Compensatory Education

Compensatory Education aims to tackle cultural deprivation by providing extra funds and resources – examples include Operation Head Start, Education Action Zones and Sure Start

Last Updated on March 20, 2023 by Karl Thompson

Compensatory Education aims to tackle cultural deprivation by providing extra funds and resources to schools and communities in deprived areas. It can also mean targeting extra resources to culturally deprived children specifically to make up for their cultural deficiencies.

The idea of compensatory education is that culturally deprived children lack the skills, knowledge and attitudes to do well in education, so to promote equality of opportunity, they need extra help to make up for these deficiencies.

The kind of skills culturally deprived children may lack include linguistic skills, cognitive abilities, and having inappropriate behavioural attitudes.

Three examples of Compensatory Education Policies are:

  • Operation Head Start
  • Education Action Zones
  • Sure Start

Positive Discrimination

Compensatory education policies are examples of positive discrimination: working class children are given extra help and support to make up for their deficiencies, so they can compete on a level playing field with middle class children.

Operation Head Start

Operation Head Start was a multi-billion-dollar scheme of pre-school education which took place in America in the 1960s to the early 1970s as part of President Johnsons’ War on Poverty.

It began in Harlem and was then extended to other areas across America.

It was a programme of ‘planned enrichment’ for children from deprived areas and consisted of the following:

  • Improving parenting skills
  • Setting up nursery classes
  • Home visits by educational psychologists.  
  • Using mainstream media to promote the importance of values such as punctuality, numeracy and literacy.

However the results were disappointing: a large-scale evaluation found that the programme produced no long-term benefits for those who had taken part in it.

Education Action Zones

Education action Zones (EAZs) were set up in in 1998. These programmes directed resources to low-income, inner city areas in an attempt to raise educational attainment.

By 2003 there were 73 EAZs in England funded by central government with extra funding from business.

An OFSTED report on EAZs praised some initiatives such as breakfast clubs and homework clubs and found some improvement at Key Stage 1, but no improvement at GCSE.

Sure Start

Sure Start was one of the main policies New Labour introduced to tackle poverty and social exclusion.

The aim of Sure Start was to work with parents to promote the physical, intellectual and social development of babies and young children.

The aim of Sure Start was to create high quality learning environments to improve children’s ability to learn and help parents with supporting their children in this process. The idea was to intervene early and break the cycle of disadvantage

The main specific outcome of Sure Start was the establishment of 3500 Sure Start Centres, initially established in low-income areas. These centres provided ‘integrated’ family, parenting, education, and health care support.  Parents could attend Sure Start centres with their pre-school children for up to 12 hours a week.

The problem with Sure Start is that although parents liked it there was no measurable improvement to the academic ability of the children who took part in it!

Criticisms of Compensatory education

Critics have argued that by placing the blame on the child and his/her background, it diverts attention from the deficiencies of the educational system.

Compensatory education policies accept the view that working class culture is inferior and this is why children fail in school. However, it may be more accurate to say that working class culture is just different to middle class culture, but schools are middle class institutions and working class children just feel like they don’t fit in.

Sharon Gewirtz (2001) goes as far as to say that Compensatory Education is really an attempt to eradicate working class culture by transforming working class parents into (better) middle class parents.

Building on the above point, cultural capital theory argues that the middle classes construct their culture as superior, and this creates a barrier to the working classes succeeding.

Compensatory education policies are likely to only have limited success in raising achievement because they involve quite a modest redistribution of resources to poor areas. They are unlikely to do much for the inequalities in the wider society which lead to poor achievement

Early intervention may be intrusive – it involves monitoring the poor more than the rich.

Compensatory Education is the solution to cultural deprivation, so any of the criticisms of cultural deprivation theory can also be applied to Compensatory Education.


This material is relevant to the sociology of education.

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