Educational Underachievement, Part 2: Underachievers, Low Attainers & Leaving No Kids Behind

In an earlier article, I looked at the religious background of our students who annually fail to cross the line and secure the basic grade standard of 5 ‘good’ GCSEs (A-C), an issue which has unfortunately defined the discussion on educational underachievement in our local context. Below, I will look at the very real distinction that exists between underachievement and low attainment in a school setting (which is oft-confused) whilst also sharing my personal experiences of working in a school environment known for bucking the trend in relation to achievement and socio-economic context.

To start with, defining educational underachievement, as distinct from low attainment, is problematic in its own right.

There are three levels at which underachievement and low attainment can and should be addressed in a strategic manner from government policy makers down to school leaders and classroom teachers:

  • High ability underachievers;
  • Average ability underachievers;
  • Low attainers.

Much of the available literature on this subject fails to distinguish between the two terms (low attainment and underachievement) and employs the terms in a complimentary manner ignoring the need to distinguish between groups of learners capable of closing the gap (underachievers) and those whose learning difficulties are so severe and levels of aptitude are so limited that they are destined to remain behind their age group peers in terms of learning of key curricular areas- if not specific skills. These children can more accurately be described as low attainers.

Low Attainers

Low attaining pupils, at least in my opinion, are best understood as essentially the cohort of children who may or may not have external factors constraining an ability to learn to a level which, in any case, is significantly below age-related expectations in specified skills or subjects due to a lower aptitude. It is an inconvenient truth that a significant cohort of our population falls into this category.

They are extremely unlikely to ever obtain GCSEs in English and Maths. Indeed, the mix of a criterion and norm-referenced dimension to the setting of grade standards will always ensure that a large section of children fall short of reaching the ‘C’ standard as the grades are set to ensure that a significant cohort of entrants do not ‘pass’ the test. Given that our school system is deliberately structured to corral all of the low attainers into the non-grammar sector, then you begin to appreciate the absurdity of league tables as a basis for evaluating school performance and the frustration felt by those in education when newspaper headlines scream about why non-grammars can’t match the performance of schools in England (which are non-selective) or, worse, our very own grammar schools.

This being the case, I’ve always thought it particularly cruel that, having established the benchmark of pupils securing 5 GCSEs (A-C) by which to judge the overall performance of non-grammar schools, the goalposts were shifted to insist that those 5 GCSEs included Maths and English amongst the number (what is meant by the inclusion of the adjective ‘good’ in the headline title when such stats are churned out.) A fairer compromise measure would’ve been to insist on one or the other as well as an ICT-based GCSE qualification. For many of these low attaining pupils, just getting 5 GCSE grades A-C of any description is a feat, and one that can exhaust the energies of a determined and dedicated school staff.

Underachievers: High and Average Ability

In contrast, educational underachievers are children who are clearly failing to realise their academic potential, the insinuation being that inhibiting factors are at play obstructing an able pupil from performing at a level commensurate with his/her aptitude.

Ensuring discussions around educational standards, levels of achievement, provision and value added are informed by inconvenient truths is critical to not only contextualizing the performance of schools but also ensuring that realistic targets are set for closing the gap between potential and actual attainment where possible.

Identifying and tracking low attainment and educational underachievement is important at a school level because it is essential to ensure that practitioners from class teachers to co-ordinators and school leaders are conscious of the distinction and of their role in identifying and remediating underachievement where it is occurring, whilst also putting in place strategies and practices to support the teaching and learning of low attainer pupils (and the greater bulk of pupils, who continue to perform at a level commensurate with their aptitude.)

High Ability Underachievers

Michael Gove’s lament that thick rich kids perform better than bright poor kids was a blunt way of stating that external factors tend to have a contrasting influence on children’s learning depending upon the socio-economic status of the household of which children are born.

The culture of parental, peer and communal support, pressures and expectations all are considerable factors influencing the learning experience of children. Crucially, they also impact upon the culture of a school community and directly upon the capacity of the school to guide children towards the prized objective of realizing each child’s full learning potential.

If you reject the eugenicist assumption, then it is necessary to accept that all communities, regardless of predominating class, creed or colour, have children with a similarly broad aptitude and learning potential profile at any one time. What happens from the moment of birth will begin to either broaden or narrow the children’s prospects of realizing their academic potential through schooling. (In the future, we’ll come to understand more fully that conception should be substituted into that sentence for birth due to the harmful consequences associated with fetal alcohol syndrome and the like on children and their learning potential as they develop.)

On a very practical level, addressing the discrete needs of the range of learners at school level can and must be the business of school leaders and class teachers.

I have considerable professional experience in this regard. Teaching for just under a decade in an all boys’ inner city school with almost 80% free school meal entitlement, I can attest to seeing the manifestations of those adverse inhibiting factors as they play out in a manner detrimentally impacting upon children.

However, I can also bear witness to the powerful effect a culture emphasizing high standards, accountability and zero tolerance for indulging excuses can have on the capacity of a school community to overcome the barriers for learning that undoubtedly exist within our society and beyond.

In many ways, tackling high ability underachievement is more about getting the culture of expectation right within a school and its community. These ‘underachievers’ clearly have more in the tank, and ensuring that the bar of expectation remains high and is appreciated as such by teachers, parents and pupils is perhaps the most critical factor alongside a vanguard mentality to the maintenance of high standards with all that entails for effective school development planning as well as self-evaluation and improvement strategies.

Average Ability Underachievers

In 2013, the NI Executive announced, as part of its Delivering Social Change initiative, that it would be introducing a novel school improvement programme which aimed to tackle the issue of educational underachievement whilst also providing employment for newly qualified teachers.

Whilst the focus at post-primary level was on targeting pupils whom schools believed required the extra tuition support to get across the GCSE English and Maths pass grades line, at primary school level the focus was on pupils whom schools believed could reach Level 4 in both of the main curricular areas by the end of Key Stage 2 (ie end of Primary 7) were they in receipt of an intensive additional tuition programme. The targeted nature of the intervention, focusing on those who ‘could’ close the gap as opposed to simply the weakest academic learners in a school, was an interesting admission by educational authorities that not all children can or will be expected to reach the baseline level, legitimizing the underachiever vs low attainer distinction referenced above.

This programme is reaching the end of the first of its two years, though I would hope it will be extended as the targeted nature of the programme is something I believe is quite useful as a means of tackling underachievement in an effective, robust and accountable manner.

Within my own school, we devised a novel project, part-funded by DCAL, aimed at tackling underachievement through utilizing iPad technology and strengthening community-school-parent relationships in a manner that could impact positively on the learning potential for our pupils.

The No Child Left Behind programme (I shamelessly stole the title from George W Bush) involved identifying groups of pupils believed to be at risk of underachieving for a variety of reasons. The prior assessment performance and teacher evaluation of pupils, young for year status of pupils and those deemed vulnerable for social/ personal background reasons were factored in to the selection process. iPad technology was used effectively with each target group of pupils to incentivize pupils, maximizing the learning potential of the ICT resource to enhance the teaching and learning of Maths, English, ICT and the Creative Arts, using an extensive range of apps.

The programme involved a youth club providing mentors to work on a nightly basis with specified pupils as well as teaming up with a local women’s group to provide courses and support for parents of the targeted pupils.

Both the DSC Signature Project initiative, and the school-designed No Child Left Behind programme, complimented existing school practices and procedures aimed at ensuring that a robust approach is kept towards the maintenance of standards through identifying and tackling underachievement regardless of the underlying reasons.

These include an Underachievement monitoring programme, a monthly class by class audit of pupils promoted or relegated in learning groups (with rewards for those promoted), an pro-active pastoral approach to issues of attendance, punctuality and discipline/uniform policy infractions, as well as on-going tracking of the academic performance of young for year pupils.

Our approach was vindicated in January of this year when the school secured an Outstanding grade in every area inspected in an ETI report, a feat atypical for schools serving catchment areas defined by high levels of socio-economic deprivation. Every year, over 40% of our boys transfer to a grammar school (one with a high grade entry threshold.) The school is also oversubscribed, again bucking the trend for inner-city schools in general, never mind an all-boys’ school with the 11th highest free school meal intake of the 850+ primary schools in Northern Ireland. In the interim period, we have hosted in excess of forty school leaders from across Belfast and beyond to disseminate good practice and in the process pick up on the similarly excellent practices of other school leaders through the engagements.

All that being said, a league table based on either the percentage levels of pupils securing Level 4 by the end of Key Stage 2, or even grammar school transfer percent rates, would still show the same middle-class based schools atop the table year on year across Belfast and beyond quite simply because the sheer weight of the collective adverse factors (social, family or personal) bearing down, in the first instance, on the child and, in the second, on a school community, create formidable barriers to realizing every child’s academic potential that can never be fully countered in spite of the best of wills and intentions.

Adherence to policies and procedures, discussions over data and contested terminology must never obscure the faces of the children at the centre of every decision impacting upon education. The faces that merrily play at break time, that listen attentively at their desks and that innocently entrust us with their future can never be fully guaranteed the safe, secure, healthy, happy and prosperous future we must endeavour to deliver for them.  The utopian dream of never leaving any children behind will always remain just that.

Instead, it is the unceasing, unwavering and imaginative nature of the struggle to reach that lofty goal, rendered unattainable due to the sobering limitations of humanity, which must define our approach to addressing underachievement in schools.