John Blanchard looks at the importance of distinguishing underachievers and slow learners and gives examples of techniques and tactics you can use to help pupils reach their potential

Teaching underachieving students can be more difficult than teaching students who are doing well enough or very well. When students underachieve, their talent and ability find no expression. They are likely to become disaffected, and may well disrupt others. As we fail, our job satisfaction drops and the ethos and morale of the group and community suffer. Underachieving pupils present a challenge we have to respond to. Resolving underachievement teaches us a great deal about learning, and makes teaching as rewarding as it gets.

Performance categories Categories need to be treated with caution. Norms and predictions are fallible and context-dependent. But they can prompt useful questions about learners’ progress and about how else we might help. We should distinguish between underachievement and slow learning.

Slow learning is apparent when students struggle with tasks but have no other obvious attitudinal or motivational difficulties. Underachievement is apparent when students fail to match up to expectation. You can back up your informal impressions with more deliberate observation, enquiry and assessment.

Measured against approximate norms, ‘slow learners’ fall behind their peers. Multi-disciplinary, multi-agency assessments may be called for. Statements of special educational need (SEN) may result, giving the label moderate learning difficulty (MLD). Slow learners’ counterparts are gifted and talented (G&T) learners who outstrip their peers.

Measured against their predicted levels, ‘underachievers’ fall behind the progress they are expected to make. Projections derive from standardised assessments, using normal distribution or statistical modelling typically, results in end-of-key-stage national tests and GCSE yield probabilities for performance in subsequent tests and exams. Underachievers’ counterparts, ‘overachievers’, are not seen as a problem, but may give us cause to celebrate and clues to success that might be applied to other learners.

Matter of definition
Slow learning signals something is different, not necessarily wrong. Reasons for slow learning include delayed maturation, commonly in cognitive and/or communicative development. If specific impediments can be identified, programmes can be designed to improve learning. Otherwise, observant and empathic teaching seeks to match accessible yet challenging tasks to learners’ capabilities, according to universal pedagogical principles.

Slow learning is not underachievement, and underachievement is not slow learning. Underachievement signals something has gone wrong. Reasons for underachievement include disruption to family routine, illness, emotional and psychological difficulties, loss or lack of motivation and direction. Underachievement calls for investigation, intervention and remedy. Achievement is different from attainment, as Ofsted makes clear – see the box below.

Standards of performance
From the mid-1990s, Ofsted’s school inspections and league tables have given prominence to the notion of average performance and to comparisons between groups’ performance. Groups relate to key stage, gender, bands of attainment, ethnicity, looked-after children, traveller children, mobility, and so on. According to Ofsted, ‘average’ refers to ‘standards’ that are associated with attainment rather than achievement.

  • Attainment is defined by cohorts’ end-of-key-stage test and exam results.
  • Achievement is broader, includes ‘progress’, and incorporates personal and social learning, as well as contribution to the community beyond school.

So, a school can be reported to have low standards and high achievement. For example, Ofsted inspections currently award grade 4, ‘inadequate’, for standards in schools attended by students with profound, severe and multiple learning difficulties. But, if the students learn exceptionally well and make excellent progress, and if teaching, care and leadership are of the best quality, these schools can gain a grade 1, ‘outstanding’, for achievement overall.

Identifying poor progress
It is difficult to generalise about whether a particular group is more likely to struggle.

Performance in different learner groups Generalisations about groups’ propensity for slow learning or underachievement do not get us far. It is well known that in the UK since the late 1970s and early 1980s, when effective measures were taken to advance girls’ attainment, particularly in science and technology, boys’ results have lagged behind. Poor academic performance tends to correlate with low parental expectation, which is associated with short and unsuccessful educational careers. Some ethnic groups perform strongly, others less so. We must avoid turning patterns into self-fulfilling prophecies. There is no law of cause and effect that determines a summer-born boy of African-Caribbean origin, with parents of low socioeconomic status, will fail in school. Analysis and monitoring in school should track performance. We need to be alert to challenge any stereotyping in expectation, deficiencies in provision, or trends.

Your own analysis of pupils’ progress should reveal whether any particular group is underperforming, and whether specific action is needed. Any group of learners might underachieve, and this means slow learners as well as gifted and talented or average learners.

Slow learners, well taught, tend not to contribute to negative contextual value added (CVA), and may enhance positive CVA. Although their attainment starts and may remain low, their progress can be average or better. Although slow learners contribute to reported low standards, a school or centre that helps slow learners to make good progress cannot be said to be performing poorly. Underachievement equates to negative CVA. A school with poor CVA must have numbers of students achieving below what their previous results promised. Failure to halt underachievement is sure to be judged as performing poorly.

Different types of learners with below-average attainment need to be attended to and the systems you have in place to identify and provide for their needs can have far-reaching consequences for their future progress.

The aim must be to enable slow learners to achieve as much as they can, as much as that achieved by the most successful of their peers. It may well be inappropriate to expect them to become average or above-average attainers. For underachievers, the aim must be for them to recover their status as average or above-average attainers. The ill-effects on students who demonstrate slow learning and underachievement are shown in the box below, as are the ill-effects for the schools that do not identify these pupils.

Ill-effects The ill-effects on individuals of not identifying slow learning include:

  • poor self-esteem
  • frustration and disaffection
  • misbehaviour and truancy
  • self-harm
  • pessimism about the future
  • reduced options in education and employment
  • social marginalisation and exclusion.

The ill-effects on individuals of not identifying underachievement similarly include:

  • loss of self-esteem
  • alienation
  • antisocial and criminal activity
  • self-harm
  • restricted access to future opportunities.

The ill-effects for schools of not identifying slow learning and underachievement include:

  • unproductive stress
  • wasted resources
  • diminished satisfaction
  • missed opportunities to learn about learning in ways that can benefit everyone
  • poor reputation and negative labelling.

The benefits of identifying and tackling slow learning or underachievement are given in the box below. A question for school self-evaluation is: what do those who know about pupils’ progress and prospects do with what they know?

Benefits From the learners’ point of view, the benefits of identifying and providing for slow learning and underachievement reflect the five outcomes valued in Every child matters (DfES, 2003) and include:

  • confidence and self-worth
  • security and health
  • enjoyment and achievement
  • positive contribution to school and community life
  • capability and good prospects in relation to continuing education and employment.

For schools, the benefits include:

  • job satisfaction
  • personal and public recognition
  • further funding and development opportunities.

Effective care, teaching and guidance
How well learners’ progress is assessed and provided for depends on how well roles and responsibilities are allocated and carried out. The following questions can be used to audit, and plan development for, the effectiveness of care, teaching and guidance.

  • How are students who find learning difficult, or who underachieve, helped to make progress?
  • Who collects reports of learners’ below-average or unsatisfactory behaviour and progress in lessons?
  • Who identifies learners’ below-average or unsatisfactory performance in assessments?
  • Who leads and coordinates planning and provision for students who find learning difficult or who underachieve?
  • Who reviews progress made by students who find learning difficult or who underachieve and how is this reported, to whom and how often?

Helping struggling students
A teacher’s first response to awareness of students’ struggling is to pause and then observe further, ask questions, and/or adapt on the spot. Spontaneous adaptations include:

  • repeating or reframing instructions or support
  • introducing new support
  • slowing the pace
  • retreating to the basics of rationale and intention
  • rehearsing the preconditional skills and knowledge
  • boosting resilience and a repertoire of means to persevere.

Where difficulties survive this type of immediate adjustment, more systematic intervention is needed, involving assessment and alternative organisation.

It is difficult for learners to succeed when they believe they have little ability or little prospect of success. Whether they believe the problem lies inside or outside themselves, until they can feel motivated to find a way around their difficulties, their learning will stay stuck. Effective teachers try to dissolve learners’ negative thinking. An excellent source of information and inspiration for this is Carol Dweck’s work (2000) on learners’ self-image and beliefs about ability.

Effective teachers break down tasks into small steps: getting started can bring success and unlock some optimism. They say, ‘Look at what you have done well’, rather than emphasising what has not gone well. They look for alternatives, and encourage the learners to do the same: ‘If we cannot do it like that, let us try it another way instead’. They prompt the learners to identify what helps them to progress. These are metacognitive strategies. The future will look better when the student feels they have the capacity to overcome difficulties, when they learn how to learn.

What effective teachers offer is a vision of things that are open to change. They rely on understanding the subject content and on being flexible about how to approach it. They are prepared to take any route that will serve the overall intention. They must be able to ‘scaffold’ the learners’ understanding and activity. Lateral thinking, pragmatism, and attention to the individual learners’ responses and initiatives are essential.

This solution-focused approach, such as those proposed by Durrant (1995) and Metcalf (1999), can inform the way teachers talk to classes and individuals. The process outlined below, based on the work of Bill O’Connell (1998) and John Blanchard (2002), can be used in a series of conversations designed to help a slow learner or an underachiever find a way forward.

Finding a way forward

  • Invite the student to say what might be making progress difficult. Encourage them to give examples of when, why and how things are difficult. Then ask for one word or sentence to clarify the main issue. If the student cannot do that, offer your own summary and see whether they feel you have understood well enough. After that, avoid getting stuck in the problem. Transfer your attention to exceptional occasions when things are not so difficult. Keep this positive focus from now on.
  • Feed back and affirm everything the student has done well. Tell them as much as you can about how well they are coping. For example, ‘I think it was really good that you said you had spoken to … about this,’ or ‘It is great you have tried doing … to help make things better.’
  • Use a scaling question: ‘On a 10-point scale, with 0 being no progress because everything is too difficult and 10 being perfect success, where are you now?’ If it helps, use something visual, rather than numbers, such as a ladder or road, to represent the scale. Then ask questions about possible solutions. For example, ‘Can you imagine making the problem a bit smaller?’ and ‘Can you suggest how you can be more confident about making progress?’ Explore what the student feels they might do to bring success.
  • Suggestions the student makes about how they might improve become a task to work on. Whether or not they can think of a way forward, give them a task focusing on what you want them to notice during the rest of the session, or over the coming days, when things are going better.
  • You can agree to talk with the student at intervals. Follow-up conversations can look at rescaling. Concentrate on what the student notices when the problem is smaller or absent. Ask them to describe as much as they can — time of day, who they are with, what is going on, and so on.
  • After three or four such conversations, use the success experienced as a basis for bringing this process to a close. Suggest that the pupil can continue on their own, or through another supportive relationship. Focus on what has gone well, reasons for this, and steps that help to maintain progress or improve further.

The point is to tailor communication and responses to individuals. Formality and standard procedure are offputting and ineffective. The focus is on locating difficulties, exploring solutions, agreeing a plan of action to be regularly updated, and developing resilience.

Twin elements in learners’ growing sense of progress and satisfaction are autonomy and belonging. Their self-esteem, motivation and success depend on their having a strong personal identity while feeling a part of a group or community. In school, we can foster both through a combination of groupwork and independent and personalised learning. We can measure our effectiveness in addressing slow learning and underachievement by monitoring how well we cater for pupils’ growing cooperation with one another and their development of initiative and individual responsibility. The more they feel they can work together on worthwhile tasks, and the more they can express their own preferences and make their own choices, the less they will be prey to slow learning and underachievement.

Collecting evidence
It is important to collect reports of learners’ below-average or unsatisfactory behaviour and progress in lessons and in assessments.

It is unusual now for a school not to have tracking systems that enable senior leaders and members of staff to see which learners are meeting expectations, and which learners are not. Authorities outside school seem to speak and write as though data drives perceptions and decisions. Professionals in school tend to take a broader view. They use assessment data alongside a range of formal and informal evidence. Individuals’ and groups’ character, histories, progress, needs and prospects are revealed by more than statistics.

Tutors, as well as year, curriculum and/or senior leaders may collect reports of students facing difficulties. Everyone depends on information being supplied by subject teachers and anyone else who has regular contact with the learners. Commonly, there is a chain of responsibility. The closer to the action you go, the greater the detail in insight and diagnosis. The higher you go, the bigger the picture in strategy and policy.

Systems benefit from clear definitions and processes understood by everyone. These can be checked across the board or by sampling:

  • Do you know what to do if any of your students consistently finds tasks difficult or is underachieving?
  • How many instances have you reported this year?

Not every teacher will have slow learners or underachievers, but reflecting on numbers sharpens the mind and prompts you to consider classroom observation, formative assessment, comparative rates of progress, and accountability.

Coordinating provision
You need to have someone in charge of leading and coordinating planning and provision for students who find learning difficult or who underachieve.

Strategies to help slow learners and underachievers may be immediate, medium term or long term. These include: pairing with a learning partner; providing a teaching assistant; periodic mentoring by an older student, member of staff or other adult. You will be looking for ways to give learners reasons and means to succeed. If interventions and initiatives work, protracted efforts are spared. The less success you have with spontaneous and short-term measures, the more you have to arrange for extensive enquiry and intensive communication with all concerned.

Supervising such provision is crucial. The person leading and coordinating this work may be a tutor, pastoral or subject leader, SENCO or member of the senior leadership team. They will have to report to senior leaders, and perform several functions, including:

  • motivating and holding members of staff to account
  • giving them feedback
  • putting them in touch with one another if they have ideas to pass on
  • developing an overview of performance across the school.

It is very helpful for staff to share approaches and strategies. If this has been missing from staff meetings or training sessions, you should set aside time for colleagues to learn from those who are successfully supporting slow learners or underachievers. Training for staff by external providers may also be useful.

Reviewing progress
Make time for reviewing progress made by students who find learning difficult or who underachieve. Progress needs to be overseen on a regular basis. In emergency cases this is weekly, but generally, it is half-termly or termly. Across the whole school, this is usually carried out by a senior leader, who draws on informal and formal reports by members of staff. The purpose is to assure learners’ entitlement and quality of provision and outcome.

This might make a powerful section in your self-evaluation form (SEF), illustrating effectiveness of assessment, tracking and support for slow learners and underachievers. Statistical and case-study analysis can highlight successful strategies. These point to possible ways of improving any aspect of the curriculum, relationships and systems via team and whole-school development.

Core principles
If your school has a significant proportion of slow learners and, more especially, of underachievers, it might be called a school facing challenging circumstances (SFCC). Research by Alma Harris and Christopher Chapman (2002) relating to SsFCC is shown below:

Effective leadership when facing challenge
Effective leaders in schools facing challenging circumstances (SsFCC) are:

  • constantly managing tensions and problems directly related to the circumstances and context of the school, coping with unpredictability, conflict and dissent on a daily basis, without discarding core values
  • people-centred — the leadership practice of headteachers ‘was underpinned by a set of personal and professional values that placed human needs before organisational needs’
  • able to combine a moral purpose with a willingness to be collaborative and to promote collaboration among colleagues, whether through teamwork, or extending the boundaries of participation in leadership and decision-making.

Source: Harris and Chapman (2002)

In SsFCC, the pressure on leaders’ qualities is great, the urgent need for development intensely felt. However, the principles of responsive, values-based, people-centred, team-building and distributive leadership apply as much to schools with few slow learners and underachievers as they do to schools with many.

One of the most significant ways of evaluating and developing provision and outcomes for slow learners, underachievers and the whole student population is to engage with ‘student voice’. Find out about pupils’ perceptions of their school experience, and work with them to develop policies that they believe will enhance their opportunities to succeed. There are outstanding examples of this in work by Fielding and Bragg (2003), MacBeath et al (2003) and Rudduck and Flutter (2004).

Prevention is better than cure, but neither slow learning nor underachievement can be avoided or eradicated in a normal population. The better the overall quality of teaching, the less call there will be for extraordinary measures. High-quality curriculum planning and teaching help learners to display the following motivated behaviours:

Pupils who are experiencing quality teaching and curriculum planning:

  • express their existing knowledge as a basis for new endeavour
  • have good reason to tackle tasks
  • know how to set about their work
  • talk about how to deal with difficulties and mistakes
  • understand and influence how their efforts are assessed
  • realise their successes and strengths by assessing themselves and each other
  • see how they can improve, and have time and support to do so
  • know how to apply what they learn in different contexts.

These are explored in more detail in my article on personalised learning (Blanchard, 2007). The most effective response to slow learning and underachievement is conscientious and systematic evaluation and development, focusing on quality teaching and learning.

Dr John Blanchard, independent educational consultant


  • Blanchard, J. (2002) Teaching and targets: self-evaluation and school improvement, Routledge/Falmer
  • Blanchard, J. (2007) ‘Up close and personalised — boosting creativity and individual learning’, Curriculum Briefing: Restructuring learning — changing curriculums, vol 5, no 3, Optimus Education
  • DfES (2003) Every child matters: change for children, DfES
  • Durrant, M. (1995) Creative strategies for school problems, Norton
  • Dweck, C. (2000) Self-theories: their role in motivation, personality, and development, Psychology Press
  • Fielding, M. and Bragg, S. (2003) Students as researchers: making a difference, Routledge/Falmer
  • Harris, A. and Chapman, C. (2002) Effective leadership in schools facing challenging circumstances, NCSL
  • MacBeath, J., Demetriou, H., Rudduck, J. and Myers, K. (2003) Consulting pupils: a toolkit for teachers, Pearson Publishing
  • Metcalf, L. (1999) Teaching toward solutions: step-by-step strategies for handling academic, behaviour and family issues in the classroom, Simon & Shuster
  • O’Connell, B. (1998) Solution-focused therapy, Sage Publications
  • Rudduck, J. and Flutter, J. (2004) How to improve your school: giving pupils a voice, Continuum Press