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Hand writing in notepad

Professor Beng Huat See from our School of Education tested a simple classroom intervention on thousands of secondary school students and found it could help to boost attainment in disadvantaged pupils.

Successive governments in many countries have been trying to close the achievement gap for disadvantaged pupils. Billions of pounds have been spent in the UK on an extensive range of programmes and interventions to achieve this. But what if there is an easy low-cost intervention that only takes 10 to 15 minutes to deliver? One such intervention involves the simple task of writing positive statements about values important to oneself.

A number of studies, mostly conducted in the US, have shown that this simple activity can be effective in closing the attainment gap for some marginalised groups of students. The theory is that these activities can protect students’ self-worth and free up cognitive resources so that they can engage more effectively with their learning and education. Most of these studies have tested this theory with ethnic minority students, but no replication studies had been conducted in the UK with pupils from low socio-economic (SES) backgrounds.

To test the idea, a team at Durham University, including me, led an evaluation that replicated the earlier works of Cohen and colleagues but with disadvantaged pupils (defined as those eligible for free school meals) in 29 secondary schools in England via a randomised controlled trial. The intervention comprised three writing activities, each lasting 10 to 15 minutes, in which students wrote short essays during their regular English lessons. Control students wrote about what they valued in others, with assignments delivered in sealed envelopes; the envelopes are individually labelled to ensure that students and teachers are blind to the treatment allocation.

In line with the theory of self-affirmation, the writing exercises were delivered at three crucial time points, once at the beginning of the academic year—before any further experience of negative stereotypes was established—and again before stressful events. In this study, these were the mock GCSEs and the actual GCSEs exams later in the year. This was the largest trial outside the US involving a total of 11,000 pupils in Year 10 (age 14-15) and Year 11 (age 15-16).

The results showed that the disadvantaged students in the intervention group benefitted a bit from the intervention, but consistent with the earlier studies, the intervention had no benefit for the majority of pupils who were not labelled as disadvantaged. In this respect, the intervention helped to reduce the poverty attainment gap. Admittedly, the “effect” is very small, but given that it is almost cost-free, simple to implement, and would appear to generate few, if any, contraindications, the intervention is worth considering.

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