Aspirations not Expectations: Socio-economic disadvantaged girls in the education system by @kellybubbins

There has been considerable research into both disadvantage and gender inequality in the education system. Much has focused on the under-attainment of ‘white working class or disadvantaged boys.’ Here, constructs of masculinity, racism, disengagement from school, exam systems and youth employability have all been subject to intensive scrutiny.

Prior to this shift in focus on boys, directed by the government policy and concerns of the late 1990’s, there exists a body of ‘feminist’ research into the achievement of disadvantaged girls. This explored areas such as the teacher’s role in encouraging achievement, resisting stereotypes and parental ambition. More recently, studies have focused on the attitudes and ambitions of teenage mothers, others have looked at girls entering STEM professions whilst some have focused on stereotyping in classrooms. However, rather than this somewhat pigeon-holed approach, what are the practical approaches and successful strategies that schools can put into place for this specific social group in order to provide the best possible chance at a brighter future?


This is a guest post contributed by Kelly Bubbins

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Close the Gap Early On:

Both secondary schools and their feeder primaries need to be able to support parents on their child’s academic journey. Research indicates that a ‘gap’ already exists for disadvantaged pupils on their entry into school affecting academic success rates, reading ages, risk behaviour and level of parental involvement in learning. Schools that can offer parenting skills classes as well as help and services for parents regarding dealing with teenagers are likely to have higher success rates. By running classes on issues such as mental wellbeing, positive body image and social anxiety for example, parents may be given more opportunity to discuss issues with their teenager.

Regarding girls, many studies point to early lower levels of self-esteem especially regarding basic skills such as literacy and numeracy. As soon as possible, schools need to pin-point less confident girls and employ intervention strategies with the dual purpose of eliciting determination as well as academic progression. These strategies could be at an individual or small group level such as ‘confidence groups’ or as part of the whole school culture such as a reading aloud policy or a school culture firmly rooted in the principles of growth mindset.

A further way of boosting confidence in pupils is by providing them with not only the skills but the cultural capital that they are going to need in the future. Schools that consciously expose pupils to wider culture ensure that pupils are prepared to keep up with peers in college and thereafter. With particular reference to girls, exposure to the academic achievements of women throughout history in a wide variety of academic fields can inspire and motivate. Schools need to ensure that this is applied and presented consistently across departments and teachers in order to derive maximum impact.

Similarly, schools could consciously raise the levels of exposure to cultural capital for whole families. Much research reveals that parental educational levels are often lower for disadvantaged pupils. In conjunction with local community schemes and organisations, schools could provide opportunities for cultural experiences and visits. This could be as simple as a trip to a local library to familiarise families with facilities – it has been proven that girls feel less confident entering unknown spaces in isolation – or as grand as a tour of the historic sites of a foreign country. Similarly, a successful strategy is to provide regular exposure to positive role models whether this be through guest speakers in assembly or through a specific organised event. High achieving ex-pupils and those with more unusual professions tend to be the most popular. However, any speaker who can detail their route to success with passion is likely to instil a yearning for learning

Lastly, a bad experience of education themselves may sometimes be the reason why some parents are afraid of schools and becoming involved in their own child’s education. In order to raise parental engagement, schools can familiarise parents with the language of academia in order to de-escalate the fear factor. Warm and friendly environments where parents feel comfortable are required in order to raise parental involvement and ultimately aspirations for their children.

The ideal outcome regarding all of the above, would be that as the school grows, the community as a whole becomes more aspirational.

Promote a culture of self-belief:

The importance of the school environment can not be underestimated. If girls lack self-esteem and therefore, settle for lower goals then it is the school’s job to raise confidence. Similarly, many studies have shown that self-efficacy is the strongest predictor of career aspiration and that this is lower in children from poorer backgrounds.

Continued on next page…

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