Socio-economic disadvantage accounts for some variation in science performance, but not all – and it doesn’t have to be this way

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report on Equity in Education, released in October 2018, analyses educational performance in different countries based on results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015. The country notes for the UK highlight the key findings, particularly the existing disparities in academic performance between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

Key findings for the UK

In general, advantaged children perform much better than disadvantaged children. The report states that socio-economic status accounted for about 11% of the variation in students’ science performance in the UK, below the OECD average (13%). However, this should not be taken as good performance. In Norway and Estonia, for example, students’ socio-economic status accounts for only 8% of the variations in science performance, and unlike the UK, most countries in the report have shown improvements in equity when it comes to science performance.

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PISA 2015 assessed three core cognitive domains: mathematics, science and reading. Across all countries in the report, advantaged students performed better in all three domains than disadvantaged students, revealing the strong influence of socio-economic status on student achievement globally. However, the size of the gap in performance varies greatly, and some countries, such as Estonia, have managed to reduce the gap in equity in cognitive performance significantly since the last PISA in 2006. Unfortunately, this cannot be said for the UK.

The OECD average for variations in student performance accounted for by socio-economic status declined from 14.4% in PISA 2006 to 12.9% in 2015. This is considered statistically significant and indicates that the influence of socio-economic background on students’ achievement can be reduced through improvements in educational support for disadvantaged students. Indeed, 11 countries demonstrated improvements in equity in science performance without reducing the average performance for top-performing students, showing that equity can be improved without compromising the performance of top students.

Advantaged students were found to have a stronger sense of belonging (77% average) than disadvantaged students (69% average). In the UK, 65% of disadvantaged students felt they belong at school, below the OECD average. However, the UK scored above the OECD average in overall levels of science self-efficacy, which is a measure of students’ belief that they can perform well in science. The UK and 14 other countries managed to narrow the socio-economic gap in the index of science self-efficacy..

Despite an overall upward trend in educational attainment across different countries and among different socio-economic groups, in all countries there are still significant differences between the likelihood of advantaged and disadvantaged students attaining higher educational levels.

Only 23% of disadvantaged students were able to achieve upward educational mobility compared to 74% of advantaged students

In England, 39% of adults showed upward educational mobility (the likelihood that a student without tertiary-educated parents attains tertiary education), below the OECD average (41%). Only 23% of disadvantaged students were able to achieve upward educational mobility compared to 74% of advantaged students. Students are more likely to attain higher education if their parents have tertiary education, which is also tied in with socio-economic status and an enduring cycle of disadvantage experienced by lower socio-economic families.

The impact of schools

An interesting finding of the report is the effect that advantaged schools have on a disadvantaged student’s performance: children from low socio-economic backgrounds can achieve to a high level if they go to the right schools and are given the same educational opportunities as those from a higher socio-economic group.

It may not always be feasible for disadvantaged children to attend advantaged schools, and so interventions within disadvantaged schools are called for. In particular, additional funding could help provide adequate learning materials, teacher training and sufficient staffing. Indeed, the report implies that school-based factors, such as materials and human resources, have a strong influence on students’ performance. Any policies or actions aimed at improving educational performance in disadvantaged schools should, therefore, put more emphasis on providing sufficient quality resources. For example, differential local funding arrangements can be used to ensure that disadvantaged schools receive books, science equipment and specialist teachers to bring them closer to the level of advantaged schools.

The role of teachers

At the classroom level, teachers are perhaps the most important influence on students’ performance. It is vital to empower teachers to fulfil the major role they can have in delivering equity in education. For example, they could be trained to better identify students’ needs and intervene with appropriate teaching strategies. Teachers can also help in creating a positive learning environment for disadvantaged students by encouraging and supporting them through counselling and mentorship programmes.

Simon Flynn, a science teacher at The Camden School for Girls in London, believes teachers should make extra effort to motivate their students if they want to improve performance: ‘Students come to a science class with differing attitudes and beliefs towards science that affects their motivation during the lesson. Motivation is a key driver in improving the academic attainment of students.’ This is only possible if teachers believe that disadvantaged students can perform to the same standard as their advantaged counterparts – if teachers have low expectations they may regard poor performance as ‘normal’ and not provide the necessary support.

Motivation is a key driver in improving the academic attainment of students

It can also be highly beneficial for teachers to help students understand how their learning is connected to their own lives. This can increase interest in the subject and encourage students to strive for better grades. According to Flynn, ‘Students will be more motivated when an academic subject is a positive part of their personal narrative and when it is relevant to them.’ Indeed, it has been shown that when students perceive the relevance of academic subjects, their motivation increases and performance improves.

Disadvantaged schools must seek more teachers with strong subject knowledge and a passion for science to inspire students and encourage them to take sciences more seriously. Advantaged schools tend to have more specialist science teachers than disadvantaged schools, and this could be contributing to performance disparities. A more even distribution of specialist science teachers is needed as part of wider measures to reduce socio-economic disparities.

The bottom line

The findings of the OECD report highlight the enduring disparities in educational performance between advantaged and disadvantaged students globally, but particularly in the UK. While other OECD countries have made significant improvements in reducing educational disparities between advantaged and disadvantaged students, the gap in the UK has not changed much. The UK needs stronger policies and programmes aimed at supporting disadvantaged students. Furthermore, school programmes must better meet the individual learning needs of these students, with a target of attainment for all students regardless of socio-economic status.