Writing about Values
“Writing about Values” is designed to improve the academic performance of disadvantaged pupils by tackling negative stereotypes related to disadvantage which can undermine pupil performance. During English lessons, pupils were asked to write short essays about values of importance to them, such as friendships and honesty. All pupils participated, but an effect was only expected for disadvantaged groups.
Testing the impact of very short exercises designed to improve outcomes for underperforming groups
Character & essential skills
Previous self-affirmation research has suggested that engaging in ‘value affirmation writing’ can improve the performance of minority groups in the United States. The EEF co-funded this project with the Department for Education to test whether it could have a similar impact on economically disadvantaged pupils in English schools. This trial found that for pupils who had been eligible for Free School Meals in the past 6 years, those who did the writing exercises made slightly more progress between primary school and GCSEs than comparison pupils, but the difference was small, with further analysis suggesting the impact was close to zero. There was no evidence of any impact on other pupils, as is consistent with the theory behind the intervention.
These results are for pupils in Year 11, who undertook the written exercises in 2016/17.
In January 2020 an addendum to the report was published, examining the results for Year 10 pupils, who ended KS4 in May/June 2018 (a year after the end of the intervention). The addendum examined whether there were any delayed or sustained effect of the intervention. The addendum found a similar (close to zero) positive effect of the intervention.
Among disadvantaged pupils, those who received the self-affirmation intervention made slightly more progress between the end of primary school and GCSEs than the comparison pupils, but the size of the impact was very small and further analysis suggests the impact was close to zero. This result has a high security rating.
Pupils who completed more writing exercises made slightly more progress. This may mean that the intervention can lead to better outcomes if implemented more thoroughly, but might also be because the kind of pupils who completed more exercises would make more progress anyway.
Neither pupils nor teachers were aware of the nature of the intervention or why the tasks were undertaken because there is some wider evidence that knowledge about the purpose of the intervention can reduce its effectiveness. Schools considering this approach should bear in mind the difficulty of replicating these conditions.
Full project description
Writing about Values aimed to improve the academic performance of disadvantaged Year 10 and 11 pupils by reminding them of their important values. During English lessons, pupils wrote reflective essays about core values, such as relationships with friends and family, sport or music. These writing exercises aimed to remind pupils of positive aspects of their lives, and were administered by English language teachers at the beginning of the academic year, before mock GCSEs, and just before the actual GCSE exams began. Research suggests that an awareness of negative stereotypes about the academic performance of disadvantaged pupils can cause harmful feelings to these pupils and have a negative impact on academic outcomes. The project is based on the theory of self-affirmation, which suggests that engaging in value affirmation writing activities can give individuals a positive sense of value and negate these harmful feelings, fostering academic learning and improving performance.
In this randomised controlled trial, Year 10 and 11 pupils in 29 secondary schools in the South East of England were randomly allocated to either an intervention or a control group. Teachers and pupils were not told which pupils were in each group, or about the theory behind the intervention, because there is evidence that knowledge of the purpose of this type of intervention can reduce its effectiveness. This was achieved by administering the writing exercises in plain individually-named envelopes, and giving the project the generic title of ‘Writing about Values’. While all pupils participated in the trial, the target participants were pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, defined as those eligible for free school meals in the past 6 years.
A team from the University of Sussex implemented the intervention, drawing on research evidence from studies in the U.S. An implementation and process evaluation assessed whether the writing exercises were administered with fidelity. The trial began in September 2016 with the final exercise taking place in May 2017. This is the first report, discussing the impact of the intervention on GCSE results for 5,619 Year 11 (age 15–16) pupils who took their GCSEs in May/June 2017. A 2019 report will present the GCSE results for the initial Year 10 cohort. The programme was co-funded by the Department for Education as part of an EEF funding round on Character Education.