Middle and high school students who have at least one teacher encouraging them to stay in school are more likely to continue their education beyond the age of 16 than those who do not, according to a new U.K. study published in the journal Research in Higher Education.
This finding was particularly true for teenage students whose parents had lower levels of education — one indicator of a less advantaged background.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Cambridge in England, used ‘big data’ techniques to investigate the long-term impact of the student-teacher relationship and the role it plays in university admission.
“Teachers are often relegated to course deliverers and classroom managers in the policy discussions around further education. However, it’s clear that teachers have more forms of influencing inequality than is currently appreciated,” said study author Dr. Ben Alcott from Cambridge’s Faculty of Education.
“When people speak of a positive school experience, they frequently cite a personal relationship with a teacher, and the encouragement they were given. Our research helps quantify that impact and show its significance, particularly for addressing social mobility.”
“The importance of that teacher-student connection can get lost in the midst of exam statistics or heat of political debate,” said Alcott.
For the study, about 4,300 adolescents in England were followed for seven years starting at age 13. Each year the teens completed a detailed questionnaire. During their last year of compulsory education, the students were asked whether a teacher had encouraged them to continue their education.
The findings showed that, on average across all backgrounds and abilities, rates of entry into post-16 education were eight percentage points higher among students who reported getting teacher encouragement (74%) over those who did not (66%).
Based on previous examination scores (the UK’s SATs), teacher encouragement had the greatest effect on students with average academic achievement — those often on the verge of going either way when it comes to higher education.
The impact of teacher encouragement on students also varied considerably depending on family background with the greatest differences seen among students whose parents had lower levels of education.
For example, among students whose parents lacked any formal qualification, post-16 education enrollment increased 12 percentage points among those who received teacher encouragement (64%) compared with those who did not (52%).
This effect appeared to last into higher education, with that initial encouragement increasing the likelihood of university entry by 10 percentage points — one-fifth higher than students from similar backgrounds who did not report being encouraged.
Students whose parents had some qualifications, but none past compulsory education, saw encouragement from teachers boost post-16 education by 13 percentage points (67% compared to 54%) and university entry by seven percentage points.
For students whose parents held university degrees, however, teacher encouragement had less of an impact, increasing continued education by just six percentage points and making no difference at all to university attendance.
However, Alcott found that students from more advantaged backgrounds were likelier to report being encouraged by a teacher to stay in education. For example, 22% of students receiving encouragement had a parent with a university degree, compared to 15% of those who did not. Similarly, students who did not report having an encouraging teacher were a third more likely to have an unemployed parent.
“These results suggest that teachers themselves and the relationships they develop with students are real engines for social mobility,” said Alcott, a former teacher in a London academy.
“Many teachers take the initiative to encourage students in the hope they will progress in education long after they have left the classroom. It’s important that teachers know the effect their efforts have, and the children likely to benefit most.”
Source: University of Cambridge