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What’s holding them back? Lifting barriers to achievement for more able learners

Professor Carrie Winstanley, University of Roehampton

Why worry about underachievement? You could be uneasy about an education system that allows ability to remain undeveloped, about potential talent losses at the wider societal level, or simply be disheartened at a perceived personal failure in your role as an educator. For most teachers, school leaders, parents and for learners too, the main concern will be the negative impact on the individual. Repeated frustration at a lack of progress and attainment will inevitably impact on wellbeing and self-concept. We might also assert that all individuals have a right to every chance for optimum achievement and to make the very best of themselves.

Over the last few decades, researchers have moved away from thinking of learners as “underachievers”, instead focusing on how teachers, schools and policymakers can work together, with learners, to raise attainment. The onus for improving learning is shared, with an emphasis on improving the systems and contexts surrounding learners, and understanding how these can unwittingly hold back development and progress.

Schools alone cannot level the societal playing field or liberate learners from the impact of all inequalities. But they can be alert to those who are more likely to be vulnerable to underachievement; put in place targeted interventions and support; and implement whole-school approaches to help learners overcome barriers to progress and success.

What about “hidden” underachievers?

Sometimes it is clear when there is a gap between a learner’s potential and actual achievement. But what about the “hidden” underachievers? Try these approaches to uncover more information about how learners could perform, given the right support:

  • Observations of learners in class – what are they doing instead of working on a prescribed task?
  • General or specific ability checklists – can illuminate patterns of abilities
  • Opportunities for self-referral – learners can be keenly aware of their own under-performance
  • Opportunities for peer-referral – ask learners to put forward peers with abilities that might not seem immediately obvious
  • Information from parents and others – what abilities are learners demonstrating at home or in out-of-school activities?
  • Portfolios of work – provide a more rounded picture than single test results
  • Trying out a range of new activities – exposure to new subjects and opportunities
  • Formal referrals to professionals – sometimes an educational psychologist or therapist can uncover aspects hitherto hidden

What can schools do?

One key notion is to really get to know learners through being vigilant in classrooms, corridors and playgrounds, and through affording them many opportunities to shine. This will help practitioners to identify learners’ strengths and help them see that they can succeed.

Research suggests the most helpful approaches schools can take to help learners increase achievement and attainment are those that improve metacognition and self-regulated learning. Developing in these areas can help learners become more confident and independent; a key way of lifting barriers to success. Teachers are also well-placed to keep tight checks on progress, identifying potential problems and monitoring how well learners respond to interventions.

Additionally, school leaders and policymakers are vital in supporting success. School policies should permit swift interventions to counter lack of learner progress, while simultaneously holding appropriately high expectations in order to motivate and engage. Policies should also address partnerships with other agencies and with parents, as these are also key factors in determining achievement. Essentially, schools need to be sure to have addressed the holistic development of all learners. This can be supported through wellbeing strategies combined with activities that develop resilience and a positive self-reflective attitude.

Breaking down barriers is no easy task, but as many schools demonstrate, it is possible for teachers and school leaders to make a real difference, equipping learners with the tools to continue to overcome difficulties within and beyond their formal education.

Read more… This article is based on the NACE Essentials guide “Breaking down barriers”, which includes practical ideas and examples to help schools identify and respond to underachievement. Visit the NACE website to access the full guide and the complete Essentials range (member login required).

Join the conversation… Professor Carrie Winstanley will lead a keynote session on 18 November 2020 as part of the NACE Leadership Conference, exploring some of the reasons more able learners do not achieve as well as they could; research-based classroom strategies in areas such as self-regulation and mindset; and her views on equality of challenge. View the full conference programme.

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