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What is Deficit Thinking?

Deficit thinking is the idea that young people from various “at risk” groups fail in school due to their own “internal deficiencies”.

The perfect crime

These “deficiencies” are not only applied to young people, but to their families and communities too. It’s an intersectional issue crossing race, gender, class, economic status and family structure. And once we understand and recognise it, we can place it at the root of most challenges currently facing the education system. 


Because of how it operates, deficit thinking often remains an unseen issue in the education system. But its impact is far-reaching and harmful to the young people it affects. Dr Tomas Arciniega referred to deficit thinking as “the perfect crime” as far back as 1977 because it blames the victim (in this case, the young person) and holds them responsible for change. 

The problem with resilience 

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The education system is full of youth mentoring programmes and interventions that want to support young people to build confidence, resilience and self-esteem to succeed (or survive) in school. Does Aspire Youth seem familiar?


When we talk about building a young person's resilience and/or confidence, what are we actually asking of them? What are we asking them to be resilient against? What are we asking them to build confidence for? Are we saying young people need resilience to navigate an education system that is structurally stacked against them?


We don’t believe that building resilience to structural inequity should ever be a requirement for young people to access education.

The strengths-based myth

Although it might feel intuitive, the opposite of deficit thinking is not a strengths-based one. That's because it's possible to embrace a strengths-based view while still bypassing the institutional racism and other inequities that deficit ideology masks.


The only way to dismantle inequity is to name it. In the case of racism, this means the opposite of deficit ideology is anti-racist, anti-oppressive ideology and action: an unbending commitment to become a threat to all forms of inequity.

Unlearn your deficit thinking

Our training supports schools and teachers to engage in critical reflection to recognise, understand and dismantle deficit thinking and build a more equitable practice for all young people.

Deficit thinking in action

Black Caribbean boys exclusions

Statistics about the disproportionate exclusion of Black boys have been a mainstay in our education system since Bernard Coard first published his pamphlet, How the West Indian Child is made educationally subnormal in the British School System, in 1971.


Some may argue that statistics like this raise awareness. But they also encourage us to think there may be a problem with the Caribbean culture, family structure, or something else associated with being from the Caribbean. As a result, we end up attempting to solve disproportionate exclusion rates through direct work with Black Caribbean boys, instead of grasping the problem of racism in education at its root.

The attainment gap

A key priority in education at the moment is closing the attainment gap for young people eligible for Pupil Premium. This concept relies on deficit thinking because it asks young people to “catch up” to a target that we as professionals have set. If we want all young people to succeed, it's crucial that we acknowledge our history in the UK of denying some young people access to the quality education they deserve.


In 2006 Gloria Ladson-Billings wrote a paper called From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt. She questions the focus on catching young people up, and refocused professionals on the debt we owe to young people from groups we have historically excluded from learning.

Further reading

We are on a mission to spread awareness of the harm deficit thinking is causing in the education system. Sign up now to receive a varied and accessible reading list.

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