Education, Social and behavioural, Teaching and learning

'People like us…'

Matthew J. Easterbrook on the psychology of class-based identities, interventions, and injunctions in education.

26 May 2022

Zadie Smith, Swing Time (2016)

‘To the teachers at the school it probably looked as if they didn’t care enough even to turn up for Parents’ Evening … But we understood our mothers a little better. We knew that they, in their own time, had feared school, just as we did now, feared the arbitrary rules and felt shamed by them, by the new uniforms they couldn’t afford, the baffling obsession with quiet, the incessant correcting of their original patois or cockney, the sense that they could never do anything right anyway … And so ‘Parent’s Evening’ was, in their minds, not so distant from ‘detention’. It remained a place where they might be shamed.’

We all know that education is important. But just how important? People with higher levels of education have on average higher-paying and more fulfilling jobs, better physical and mental health, and higher wellbeing; they also live longer, are more trusting of other people, and are more engaged with – and so have a louder voice in – politics (Easterbrook & Hadden, 2021). Not only do those with lower levels of education miss out on these advantages, but they also face stigma and discrimination because of their education (Kuppens et al., 2018). So, if there are barriers to educational engagement and success for some groups of students, these can have deeply damaging consequences throughout their lives. If we can identify those barriers and use that knowledge to make education a more welcoming, inclusive, and productive place for all, then we have a moral duty to do so. 

I am a social psychologist who investigates the psychological, social, and cultural factors that contribute to inequalities in educational outcomes, as well as interventions designed to reduce those inequalities. My work investigates what it means, psychologically, to be working class within the English education system, something that the Zadie Smith quotation illustrates with a powerful, emotional clarity. Yet to fully appreciate the psychology that underpins social class inequalities in education, we need to understand society more broadly. We need to dissect the tacit messages in our social surroundings. These are the messages that fuel our expectations about who will flourish and who will fail. 

Society’s tacit messages

As we grow up, we try – both consciously and unconsciously – to work out what we should do with our lives. We ask questions such as ‘what might I be good at?’, and ‘where might I be wanted and valued?’. Classic social psychological theories like Leon Festinger’s social comparison theory and Tajfel and Turner’s social identity theory suggest that the best way to find answers to these questions is often to look at what people like us – our family, members of our community, our neighbours, those in our social class and with our backgrounds – have done with their lives. The questions then become ‘What do people like me do for a living?’, ‘what are we good at?’, ‘where are we wanted and valued?’, ‘where do we belong?’. 

For someone who grows up in a working class community, what might the answers to these questions be? Society is full of cues that suggest possible answers, which people readily and often unwittingly absorb. Take occupations (and see also ‘A note on terminology’). Over half the British population identify as working class, yet the social mobility commission reports that just four per cent of doctors, six per cent of barristers, and 11 per cent of journalists are from working class backgrounds. And in politics, you might expect that the Labour Party, founded in 1900 to represent the interests of the working class, would be open to working-class members. Yet, the signs indicate that this is not the case. While 70 per cent of its parliamentary members were working class when they first achieved electoral success in the 1920s, that figure is now only 8 per cent (O’Grady, 2019). 

Such heavy overlaps between social class and social roles create stereotypes about what people with certain backgrounds should be doing with their lives (Eagly & Koenig, 2021). They signal that these high-status professions are effectively off limits for working class individuals, and that they should try to move their lives in other directions. 

But what are those other directions? People living in deprived neighbourhoods have fewer job opportunities, and the jobs that are available tend to be unskilled, insecure, and unfulfilling. They are more likely to be on zero-hour contracts, to be paid below the legal requirement, and to have dismal working conditions (see the SportsDirect scandal). For many, this is what ‘people like me’ end up doing with their lives, and so they come to expect that a similar route is mapped out for them, too.

Some individuals make it, but the odds are stacked against people from working class backgrounds, and these structural inequalities place working class individuals at a psychological disadvantage.
Matthew J. Easterbrook

Similar messages are prevalent in education. Schools with higher proportions of working class students tend to be more run down, have difficulty attracting the most effective teachers, and may have high teacher-turnover. These are the schools that many middle class families choose to avoid by moving house, but this is simply not feasible for many. Such inequalities signal to working-class students that their education is not something that society values. Diane Reay documents the emotional impact of being allocated to a failing, demonised school in her academic work and her book, Miseducation: Inequality, education, and the working classes. She describes with depressing precision how these environments can extinguish hope and optimism for the future. 

Optimism for the future may well be difficult to conjure for working class students when, beyond school, we find that 16 per cent of Oxford undergraduates are classified as disadvantaged according to the ACORN classification, compared to around 40 per cent of the UK population. Furthermore, 31 per cent were educated privately, compared to 7 per cent of the overall population. These structural inequalities can be thought of as tacit messages that indicate to working class people that educational success is not for people like them, that their energies are better placed elsewhere. 

Social identities in social contexts

As working class youths try to answer important questions regarding what they should do with their lives, they learn that striving to succeed in education and to enter a profession associated with educational success is not an easy or even a viable option. Of course, some individuals make it, but the odds are stacked against people from working class backgrounds, and these structural inequalities place working class individuals at a psychological disadvantage.

That might sound dystopian, but there are important consequences for how people perceive themselves and others. A paper that my colleagues and I recently published (Easterbrook, Nieuwenhuis, et al., 2022) reports the results of a survey of over 4,600 students aged 15-16. We found that students who were eligible for free-school-meals – who were from families that were in economic hardship – were less likely than their peers to agree with statements like ‘working hard at school fits with my social background’, and ‘people with my social background usually get good grades at school’. These are questions that form a concept that we term identity compatibility: the compatibility or fit of your own background and identities with doing well in school. 

Eight months after we measured identity compatibility, the students took their GCSE exams. Students who disagreed with those statements, which was more likely if they were eligible for free school meals, got significantly lower grades, even after we accounted for the students’ previous exam results. What was particularly interesting about these results was that students eligible for free school meals had lower levels of identity compatibility only in schools in which there were large attainment gaps in the previous academic year between students eligible for free school meals and those who were not. 

We theorised that this finding reflected that who you are and who others see you as depends not only on who you are as an individual, but also on which groups and social categories (such as gender, age, or ethnicity) you belong to. These social identities derive much of their meaning from social cues in the local context. These cues indicate to you and to others the meaning of these identities, as well as how much the group or category is valued or stigmatised and expected to fail or succeed. If you are a member of a group that has historically performed poorly in the context you are in, then that context is likely to be psychologically threatening to you. And this hampers your ability to achieve your potential. 

Consider for a moment the context in which we live and the implications of this finding. As well as all the discouraging cues described above, in England, the largest attainment gap – based on the most inclusive student categories used by the English Department of Education, and excepting students who do not have special educational needs – is between students eligible for free school meals and their peers. Although estimates vary, we have calculated that the pre-pandemic gap in students’ academic progress at age 16 is two and half years’ worth of learning (Easterbrook & Hadden, 2021). The gap has narrowed only slightly over the last decade, despite tens of billions of pounds worth of funding allocated to policies designed to reduce it, and it is almost certainly going to increase because of the pandemic (Easterbrook, Doyle, et al., 2022; Goudeau et al., 2021). 

It is important to note that, although the free school meal attainment gap is considerably larger than the corresponding gaps between the major ethnic groups, there are also sizable ethnic attainment gaps in some geographical areas in England, as well as between more exclusive or specific ethnic categories across the country. Students from Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities, as well as Black Caribbean students, for example, have particularly low attainment and high rates of exclusions, especially if they are also boys and eligible for free school meals. Indeed, students with multiple, intersecting, stigmatised social identities may feel particularly threatened in educational settings. For example, certain ethnic groups are overrepresented among groups of lower socioeconomic status, meaning that many students with low socioeconomic status are also members of minoritised ethnic groups. These students may feel that school is an especially threatening place.  

Threatening stereotypes 

The sense that school is a threatening place in which you are unwanted, undervalued, and expected to fail because of your background, regardless of your own personal qualities, characterises the psychological experience known as stereotype threat (Steele, 1997). Stereotype threat is aversive and brought about by the knowledge that there is a negative stereotype about your group that you are in danger of confirming in the current situation. Doing so could reflect badly not only on you but on your whole group. 

Stereotype threat has been shown to use up cognitive resources, provoke anxiety, and instil a fear of not fitting in or belonging in education. Over time, it can lead to defensive disengagement: reducing your engagement with, and the subjective importance of, education, in order to protect the self from the negative psychological repercussions of threat, rejection, and failure. Stereotype threat, then, is a psychological barrier caused by social cues that indicate there is a negative stereotype about a group’s academic performance. It is an additional barrier that only affects members of groups that are negatively stereotyped in the local context, and thus can contribute to educational inequalities. 

Studies have shown that stereotype threat reduces the academic performance of working class students (Croizet & Claire, 1998), and can be ignited by cues as ubiquitous yet seemingly innocuous as completing questions about your background and viewing posters that are consistent with stereotypes (Cheryan et al., 2009). And, of course, stereotypes about intelligence are highly relevant in educational institutions. Coupled with frequent evaluative testing, there are many opportunities for stereotype threat to reduce the educational performance of members of negatively stereotyped groups. 

But pernicious stereotypes do not just affect the targets. Stereotypes also prescribe what people should be like, as a recent experiment illustrates. Lewis Doyle, Peter Harris and I gave an identical piece of written work to teachers in England to assess, experimentally varying only the apparent social class and ethnicity of the student who wrote it. We found that teachers identified the same number of errors regardless of who they thought wrote the piece. But teachers who thought the piece was written by a student on free school meals indicated that the student had less potential and that the piece was of lower overall quality than did those who thought the piece was written by higher class students. We found no effect of the ethnicity of the student. These teachers assessed the work in ways that reinforced society’s messages about working class students in education: that they do not belong and deserve to fail. 

This is not to say that teachers are culpable and blameworthy. Teachers are often those among us who hold most strongly values of equality and who work hard to help students from all backgrounds. Teachers are not biased; we are all biased. (Indeed, we have found similar results when university students instead of teachers assess the essays). We are all biased because we absorb the messages that society sends to us about the value and expectations we should place on different groups, while being exposed to a strong meritocratic rhetoric that tell us people get what they deserve. 

Wise interventions

We have seen that psychologists are developing a rich understanding of the psychological experience of those from working class backgrounds in education, and the biases, disadvantages, and discrimination they are likely to face. But are we at a point where we can use this knowledge to attempt to reduce educational inequalities and make education more inclusive for all? 

There are several types of so-called ‘wise’ interventions that have been shown to reduce educational inequalities. The term ‘wise’ comes from 1950s gay culture and was used to describe straight people who understood the full humanity of gay people despite the viciously homophobic culture at the time (Walton, 2014). It is used here to label psychological interventions that depend on a deep understanding of the psychological reality of their targets. The interventions are designed to address specific aspects of students’ subjective experience of education, for example by reducing their worries about fitting in and belonging, by promoting a growth rather than fixed mindset about intelligence, or by fostering positive relationships between teachers and students. Here, I want to focus on just one type of wise intervention: values-affirmation. 

Values-affirmation interventions, as used in education settings (Easterbrook et al., 2021; Steele, 1988), are brief writing exercises that prompt individuals to reflect on their most important values. If timed well – before an important test or before a stressful educational transition, for example – value-affirmations can reduce the negative impacts of stereotype threat on academic performance. 

When we experience stereotype threat, our attention and cognitive resources get focused tightly on the source of the threat and we may become hyper-vigilant to any cues that might be relevant to the threat and disregard everything else. Seemingly innocuous events can become interpreted through this hyper-vigilant lens so that our whole environment can become threatening and hostile. Under such conditions, spending just 15 minutes writing about your most important values can have transformative power. It can remind you that you are more than just a negative stereotype. It can broaden your horizons, widen your attention, extend the cognitive resources you can draw upon, and dilute the sense of threat. It can free you from the psychological chains of stereotype threat. 

Based on this knowledge, Ian Hadden, our colleagues, and I investigated whether values-affirmation interventions could boost the academic performance of students from low-income households in England (Hadden et al., 2020). The initial study that we published involved 562 11-14-year-old students who were randomly allocated to either complete three values-affirmation writing exercises throughout the year, or to complete a psychologically-neutral control task. The value-affirmation exercises asked students to pick their most important values from a list and write a few brief paragraphs about when and why these values are important. You can find some examples of the affirming essays (paraphrased for anonymity promised in ethical reviews) overleaf. I am always struck by how authentic the writing is, and how, if I was faced with a stressful situation and spent a few minutes writing such text, I would feel better and more able to cope. 

Among those who did not do the value-affirmation exercises, we found a large socioeconomic attainment gap in the end-of-year maths tests, with students eligible for free school meals performing much worse. Values-affirmation had no effect at all on the performance of students who were not eligible; this is because they were not suffering from stereotype threat as they are not subjected to negative stereotypes about their intelligence. However, for students who were eligible for free school meals, completing three values-affirmation exercises – each just 15 minutes long – throughout the school year boosted their maths results to the extent that the attainment gap reduced by 62 per cent. That’s a remarkable reduction considering how brief the intervention was. 

At the same time as this study was underway, I was leading a much larger values-affirmation trial, involving 29 schools and around 11,000 students in England. We recently published the main results, which suggest that the values-affirmation exercises had a small yet positive effect on the GCSE exam performance of students eligible for free school meals (See et al., 2022). More granular, but as-yet unpublished, analyses indicate that the values-affirmation interventions had strong and positive effects on the GCSE performance of students who were eligible for free school meals, but only if they wrote essays that indeed had self-affirming content. Based on these results, we are working with teachers to design more engaging forms of values-affirmation interventions.

Although we do not yet know whether our values-affirmation interventions led to long-term improvements, work in the US has shown that the beneficial effects of values-affirmation interventions can last for years after the intervention; a published paper following up the first evaluation of a values-affirmation study in US schools (Cohen et al., 2006; Goyer et al., 2017) found that the 11-13-year-old African American students – in the US, it is African American and Latinx students who are subject to prevalent negative stereotypes about their intelligence – who completed the values-affirmations were more likely to go to college and, among those who did go to college, were more likely to go to more selective ones. These results were found nine years after the intervention. 

It’s not magic

People are often incredulous when they encounter such findings. How can interventions that are so brief and ostensibly simple have such profound results? In amongst all their other writing assignments, how can a short written exercise on values lead to long-term changes in performance and educational trajectory? How can such brief and cheap interventions have such profound effects when expensive large-scale interventions – like Pupil Premium funding – often have only limited effects? It beggars belief. 

One of the leading experts on wise interventions – Greg Walton – describes them (2014, p.73) like this: ‘They aim, simply, to alter a specific way in which people think or feel in the normal course of their lives to help them flourish’. This is a rich description that is worth unpacking. Firstly, each wise intervention precisely targets a specific psychologically process. The process will have been robustly interrogated through years of empirical research and found to be related strongly to the outcome of interest. Secondly, this psychological process is integral to a person’s normal daily experience. This means that changing the tenor of that psychological process – say, from one of threat to one of safety – will transform daily experience and so be strongly reinforced. Thirdly, rather than teaching people new skills or offering new experiences, wise interventions aim to remove psychological barriers to success that are faced only by certain groups or individuals. The interventions allow people to flourish using their current skillset and the resources that are already available to them. They are not magic, but precise, targeted, evidence-based interventions that change people’s everyday psychological experience to lasting effect. 

Part of the reasons that wise interventions can lead to long-term effects is because they are embedded within schools that are, in most instances, reactive and sensitive contexts. If a student does slightly better than expected in a test (because, for example, they completed a values-affirmation exercise before the test), then the teacher may notice and slightly alter their expectations for the student and thus how much academic challenge they give them. If the intervention is well timed, these small initial boosts in performance and confidence might eventually lead to the student being placed in a higher-ability set, which is likely to be more academically-orientated and nourishing. Frequent assessments mean that performance increments are likely to be noticed and feed into the student’s educational experience. 

These processes can lead to long-term benefits, but certain conditions must be met for the intervention to be successful. Firstly, the educational inequality that the intervention is aiming to reduce must be, at least in part, a result of the psychological factors that the intervention targets. It sounds obvious, but it is not: the psychological factors that interventions target are often subtle, internal, and subjective and so hard to identify without vigorous methods. We have suggested a research process that practitioners can follow so that they can ascertain which, if any, psychological factors are holding back some groups of their students. This process – which analyses student outcomes in conjunction with surveys and focus groups for students, teachers, and parents – helps schools understand their context in detail and so implement an intervention that has a high probability of success (Easterbrook & Hadden, 2021). 

Secondly, the context in which the intervention is implemented must be sufficiently sensitive to allow the recursive processes to take root (Walton & Yeager, 2020). Intervening in a school that is in chaos – with high teacher turnover, poor management, or a disruptive climate – is unlikely to support the initial benefits that students might receive from a wise intervention. These require interconnected social fabrics and effective institutional practices to be propagated, otherwise their effects quickly fade. It is only when these conditions are met, and the intervention is delivered with skill and in the appropriate way (Easterbrook et al., 2021), that beneficial long-term outcomes can result. 

A bitter remedy

Are wise interventions the future of education? Can they effectively and cheaply reduce educational inequalities nationwide? There are several reasons to be sceptical of such hopes. 

Consider why values-affirmation interventions are effective. It is because some groups of students experience stereotype threat which impedes their educational success. But why do they experience stereotype threat? Because there are stigmatising negative stereotypes about their group that are prevalent in society. 

Values-affirmation can benefit students from negatively stereotyped groups, but only those who meet specific criteria: that they are experiencing stereotype threat, that they perform the intervention in the way it is intended, and that they attend a school that is sensitive enough for recursive processes to take root. For all the students from negatively stereotyped groups who do not meet these criteria, as well as all those who do not have the opportunity to do a values-affirmation exercise, their educational performance – and thus their life opportunities – are likely to suffer. To close educational inequalities at scale and in a lasting way, we need to reduce the negative stereotypes that produce stereotype threat. Wise interventions in education are often an individualised and short-term fix that tackle the symptoms of societal ills. They do not target the cause. 

What is more, communications about wise interventions can have unintended detrimental effects (Blanton & Ikizer, 2019). Studies have shown that media communication about wise interventions, and specifically about values-affirmation interventions, can reduce people’s concern about educational inequalities and increase the blame they pour onto the disadvantaged group members for their poorer performance (Ikizer & Blanton, 2016). If someone sees that a pressing social issue can be reduced by very brief and ostensibly simple interventions, they may believe that the issue must be simple and so easily fixed. This in turn can lead people to believe that those who do not do well in their exams are simply not trying hard enough.

So, psychological interventions can help tackle class-based inequality by targeting very precise psychological processes that are symptoms caused by the message that society sends to our children and young people. But if we want to genuinely reduce inequalities in educational outcomes, we need to change society and the messages it sends, not the individuals who receive them.

  • Dr Matthew Easterbrook is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sussex. [email protected]

Illustration: Eliza Southwood

Examples from values-affirmation exercises

‘I love the summer because I get to see my family from back home. They remind me who I am and where I come from.’

‘My friends are like brothers and sisters to me. I can be myself around them and they make me want to come to school.’

‘Football is a really important part of my life. I count every minute of the lessons before games.’

‘When I’m stressed, I like to sing my problems at the top of my voice. It makes me feel really alive.’  

‘My mum and I always stick up for each other. We share everything – shoes, clothes, everything. She’s more like a sister than a mother.’

Key sources

  • Blanton, H. & Ikizer, E.G. (2019). Elegant Science Narratives and Unintended Influences. Social Issues and Policy Review, 13(1), 154–181. 
  • Cheryan, S., Plaut, V.C., Davies, P.G. & Steele, C.M. (2009). Ambient Belonging: How Stereotypical Cues Impact Gender Participation in Computer Science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(6), 1045–1060. 
  • Cohen, G.L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N. & Master, A. (2006). Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological intervention. Science, 313(5791), 1307–1310. 
  • Croizet, J. & Claire, T. (1998). Extending the concept of stereotype threat to social class. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24(6), 588–594. 
  • Doyle, L., Easterbrook, M. J., & Harris, P. R. (2022). The roles of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and teacher beliefs in academic grading.
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  • Easterbrook, M.J., Nieuwenhuis, M., Fox, K.J., et al (2022). ‘People like me don’t do well at school’: The roles of identity compatibility and school context in explaining the socioeconomic attainment gap. British Journal of Educational Psychology
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  • Goyer, J.P., Garcia, J., Purdie-vaughns, V. et al. (2017). Self-affirmation facilitates minority middle schoolers ’ progress along college trajectories. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(29), 7594–7599. 
  • Hadden, I.R., Easterbrook, M.J., Nieuwenhuis, M., et al (2020). Self-affirmation reduces the socioeconomic attainment gap in schools in England. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(2), 517–536.
  • Ikizer, E.G. & Blanton, H. (2016). Media coverage of “wise” interventions can reduce concern for the disadvantaged. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 22(2), 135–147. 
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  • See, B.H., Morris, R., Gorard, S. et al. (2022). A conceptual replication study of a self-affirmation intervention to improve the academic achievement of low-income pupils in England. Educational Research and Evaluation, 1–34. 
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