none that I’m consciously aware of. And yet, the solutions listed above, to the Pupil Premium ‘problem’, jar with me. For me, the only solution to closing the Pupil Premium gap is a wholesale attempt at changing attitudes to students from low-income families. As far as I can tell, teachers fit into at least one of the following three categories:
- More likely to be from middle-class backgrounds than working-class backgrounds.
- Even when from working-class backgrounds, more likely to be socially aspirational than not.
- More likely to socialise with ambitious and socially aspirational peers, than peers who aren’t ambitious or socially aspirational.
There’s no evidence for this whatsoever. I’ve done no research.All this is based on my own personal experience. There are exceptions. Anyway, I believe that belonging to any one of these three categories will render teachers less able to empathise with students from lower-income backgrounds. Controversial, perhaps. But it might be the truth.
A close friend of mine recently bought me Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a book about how disturbingly accurate human beings can be in making ‘snap judgements.’ It turns out, our instincts are remarkably accurate. And that got me thinking. What if I’m right? What if the only way to truly solve the Pupil Premium Gap is a wholesale change to the way teachers perceive Pupil Premium students from low income backgrounds.
In 1998, psychologists Anthony G. Greenwald, Mahzarin Banaji, and Brian Nosek developed a test of our subconscious racial prejudices, known as the Implicit Association Test (IAT). As I’ve already stated, the test, which you can try here, aims to measure our implicit or ‘automatic’ responses to black or white people. According to Gladwell, 80% of people who have ever taken the test ‘end up having pro-white associations.’ This is regardless of whether they are black or white themselves and regardless of whether they are consciously discriminating or not. In other words, if you are the type of person, white, black or otherwise, who can confidently -and rightfully- state, ‘I am not a racist; I do not discriminate’, this in no way determines that you will not end up with a test result that states that you are ‘strongly predisposed to white Europeans.’ In fact, there’s more than an 80% chance that this is the result you will receive. This doesn’t mean you’re an evil person. It just means that you’ve been brought up in a world where you are bombarded with images of ‘goodness’ being white and ‘blackness’ being bad.
So what does this mean for teaching and Pupil Premium attainment? Well, it means that there’s every chance that teachers-even liberal, caring, nurturing teachers- who constantly bang on about the improving the plight of ‘those poor Pupil Premium children’, could still harbour strongly negative attitudes towards people from low income backgrounds, because the media bombards them with the idea that people on low incomes are worse people than people on higher incomes. (Incidentally, before I go any further, I would dare to suggest that, actually, a lot of teachers are explicitly biased against people from lower income backgrounds; the amount of time I’ve heard the word ‘Chav’ used disparagingly by grown adults is disgusting. If you’re one of these people, stop. It’s offensive.)
Where was I? Oh yes – all hope is not lost! Gladwell discusses evidence to suggest that subconscious biases can be changed. You can read the full thing online; It’s called ‘On the Malleability of Automatic Attitudes’. Nilanjana Dasgupta and Anthony G. Greenwald gave a load of people the IAT. Only, this time, before the participants completed the IAT, they were subjected to a number of images that depicted either a) images of ‘admired’ black people (e.g. Nelson Mandella, Martin Luther King) and images of ‘disliked’ white people (e.g. Charles Manson) or b) vice versa. Sure enough, participants that had been subjected to positive images of black people reported ‘significantly weakened automatic pro-white attitudes’ during a subsequent completion of the IAT test. This effect lasted at least twenty four hours.
Okay, so pro-black attitudes didn’t improve significantly after participants were subjected to ‘admired-black images’, but ‘pro-white’ attitudes were significantly diminished and remained diminished too, 24 hours after initial exposure to ‘admired-black’ imagery. And this does show that attitudes can change. Clearly, more research needs to be done but the implications are huge:
What can this mean for bridging the Pupil Premium gap? Well, there’s a whole new range of solutions to the problem that we might consider:
- Teachers must be explicitly exposed to stories of admirable people from low-income backgrounds
- Teachers must be explicitly exposed to high level work from Pupil Premium students, regardless of whether they teach them or not.
- Teachers must undertake community work that will bring them into contact with people from low-income backgrounds attempting to have a positive impact on society.
It’s worth thinking about.