Research Case Study

Impact: Raising aspirations in the classroom

How do we close the gender and socio-economic achievement gaps in primary school children?

  • Tagged under

    Economy, business, politics and society
    Global perspectives and challenges
    Health and wellbeing

  • Lead Academic

    Professor Sule Alan

Photo of children in classroom with hands raised

Research has shown that in most countries children from poorer backgrounds fall behind their peers in terms of their academic, physical, psychological and social development very early on.

These socio-economic achievement gaps are some of the biggest obstacles to policies that aim to promote social mobility and reduce inequality.


A project, led by Professor Sule Alan, formerly of our Department of Economics, is working to change this.

“Socio-economic skills can be fostered in the classroom environment by teachers who acknowledge the importance of these skills for achievement in all walks of life,” she said.

Key skills and forward thinking – a winning combination

Our project has designed and evaluated classroom-based educational interventions that aim to nurture key skills such as self-control, patience, grit, curiosity and creativity – all of which are considered pivotal to enhanced achievement. All field work to date has been in Turkey and Professor Alan is finding that it is entirely possible to enhance achievement by fostering these vital skills.

The interventions used in the study aim to improve the child’s ability to imagine their future selves and encourage forward-looking behaviour using a structured curriculum delivered by the child’s own teacher.

“This programme fundamentally changed the way I give feedback to my students. They were initially shocked when I started praising the way they failed at various tasks. They now have a fearless attitude towards tasks they previously considered too tough,” said Sibel Ozsogut, a teacher from Atasehir Ihsan Kursunoglu Primary School, Istanbul.

What we know so far

“It all starts with optimistic beliefs; those who truly believe that effort is a more important ingredient for achievement than innate intelligence are a lot more likely to succeed,” explained Professor Alan.

Professor Alan summarises her findings so far as:

  • The character skills which are vital for success in later life are totally malleable at primary school age.
  • Irrespective of family background, the children can be reached through their teachers; if those teachers are trained in the appropriate interventions, giant leaps can be made.
  • We can positively change teaching practices through policies.
  • One particular part of the study that focused on patience and self-control found that the children who took part were found to make more patient decisions, connecting their past, present and future in incentivised tasks; became less likely to receive a low behaviour grade; and the results persisted for almost three years after the intervention.
  • Another element that focused on gender found that fostering grit in the classroom increases girls’ competitiveness. Grit is defined by pioneering psychologist Professor Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania as a special blend of passion for long-term goals and persevering through setbacks.

“The fact that fostering grit increases girls’ competitiveness is important because it is well documented that they tend to shy away from competitive environments, a possible explanation for the fact that we have far fewer women in highly-competitive, high-stake occupations in corporations, politics and even in academia,” added Professor Alan.

This project received funding from a £680,000 Impact Acceleration Account that Essex was awarded by the ESRC in July 2014. Impact Acceleration Accounts provide funding to institutions with an impressive track record in social science research and ours is enabling us to conduct a wide range of research over four years.

Next steps

Professor Alan is now working towards cost-effective ways of mitigating the gender and socio-economic achievement gaps observed in many countries, including the UK. She has been asked by the World Bank to be a lead consultant in developing and evaluating similar interventions in Romanian high schools.

A further aspiration is to shift the emphasis to look at different traits such as creativity, curiosity and innovativeness. She will then look at how those traits interact with the more primitive traits such as grit. Professor Alan also wants to look at any negative effects – for example, does developing grit impact on a child’s ability to empathise.

To find out more about Professor Alan's work, you can read 3 Questions with Sule Alan and Research Spotlight on the Human Capital and Economic Opportunity Global Working Group website.