Press release

Role models vital to closing post-secondary attainment gap

Published on 1 February 2021

Pupils living in areas of high deprivation are far more pessimistic about their post-school prospects than peers from more affluent postcodes, according to a new University of Dundee study.

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Pupils living in areas of high deprivation are far more pessimistic about their post-school prospects than peers from more affluent postcodes, according to a new University of Dundee study.

Researchers, led by Professor Keith Topping, from the University’s School of Education and Social Work, alongside Dr Walter Douglas, an Educational Psychologist at The Kelvin Centre, asked young people preparing to leave school how strongly they believed they would find themselves in a positive destination in work or education.

Significantly greater numbers of young people from poorer postcodes said they did not believe that they could do this successfully while boys reported greater levels of self-belief about the career prospects than girls, despite being at greater risk of failing to secure a positive placement.

The research suggests that the key to understanding this problem could lie in the psychological concept of self-efficacy. This refers to an individual’s belief in their capacity to carry out the behaviours that lead to the desired performance, reflecting the confidence they have in their ability to exert control over their own motivation, behaviour and social environment.

The results further indicate that young people from less advantaged backgrounds would benefit from increased exposure to successful career role models, particularly those with familiar cultural affiliations who young people perceive as similar to themselves and their own personal aspirations.

Professor Topping said, “These findings are disappointing given the amount of work that government, local authorities and teachers have put into identifying children at risk of falling by the wayside in the crucial months after school.

“One of the most practical tests of the success of efforts to close the education attainment gap between rich and poor is the ability of young people to make a successful transition when they leave school to their first placement either in the world of work or continuing education.

“Young people from the poorest post codes are heavily over represented in those who fail to make this transition and are burdened into adulthood with the associated risks of longer-term unemployment, ill health, and other negative life outcomes. It is unlikely that this situation has been alleviated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“School leavers from these areas were more likely to say that they did not know anyone in their extended family or social group who they perceived as having been successful in education or employment after they left school. We see this as confirmation of the power of successful role models who young people know well and perceive to be like themselves.”

In total, 1044 senior high school students who attended six schools from a single urban local authority in Scotland were interviewed. Each of the six schools served a catchment area featuring both advantaged and less advantaged areas and the young people were divided into one of three groups – high deprivation (474), medium deprivation (329), and low deprivation (233).

The pupils were asked a set of questions about how confident they felt about continuing their education or getting a job when they leave school as well as their career prospects in the longer term.

The participants were requested to rate each item on a scale of 0-100 according to their degree of confidence that they could successfully carry out the specified action. Students living in areas of higher deprivation reported significantly lower levels of self-belief that they could achieve a positive destination after leaving school.

Boys reported lower levels of exposure to positive career role models than girls but were still more confident of achieving a positive postsecondary destination. Girls were more likely to report negative emotions when considering their future prospects and this gender difference was more pronounced in areas of higher deprivation, a situation with serious implications for young women from poorer backgrounds.

“Unexpectedly, boys reported more positive emotions than girls when they thought about their career prospects after school,” said Dr Douglas. “A common-sense interpretation of these findings is that young men living in difficult circumstance take refuge in bravado. Recent research has shown that self-efficacy beliefs that veer into over confidence can be maladaptive and ultimately result in disappointment and hindrance.

“In contrast, because girls are more vulnerable to negative emotions when they think about their careers after school, interventions to help them identify and take more active control of their career-related thoughts and feelings could be very beneficial for them.

“Career goals might be most effectively reached by helping adolescents to acquire self-efficacy beliefs in areas of strength that are commensurate with ability but sufficiently challenging to foster further skills development. It would appear that in designing education interventions to promote career success, schools need to continue to develop individualised approaches.”

The researchers have produced a suite of assessment instruments to enable busy teachers to quickly identify which young people should get which interventions in their final years of high school. These assessments will be made freely available to schools and could be used by teachers to identify school leavers who are at greater risk of failing to move into a secure place in education or employment because of lower self-efficacy beliefs.

The research is published in The Electronic Journal of Research in Education.


Grant Hill

Press Officer

+44 (0)1382 384768
Story category Research