The power of role models for white working-class boys

Eliza Kozman, Behavioural Insights Team |

Poor white British boys are one of the worst performing groups in English education. From primary school through to GCSE, they lag behind their peers and are less likely to go to university than students from any other background.[1] [2] There is growing pressure on universities to tackle this problem but relatively little evidence on the most effective approaches. To help address this issue, I made the jump from higher education policy into academia to research how white working-class boys respond to university role models as part of a PhD sponsored by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) and University College London.

Role models in widening participation

Many widening participation activities involve student ambassadors who can act as role models for students and ‘raise aspirations’. There is already some evidence that role models can be a good way to encourage students to aspire to university. For example, in 2014 BIT ran a study where a talk by an inspirational role model increased the number of secondary school students stating they were interested in university by approximately eight percentage points (Susannah wrote about this research in a blog post here). My project builds on this work to explore whether university students can act as effective role models for white working-class boys in particular.

A number of researchers have observed an ‘anti-school’ culture among white working-class boys.[3] [4] This culture helps shape post-16 choices but also has a negative effect on attainment while at school. Therefore, rather than simply measuring university aspirations, my project focuses on Years 8-11 students to test whether role models can help improve attitudes to education and attainment, as well as the appeal of university.

My pilot study

Existing research suggests that role models are most effective when students can see similarities between themselves and the role model.[5] On this basis, it seems likely that white working-class male university role models probably have a bigger effect on white working-class boys than white working-class girls.

In summer 2017, I ran a pilot to test this theory. I worked with Alan, a 24 year old male history graduate from the University of Sunderland who had grown up in the area and self-identified as coming from a working-class background.[6] Alan and I developed a short video testimonial of him talking about the importance of GCSEs – here is a taste of what he said:[7]

“If I could give you one piece of advice today, it would be: take school seriously; look at it as an obstacle you need to get over to get to the next stage of your life – whether that be a full-time job, whether that be an apprenticeship or another qualification at a local college, whether that be a full time job or university. Take it seriously – make the most of it.  You’ve got one shot at it. Put the time and effort in and the rewards will come later on.”

To test the effect of Alan’s testimonial on students, I worked with two schools in the North East of England to run a randomised controlled trial (RCT).[8]  Both of the schools had a high proportion of students who met my ‘white working-class’ criteria: they were white British and had been eligible for free school meals in the last six years or lived in a disadvantaged area.[9] In total there were 84 boys and 74 girls who met this criteria spread across 12 Year 9 classes; of these I randomly allocated half the classes to watch Alan’s testimonial.

Directly after watching the testimonial I surveyed all the Year 9 students in both schools (including those who did not watch the testimonial).The survey was designed to measure attitudes to education and asked students to rate how much they agreed with statements such as “I can get a good job even if my grades are bad” so that a higher score on the survey implied a more positive attitude towards education.[10] I also asked students whether they were interested in going to university. Then I compared the outcomes for students who had seen the testimonial to those who had not.

I found that the testimonial did lead to more positive attitudes towards education for white working-class boys – their survey scores were over 10 percentage points higher than for white working-class boys who did not watch the video. However, I saw no effect on university aspirations for this group. This might have been because Alan’s testimonial was focused on the value of GCSEs for any post-16 destination, not just university. So that I can explore whether role models encourage these students to consider university, future testimonials will include more information about university-based routes.

The results were not the same for white working-class girls. While watching the video had no effect on their attitudes towards education, it led to a statistically significant decrease in their interest in university. This suggests that male university role models may actually decrease the appeal of university for white working-class female students. However, it is important to note that this is a preliminary finding based on a small pilot RCT.

Next steps: Who is the best role model?

In 2018, I will roll-out a larger RCT to test the robustness of my early results by scaling-up my pilot across multiple regions of England.

This trial will also seek to provide more evidence on who the best role models are for white working-class boys. We know that these students tend to see university as incompatible with working-class masculinity; therefore, there is a clear question around whether traditional university students will be the best role models.[11] To answer this question, I will continue to work with inspirational male university students from white British working-class backgrounds, but test whether those who are ‘academic’ (i.e. a traditional degree courses) or those who are more ‘vocational’ (on courses such as a Degree Apprenticeships which may be perceived as more traditionally ‘masculine’) are most effective.

Because so few white working-class males go to university, there are not many who can act as role models in widening participation activities. If we narrow that down to students on particular courses, such as Degree Apprenticeships, the numbers will become even smaller. With this in mind, I will also develop and test activities designed to help students relate to any university role model. This will form part of a toolkit on how universities can maximise the impact of their student ambassadors and other role models, regardless of the characteristics they share with students.

Opportunities to collaborate

The aim of this project is to provide useful evidence to help universities shape their widening participation activities with white working class boys. I am excited by my early findings and hope to build on these insights over the coming year.

I am currently seeking to collaborate with universities and schools to run this project in the Spring/Summer term 2018. I am also seeking white British male university students who are happy to identify as working-class and act as role models in the project.

If you would like to be involved, please contact me by 24 January 2018 via email ( or visit for more information.

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[1]  House of Commons Education Committee. (2014). Underachievement in education by white working class children. London: Education Committee.

[2]  Crawford, C., & Greaves, E. (2015). Socio-economic, ethnic and gender differences in HE participation.

[3]  Willis, P. (1977). Learning to Labour (Farnborough, Saxon House).

[4]  Jackson, C. (2002). ‘Laddishness’ as a self-worth protection strategy. Gender and education, 14(1), 37-50.

[5]  Dasgupta, N. (2011). Ingroup experts and peers as social vaccines who inoculate the self-concept: The stereotype inoculation model. Psychological Inquiry, 22(4), 231-246.

[6]  Many thanks to the North East Raising Aspirations Partnership and the University of Sunderland who put me in touch with Alan. Huge thanks also go to Alan for his participation, advice and insights.

[7]  You can watch the full video on the project website:

[8]  Many thanks to the schools which  took part in this project and the SCHOOLS NorthEast regional network for helping make this happen.

[9]  Using the ACORN classification of postcodes – ACORN 4 and 5 areas were defined as ‘disadvantaged’.

[10]  The survey was adapted from the Identification with School Questionnaire:  Voelkl, K. (1996). Measuring Student’s Identification with School. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 56(5), 760–770.

[11]  Archer, L., Pratt, S. D., & Phillips, D. (2001). Working-class men’s constructions of masculinity and negotiations of (non) participation in higher education. Gender and Education, 13(4), 431-449.

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