Differential Educational Achievement: “Must Try Harder?”

Explanations for differences in educational achievement based around concepts like class, gender, ethnicity and, for rather different reasons, age are well-known and generally covered comprehensively at High School and A-level, in relation to both “outside” and “inside” school factors. In terms of the former this includes a variety of material and / or cultural factors centred around the home, while for the latter the focus has tended to be on ideas like teacher labelling and, more-recently, applications of concepts like school climate.

Educational Effort: Parents, Teachers, Students…

In general terms, therefore, explanations at this level tend towards either the broadly structural (class, gender and ethnic differences) or the broadly actional (such as teacher – pupil relationships).

More-recently a further, transgressive, approach has sometimes been introduced to acknowledge how concepts like class, gender and ethnicity intersect within educational systems to produce sometimes variable achievement outcomes. The most obvious example here is that while girls generally achieve more in the UK educational system than boys, upper class boys generally outperform middle-class and working-class girls. There is, however, a further dimension here, epitomised by De Fraja et al (2005).

Their research took a more empirical approach that looked at “causes of differential achievement” by examining how relations at the level of the home, the school and the individual intersect in terms of “effort”. Or as they put it:

This paper is based on the very simple observation that the educational attainment of students is affected by the effort put in by those participating in the education process: the schools attended by the students, the students’ parents, and of course the students themselves”.

Their research in this respect offers a more-granular approach to understanding the specific mechanisms that account for differences in educational achievement at the individual level – something that could be helpful for teachers and students in two ways:

Firstly, it provides an explanation for “deviant” achievement differences, such as some working-class children gaining significant educational achievements “against the odds” or some upper-class children not achieving in line with their social and economic peers.

Secondly, their findings create a lot of space for the application of a wide range of specific explanations for differential achievement. This might include, for example, consideration of how concepts of social and cultural capital may be applied to pupil-teacher relationships.

Main Findings

1. Educational attainment can be explained in terms of the efforts of students, parents and schools in the sense the respective efforts of each group is “jointly determined”. In this respect:

  • students respond to the effort exerted by their parents and their schools.
  • schools respond to the effort exerted by their students and their parents.
  • parents respond to the effort exerted by their children and their children’s schools.
  • 2. While each of these groups have a common interest in creating an optimal educational outcome for students, their real-world relationship involves a series of complex interactions that may, on occasions, have “counterintuitive results”. Students, for example, may respond to an increased level of effort on the part of teachers or parents with a lower level of personal effort.

    3. Educational outcomes are the result of a “joint determination of the effort levels of the three groups of agents”. In other words, no single input (from parents, schools or parents) adequately explains educational achievement.

    4. Of the three forms of effort – student, family and school – the former “has the least important effect on educational attainment: schools and parents matter more” – a significant finding for a couple of reasons:

    Firstly, the idea of students working hard towards educational qualifications is something that sometimes gets a little lost in sociological explanations of achievement in favour of much broader, more-structural, factors. At the very least it provides a counterpoint to deterministic – and perhaps fatalistic – forms of explanation that emphasise factors outside the control of individual students.

    Secondly, this is an interesting and important finding in the context of political and educational policies based around the idea that concepts like “grit”, “aspiration”, “individual effort” and so forth are key determinants of educational achievement.

    However, no matter how much effort individual students put into their educational work this, in itself, does not explain achievement differences. In other words, the research does not support the argument that differences in individual levels of student effort (the claim, for example, that “some kids simply work harder than others) and this explains why they achieve more) explain differences in individual levels of educational achievement.

    In this respect, the efforts of individual students, while a necessary condition for educational achievement, is not sufficient to explain that achievement.

    5. Family size may be an important variable in understanding both general levels of student achievement and differences in educational achievement within families. De Fraja et al, for example, found “a trade-off between the quantity of children and their parents’ effort: a child’s number of siblings affects negatively the effort exerted by that child’s parents towards that child’s education”.

    6. Family socio-economic conditions, while traditionally seen as very important in terms of the material and cultural support parents are able to provide for their offspring, “influence attainment more strongly via effort than directly”.

    In other words, material and cultural advantages and disadvantages play-out at the level of effort parents are able and willing to put into their children’s education – something that links into ideas about the significance of, for example, social and cultural capital as factors in differential achievement.

    This also, as the authors’ argue, has important ramifications for political efforts to improve educational attainment amongst economically-deprived social groups. It may, for example, be the case that “policies that attempt to stimulate parental effort might be effective ways to improve the educational attainment” partly because finding ways to stimulate and make parental effort more effective among low socioeconomic groups “is likely to be easier than modifying a low socioeconomic background”. Some form of politico-cultural change, in other words, is likely to be much easier to achieve – and less likely to be resisted – than wide-ranging economic change.

    7. In relation to gender differences in educational attainment the influence of the school is greater than that of parents.

    Methods (in Context)

    As an added bonus, particularly if you’re studying Education and Methods in Context, a quick overview of the methods involved reveal the following:

    1. The research drew on the UK National Child Development Study – a rich data-set that follows “a cohort of individuals born in 1958”, from birth until – currently – age 55.

    2. Questionnaires were completed by individual students at ages 7, 11, and 16), their teachers and their parents. The overall objective here was to produce a measure of “educational effort” for each of these groups.

    3. Teacher assessments at were used to measure individual student effort at age 16.

    4. Parental effort in their child’s education was measured by a range of variables, including: their initiative in discussing progress in school, the role played by the father in the management of the child, levels of parental anxiety over their child’s school achievement and how often both parents read to their children.

    5. Detailed information about “all examinations taken up to the age of 20” was collected using primary and secondary data from the Public Examinations Survey.

    6. Secondary sources of data – such as public records – were used to gather information about the types, size, etc. of the schools in the survey.


    Must try harder: Evaluating the role of effort in educational attainment: Gianni De Fraja, Tania Oliveira, Luisa Zanchi: Centre for Economic Policy Research (2005)

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