Able pupils from poorer homes ‘less likely to be judged above average’, new research suggests

9 June 2015

Children from lower income families are less likely to be judged ‘above average’ by their teachers, even when they perform as well as other pupils on independent cognitive assessments, according to a new study.

Tammy Campbell of the UCL Institute of Education analysed information on nearly 5,000 seven-year-olds in English state schools who are being followed by the Millennium Cohort Study. She compared teachers’ perceptions of the pupils’ reading and maths ability with their scores on standardised assessments carried out by survey interviewers during home visits.

Teachers tended to perceive low-income children as less able than their higher income peers with equivalent scores on cognitive assessments. For example, 29 per cent of children from lower income families were rated below average at reading by their teachers, compared to 20 per cent of their equally-able peers from more affluent homes. The difference was similar in maths.

A child’s gender can also influence a teacher’s perceptions, it seems. Boys were more likely to be judged above average in maths than girls who had scored equally well on cognitive tests. By contrast, girls were more likely to be judged above average in reading than equally-able boys.

These findings are important as teachers’ assessments make up a considerable proportion of pupils’ overall scores up to age 11. Previous research has also indicated that teachers’ perceptions of pupils can influence their everyday interactions in the classroom.

Children whose teachers reported them as having special educational needs (SEN) were often underrated too, when compared to assessments of pupils without special needs but with similar scores on cognitive assessments.

For the most part, teachers’ assessments did not appear to be connected to children’s ethnicity, once other characteristics were taken into account. However, there were a few exceptions. Black Caribbean girls tended to be underrated in both reading and maths. Teachers were also prone to underrate Pakistani girls in reading, and overrate Bangladeshi boys in maths.

“These findings show that there are factors affecting attainment, as evaluated by teachers, which are outside of children’s and parents’ control. Unless they are addressed, they may continue to play a part in creating and perpetuating inequalities,” Tammy Campbell says.

She adds that teachers could be drawing on their knowledge of average attainment gaps between boys and girls, and pupils from different backgrounds, in order to judge individual children.

“National statistics and education policy could inadvertently contribute to the problem. Initiatives such as the Pupil Premium may convey the message that children from lower-income families are inherently less able. This might make it more difficult to recognise a low-income child who is performing well, or at least at the average. This is something policymakers could take into account when implementing new initiatives.

“Teachers could also be offered appropriate training to enable them to recognise ability irrespective of the children’s backgrounds.”

For more information

Meghan Rainsberry
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Read the full paper

Stereotyped at seven? Biases in teachers’ judgements of pupils’ ability and attainment’ by Tammy Campbell is available on Cambridge Journals Online as an article in the Journal of Social Policy July 2015 issue.

Notes to editors

  1. At age seven, children in the Millennium Cohort Study completed cognitive assessments of their reading and maths ability, which were carried out by qualified interviewers during home visits. Teachers were asked separately how well they thought the pupils were doing in reading and maths compared to their peers.
  2. Special educational needs (SEN) can include learning difficulties, behavioural and emotional difficulties, physical disabilities, and autism. Depending on the nature of their needs, some children with SEN may have similar cognitive ability to other pupils, and their SEN may affect their education only in certain subjects.
  3. The Millennium Cohort Study is following children born in the UK between September 2000 and January 2002. The five surveys of cohort members conducted so far – at ages 9 months and 3, 5, 7 and 11 years – have built up a uniquely detailed portrait of the children of the new century. The study has collected information on diverse aspects of their lives, including behaviour, cognitive development, health, schooling, housing and parents’ employment and education. It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and a consortium of government departments. It is managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the UCL Institute of Education. Visit
  4. Tammy Campbell’s research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The ESRC is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 it celebrates its 50th anniversary.
  5. About Cambridge Journals
    Cambridge University Press publishes over 350 peer-reviewed academic journals across a wide spread of subject areas, in print and online. Many of these journals are the leading academic publications in their fields and together they form one of the most valuable and comprehensive bodies of research available today. For further information about Cambridge Journals, go to
  6. About Cambridge University Press
    Cambridge University Press is part of the University of Cambridge. It furthers the University’s mission by disseminating knowledge in the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence. Its extensive peer-reviewed publishing lists comprise 45,000 titles covering academic research, professional development, over 350 research journals, school-level education, English language teaching and bible publishing. Playing a leading role in today’s international market place, Cambridge University Press has more than 50 offices around the globe, and it distributes its products to nearly every country in the world. For further information about Cambridge University Press, go to
  7. About the UCL Institute of Education
    The UCL Institute of Education is a world-leader specialising in education and the social sciences. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 7,000 students and 800 staff. In the 2014 and 2015 QS World University Rankings, the Institute was ranked number one for Education worldwide. It was shortlisted in the ‘University of the Year’ category of the 2014 Times Higher Education (THE) awards. In January 2014, the Institute was recognised by Ofsted for its ‘outstanding’ initial teacher training across primary, secondary and further education. In the most recent Research Excellence Framework, 94 per cent of our research was judged to be world class. On 2 December 2014, the Institute became a single-faculty school of UCL, called the UCL Institute of Education.
  8. About UCL (University College London)
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