Bad news…

One of the enduringly fascinating things about studying sociology is the way it frequently throws up counter-intuitive ideas that lead us, as teachers and students, to question what we think we know about something. Take, for example, the concept of labelling.

By-and-large, when we discuss labelling in the context of education the focus is generally on the impact of negative labelling, such as the kind that occurs:

1. Within the school, through things like teacher-attitudes, the impact of organisational processes  like setting, streaming and banding and the like.

2. Across the education sector in terms of things like institutional labelling – whether a school is rated “good” or “bad” by Ofsted, for example.

In relation to school status, we can see evidence of the impact of both positive and negative labelling; in terms of the former, being ranked “Outstanding” by Ofsted can be seen as a major pull-factor in relation to not only attracting students per se, but also for attracting those students with high levels of prior educational achievement.

In the case of the latter, a school negatively labelled as “bad”, “needs improvement” or, in the worst case, “failing”, may struggle to attract students and is unlikely to attract the kinds of high-achieving, largely middle class, students generally associated with “academically-successful” schools it needs to challenge the label (something that links to a further aspect of negative educational labelling: a self-fulfilling prophecy of decline).

While these kinds of general “labelling effects” are well-known and well-embedded in the sociology canon, a new (2019) piece of research by Greaves et. al.* gives us a slightly different perspective on educational labelling by suggesting that some forms of positive labelling can have unintended negative effects.

Positive Labelling, Negative Outcomes?

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Greaves et. al.

Greaves et. al. used a combination of the UK Household Longitudinal Study and Ofsted data to test the effect of the published data on student exam performance. In this context we might reasonably expect that a positive Ofsted report might lead, at best, to an improvement in GCSE exam scores or, at worst, no effect at all.

What the researchers found, however, was that the students of families who received “good news” about their school’s positive Ofsted rating at the start of the academic year “performed significantly worse in the GCSE exams” than those where the good news about a school’s improved Ofsted rating was revealed much later in the academic year.

In other words, positive school labelling, in the shape of a good Ofsted rating, seemed to have a negative effect on the exam performance of GCSE students. The earlier in the academic year the news was received, the lower the students’ performance.

The researcher’s accounted for this unexpected change in academic performance by arguing that “Parents typically reduce help at home when perceived school quality increases. Parents receiving good news are around 20 percentage points more likely to reduce help with homework, for example”. (If you want to take this finding further, of course, you can relate it to ideas about the levels of cultural capital parents are able to employ in pursuit of achieving educational success for their offspring).

Overall, the “negative effect of positive labelling” in this context meant that “parents who receive good rather than bad news about the quality of their child’s school are 24 percentage points more likely to reduce the help they give their children with homework and 14 percentage points less likely to increase it”. This, in turn, suggested “reduced help by parents lowered children’s exam performance”, even in a situation where “their children’s own time investment in schoolwork increased in response to the same information”.

In a further interesting finding the researchers’ note that “While parents’ reaction to good news is pronounced, their reaction to bad news about school quality is much more muted. Parents that receive bad news do not respond by significantly increasing their help at home”.

This is a further finding you might want to usefully explore with your students in terms of different types of capital and their effects in terms of educational achievement.

* Greaves, E; Hussain, I; Rabe, B and Rasuly, I: “Parental Responses to Information About School Quality: Evidence from Linked Survey and Administrative Data”: Institute for Social and Economic Research (2019)

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