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Studying with brightest may not be wisest choice

LONDON — It has long been one of education’s central tenets: Pupils benefit from being around children who are brighter than them. Competition in the classroom raises standards across the board, so the argument goes, because the example of the brightest pupils will rub off on the rest of their class.

LONDON — It has long been one of education’s central tenets: Pupils benefit from being around children who are brighter than them. Competition in the classroom raises standards across the board, so the argument goes, because the example of the brightest pupils will rub off on the rest of their class.

But a new study, which tracks the exam performance of more than two million pupils in England, suggests this view fails to tell the whole story. Coming up against higher-achieving peers could have a damaging impact on the confidence of those pupils who believe they are in the bottom half of their class, the study concluded.

The paper, from two academics at the London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance, claimed that pupils who rank higher in primary school perform better in secondary school not simply because they are smarter but because their previous success inspires confidence.

Researchers Richard Murphy and Felix Weinhardt asked 15,000 pupils to rate themselves in English, maths and science, and compared their rankings with their exam results when they finished primary education at age 11, and then when they have turned 14 and were in secondary education. They took into account factors such as parental involvement and concluded that “non-cognitive skills such as confidence, perseverance and resilience have large effects on achievement”.

The economists provide an illustration of two pupils of high ability. One is top of the class but the other is in the middle as the school they attend attracts many high-ability students. “We find that the pupil who was top of class performs better in secondary school and is more confident,” the pair argued. “We find that the effect of rank is as important as teaching quality.”

The economists claimed that being highly ranked during primary school is equivalent to spending a year with a highly-effective teacher.

Significantly, they found that boys are four times more affected by being top of their class than girls. There was some evidence that this was because boys are more competitive and if they perceived themselves to be of a low ranking, the impact would be more pronounced.

“This finding goes against the common assumption that having better peers is always the best for children,” Mr Weinhardt said. “Our study suggests that there are situations where your child will be better off from not going to the school with high-performing peers, especially for boys.”

The economists suggested their findings could help teachers and managers to motivate their pupils and staff.

For example, pupils in high-achieving classes may benefit from being reminded how they rank nationally, not only against their immediate peers. Low-achieving pupils, both in their class and nationally, may benefit if teachers help them achieve their own agreed goals as a way of personal advancement.

While their research is focused on educational outcomes, the authors stressed that it could be applied to other settings, even someone’s ability to find a partner. “It is human nature for us to compare ourselves against others,” Mr Murphy said.

“A kid being the best in their street at football would become more confident and spend more time playing and so further improve. Adults could also be affected. Being surrounded by friends who are always dating may damage your confidence with the opposite sex.” THE GUARDIAN

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