Choosing how best to support vulnerable learners is a minefield, but a new tool could help school leaders navigate it, write Matthew Easterbrook and Ian Hadden

The pandemic has exacerbated inequalities that long predate the past year’s disruptions, and the recovery programme presents a real opportunity to tackle their root causes. For schools, that means looking with fresh eyes at some long-standing problems ̶ while keeping the local setting firmly in mind.

The sad truth is that groups who have suffered from historical inequality are still more likely to face barriers to educational success. Crucially, these include psychological barriers triggered by cues in a student’s environment. These can cause some students to feel that they are not valued in educational institutions, that they are unlikely to benefit from education at all or are likely to fail even if they try.  

Negative stereotypes about educational ability and motivation are a perfect example. Young people from low-income backgrounds face disparaging terms like ‘chav’. Young women face assumptions that they are not suited to STEM roles.  

This cultural context causes stereotype threat – the fear that they can’t escape classification and are bound to do badly at school. Stereotype threat has many detrimental effects, and there’s evidence that it accounts for a significant proportion of some groups’ underperformance.  

But there is hope. Researchers have developed some potentially incredibly effective interventions that educational practitioners can use to break down the psychological barriers holding these students back. In some cases, we have seen longstanding attainment gaps reduced by well over half, with benefits that last for years.  

These interventions target students’ internal subjective experiences, aiming to alter their interpretation of their education in a fundamental way. This can transform their whole school experience from one of threat, disengagement and alienation to one of security, trust and opportunity.  

And there’s more good news. These interventions are often brief and extremely low-cost. For example, a technique known as ‘values affirmation’ helps students who are experiencing stereotype threat.  

The same inequalities might exist, but psychological factors can be quite different

By reflecting on things that are important in their life in brief writing exercises, values affirmation helps them access the psychological resources within themselves that their experience of stereotype threat would otherwise suppress. In one of our own studies, we saw how values affirmation helped students from low-income families do better in maths exams, reducing the gap with their better-off peers by a remarkable 62 per cent.

Other interventions targeted at certain groups are similarly brief and can be equally powerful. Most will already be familiar with growth mindset, which is about reframing a person’s abilities as malleable rather than fixed. Then there’s social belonging, which helps students who are worried that they don’t fit in by normalising their experiences.

Lesser-known interventions include difference-education, which helps students from low socio-economic backgrounds recognise that their background is valued and has distinctive attributes that they can actively draw upon in their social and academic life. 

And there’s utility value, which helps students see the relevance of their education to their own lives. In one study, this reduced the end‐of‐year achievement gap between under-represented groups and their peers by a striking 61 per cent.

Given their low cost and power to increase academic performance, these interventions naturally have great appeal. But they are sometimes ineffective, and can even backfire.  

Why? The answer, simply, is that every school has its own social and cultural context, and the subjective psychological processes these interventions target are ignited by the everyday things that students see and experience in that context.  

So while the same inequalities might exist in two schools, the psychological factors that contribute to those inequalities can be quite different. And since each intervention targets a specific set of psychological processes, an intervention that is effective in one school can be ineffective or even counterproductive in another.  

That’s why we have developed a protocol to help practitioners understand which psychological barriers are holding back which groups of their students, and to guide them through selecting and tailoring interventions for their settings.

So as the focus on recovery begins apace, these new types of intervention can make an important contribution to long-term reform. As long as they are implemented with care – and with the local setting firmly in mind.