Barriers to Academic Success in ‘Bright but Poor’ Young People: Findings from the EPPSE study

Bright but Poor


Written by Rhiannon White | Edited by Sahng-Ah Yoo

With academic school success having a massive impact on future education, employment, and social outcomes, helping their children do well in school is at the forefront of many parents’ minds. But what is the best way to do this? The work of Kathy Sylva and team on the Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE) study, aims to address this question.

EPPSE was a longitudinal assessment of different aspects of a group of children’s school lives, from 1997 to the current day. This involved interviews with students, parents and teachers, and assessing different aspects of children’s academic performance and choices. Unlike many studies of this nature, children were selected in clusters from particular schools, making it possible to assess the effect of attending a particular school and, hence, possible to make inferences as to what specific qualities from particular schools promoted academic success.

Does preschool help?
More than 3,000 children were assessed at the start of pre-school around the age of three and their development was monitored until they entered school around the age of five. They were assessed again at key points until the end of secondary school and are currently being followed through their final year of compulsory schooling and on to their post-compulsory educational, training, and employment choices.

Based on their data, they found that pre-school attendance did affect children’s attainment at much later stages of their school lives. For example, their mean reading level measured in Year 2 was found to be consistently higher for those who attended preschool than those who did not.

What’s more, they found that for children of lower socio-economic status, attending preschool made it more likely that they would perform higher on reading skills, attaining the minimum level of achievement to progress to junior school, as opposed to those who did not attend preschool who were more likely to fall below the minimum requirement. This suggests that preschool is helpful for everyone; but particularly those from lower social backgrounds.

The team also looked at what qualities of a preschool most benefited children. To do this they conducted assessments of each preschool attended by children in the sample, including global measures (e.g., how nice a place the preschool was, including space, furnishings and social interactions between the children) and pedagogical measures (e.g., quality of math and literacy provisions, including the range and appropriateness of material in the book area). It was found that pedagogical quality tended to have the most consistent links to academic performance.

What happens to ‘bright but poor’ children?
Researchers collected and compared children’s scores on different aspects of school performance at various points in the children’s lives. Starting from the eleven-year mark, researchers became interested in studying any possible differences socio-economic levels caused in student success.

Identifying eleven-year-old children who scored at least one standard deviation above the mean level in at least one test as “high achievers,” researchers divided the group into those who were disadvantaged versus not disadvantaged, by looking at a range of factors: parental education, area of deprivation, parental occupation, as well as receipt of free school meals. The researchers, then, continued to follow the students as they aged.

What they found was that as children progressed through school, the difference between the disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged children began to widen. At the age of eighteen, 60% of these bright, non-disadvantaged group had three of more A Levels at grades A*-B, compared to only 35.2% of equally bright but disadvantaged children. As these qualifications constitute the necessary requirement for many forms of academic higher-education, it is easy to see how such differences are likely to be propagated throughout later life.

The researchers suggested this was driven by differences in enrichment activities experienced by the different groups. Music lessons, extra academic tutoring, and summer camps are thought to have a great effect on children’s grades. Interviews with the children also suggested many of the disadvantaged group were simply uninformed about what options they had for the future and what requirements they needed to get there – e.g., the importance of ‘facilitating’ A-level choices, such as math and English.

Discouraging as these findings are, they have led to a number of recommendations in government policy that Sylva hopes will address these issues. Some of the current recommendations include ensuring children of lower SES having the opportunity to attend high-quality preschools as well as including free school transportation to those who need it. With conscious and informed policies, perhaps “bright but poor” children will not be so disadvantaged in the future.

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