Self-affirmation reduces the socioeconomic attainment gap in schools in England

Ian Robert Hadden*, Matthew John Easterbrook, Marlon Nieuwenhuis, Kerry Jane Fox, Paul Dolan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Studies in the United States show that school students from some ethnic backgrounds are susceptible to stereotype threat, that this undermines their academic performance, and that a series of virtually zero-cost self-affirmation writing exercises can reduce these adverse effects. In England, however, socioeconomic status (SES) is a much stronger predictor of academic success than is ethnic background.

Aims: This study investigates whether self-affirmation writing exercises can help close the SES attainment gap in England by increasing the academic performance of low-SES (but not higher-SES) school students.

Sample: Our sample consisted of students aged 11–14 in a secondary school in southern England (N = 562); of these, 128 were eligible for free school meals, a proxy for low SES.

Methods: Students completed three short writing exercises throughout one academic year: those randomly assigned to an affirmed condition wrote about values that were important to them, and those assigned to a control condition wrote about a neutral topic.

Results: On average, the low-SES students had lower academic performance and reported experiencing more stereotype threat than their higher-SES peers. The self-affirmation raised the academic performance of the low-SES students by 0.38 standard deviations but did not significantly affect the performance of the higher-SES students, thus reducing the SES performance gap by 62%. The self-affirmation also reduced the level of stress reported by the low-SES students.

Conclusions: The benefits of this virtually zero-cost intervention compare favourably with those of other interventions targeting the SES academic attainment gap.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)517-536
Number of pages20
JournalBritish journal of educational psychology
Issue number2
Early online date4 Jun 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Attainment gap
  • Schools
  • Self-affirmation
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Stereotype threat

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