UK pupils 'among least likely to overcome tough start'

Child playing football Winning against the odds: The UK performs badly in a league table of "resilience" in school pupils

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The UK performs poorly in an international league table showing how many disadvantaged pupils succeed "against the odds" at school.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has studied how pupils from poor backgrounds can succeed academically.

It says that "self-confidence" is a key factor in whether such pupils succeed.

The UK comes behind Mexico and Tunisia in the table - with the top places taken by Asian countries.

Social mobility

The study comes amid concerns in the UK about a lack of social mobility.

The study from the international economic organisation looks at whether there is an inevitable link between disadvantaged backgrounds and a cycle of poor school results and limited job prospects.

The OECD study says that this is not the case for many pupils from poor homes - with an international average of 31% secondary school pupils succeeding even though the "odds are stacked against them".


  • Shanghai (China)
  • Hong Kong (China)
  • South Korea
  • Macao (China)
  • Singapore
  • Finland
  • Japan
  • Turkey
  • Canada
  • Portugal

Source: OECD

These are described as "resilient" pupils, who achieve high standards of attainment by international standards, despite coming from a background that was poor relative to their own country.

Using science test results from the major international PISA study, which compares the performance of different education systems, it shows that there are wide differences in the levels of resilience.

The rankings include both countries and regional school systems, such as Shanghai in China.

Among countries, South Korea, Finland, Japan, Turkey and Canada are the most successful in terms of poorer pupils achieving high results.

Among regional education systems, Shanghai and Hong Kong top this resilience league table - and are top of the overall rankings.

The top five places overall are taken by regional or national school systems in Asia.

The United States, France and Australia are around the average for pupils succeeding against the odds.

But the UK is well below average and at the lower end of this ranking of resilience, with only 24% showing such examples of "resilience".

Among leading economies, the UK is in 28th place out of 35. Among a wider range of smaller countries and regions, the UK is in 35th place out of 65.

'Inner drive'

Researchers identified a number of factors which appeared to increase the likelihood of pupils' resilience.

Among the positive factors are a sense of self-confidence among pupils. Believing that they are likely to succeed in exams is an important part of how they actually perform. The study argues that mentoring schemes can be particularly beneficial.

In UK schools, researchers found low levels of self-confidence among disadvantaged pupils, when asked about their approach to a science topic.

There is also a link between longer hours in class studying a subject and the improved chances of poorer pupils.

It is also says that motivation is important - but in the form of a "personal, internal drive" rather than the promise of a reward or an incentive.

"All of these findings suggest that schools may have an important role to play in fostering resilience," says the report.

"They could start by providing more opportunities for disadvantaged students to learn in class by developing activities, classroom practices and teaching methods that encourage learning and foster motivation and self-confidence among those students."

There has been much debate about social mobility in the UK - with concerns that there remains too strong a link between social background and educational achievement.

'Damning evidence'

This week the government announced that it was turning 200 "struggling" primary schools in England into academies - arguing that a low-income intake of pupils was not a reason for poor results.

Schools minister Nick Gibb said the report was "damning evidence of Labour's failure to improve our schools".

"By the time they left office, poor children in the UK were less likely to progress than poor children in Mexico, Estonia and Latvia.

"The result is one of the most segregated schools systems in the world, with the attainment gap between the wealthiest and most disadvantaged wider than in almost any other developed nation.

"That's why our measures to drive up standards and increase opportunities for the poorest are so badly needed," he added.

James Westhead, director of external relations at education charity TeachFirst, said the study was very significant international evidence that disadvantage need not equal destiny.

"It shows children from low income backgrounds can break through barriers to achievement that have held back too many for generations.

"At the same time it is a matter of shame that the data confirms that in Britain today this disadvantaged group has less chance of success at school than in most other developed countries."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    As a Canadian teacher presently teaching in England, I am not surprised by these results. In many schools, the way low pupils are treated is different. There is sometimes a sense here that the lowest pupils are already gone: they're in the bottom stream or set, with an inexpert teacher, in a non-specific classroom and the attitude is poor. There is a sense of failure before they've even started.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    The Asian countries seem to accept that being poor is no reason to give up but rather encourages them to improve themselves. They will know that this requires considerable effort and self-discipline for years and even if they fail it does not stop them trying. They clearly instil this work ethic in their children. No 'dumbing down' education standards for them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    What absolute tosh! I was born into an asbestos prefab 60 years ago. We were poor. I got A levels but failed to go to university. I now own a multi-million £ group of technology companies and can hold my own in most areas of science. Me and the business still keep coming up with great ideas that nobody else is doing. You just need hard work + determination. (never give up!).

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    If the causes include poor self esteem, then perhaps the solution in schools is not to marginalize and trivialize Personal and Social Education (PSHE) but to embrace every opportunity to help young people feel valued, responsible, worthy and capable.
    After years teaching, I observe those who are there to teach children/ young people and those who unfortunately just want to teach their subject.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Blaming the victims, i.e disadvantaged families, is simply not on. I am a teacher and my experience tells me the problem stems from both Gov. education policy (unsound curriculum changes & undermining teachers), & managing teacher performance in schools. Fix both. Plus, it would be good if people had faith in state education and did not glorify the indpendent sector. This is part of the problem.


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