Underachievement and unfulfilled potential in schools is a problem that can spiral out of control for some students. Roger Smith encourages school leadership teams to be more aware of these children

In July 2007 Ed Balls indicated in his inaugural speech to the House of Commons that tackling underachievement and raising standards among disadvantaged children was a government priority. In the Guardian of 20 May 2008, under the headline ‘One in five 11 year olds fail to make grade on three Rs, warns Ofsted’, there is a dispiriting report on standards and achievement. Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector of schools, is quoted as saying that, ‘The gap between the haves and have-nots is not moving quickly enough’ and, ‘It is unacceptable that 20% go from primary to secondary not fully functional in literacy and numeracy.’ This figure of 20% will not just be made up of children who underachieve or whose potential has not been fully tapped, but they are in there and exist as a significant part of the percentage. There is also no doubt that such children do play an important part in lowering educational achievement.

Characteristics of underachievement
Underachievement can be defined as an inability or failure of an individual child or group of children to perform in accordance with their age or talents: in other words, unfulfilled potential. As you can imagine, it is not easy to either identify underachievers or to know when underachievement is taking place. For many of us and for many teachers identification is based on experience and knowing certain children over a relatively long period.

There is no clear model of the characteristics of underachievement so it will remain difficult to identify. As early as 1996 Diane Montgomery in Able Underachievers, produced a ‘characteristics’ checklist that schools could use. She suggested that the presence in a child of five or more of the indicators she used (see box) meant that teachers should suspect underachievement. This list might be a useful tool.

Characteristics of underachievement

  • Inconsistent pattern of achievement in different subjects.
  • Inconsistent pattern of achievement within individual subjects.
  • Discrepancy between ability and achievement – with ability much higher.
  • Lack of concentration.
  • Daydreaming.
  • Clowning and other work- avoidance strategies.
  • Poor study skills.
  • Poor study habits.
  • Non-completion or avoidance of assignments.
  • Refusal to write anything down.
  • Over activity and restlessness.
  • Over-assertive and aggressive or over-submissive and timid behaviour.
  • Inability to form and maintain social relationships with peers.
  • Inability to deal with failure.
  • Avoidance of success.
  • Lack of insight about self and others.
  • Poor literacy skills.
  • Endless talking – avoiding actually doing anything.
  • Membership of stereotyped minority group, ie not Caucasian, middle class.

Some key issues to consider
It is important for standards generally as well as for the achievement of those individual children who are underachievers that we try to minimise underachievement. For this reason it is important to look at some of the possible causes. One of the key issues that we have to both confront and try to resolve is that the kind of underachievement that can affect a child’s potential is not necessarily caused by them being unable to do better, but by them either making a conscious or unconscious choice. In fact many children:

  • may be unaware that they have potential and may lack insight about how successful they could be
  • may have expectations that are too low, too limited or too narrow
  • may have a sense of inadequacy or low self-esteem and may be vulnerable to peer pressure to underachieve
  • may have emotional problems at home and be anxious about their families
  • may be unmotivated to achieve in school
  • may have a fear of failure or a fear of success
  • may blame other children or external circumstances and never themselves.

I am sure it is relatively easy to read this list of issues and then to immediately name children who you know who fit into many of the categories. Once this happens it is possible to link them to possible strategies to look at what might begin to minimise the problems underachievement causes. For example, we can show children how to be successful by introducing them to simple study skills. Low self-esteem needs to be tackled by making sure that praise and rewards are given and that their achievements – any achievements – are celebrated. Teaching assistants need to know who underachieving children are so that they motivate them by working with them individually. What is possibly most difficult is tackling the negative influences from home. Good home-school links are a starting point and it is important to invite parents in to talk through some of the problems and issues as well as discussing with them small step-by-step targets that they can be encouraged to monitor.

Recognising and tackling other common problems
Many children who begin school by underachieving may quickly develop low self-esteem and perpetuate their pattern of underachievement. In other words their ‘failures’ become self-fulfilling. Once this happens ‘failure’ becomes the norm and these children will avoid challenges in case they can’t complete them. The result is usually that they fall further behind and never fulfil their potential. We all know that children who start school with these attitudes need careful and expensive mentoring and often one-to-one teaching. Their problems begin at home and have not been initially caused by the school. But further lack of motivation and underachievement has to be our problem. I can’t offer many solutions to the gap between home and school expectations. Many schools have spent considerable amounts of time developing excellent home-school partnerships and at nursery age there are many more opportunities for teachers to lay out their ideas and to suggest how parents and carers can develop the right attitudes to learning. Some of the key problems to overcome include hostile families, lack of support at home for emotional and social development and a lack of interest in what the school is doing. A family background that has different values to those of school and does not value high achievement doesn’t help. To tackle these as effectively as possible will mean that there needs to be strong partnerships between home, school, health professionals and social services.

There are learning issues that can cause underachievement
To a large extent it will be teachers in classrooms that not only have to identify underachievement but also do something about it and it is important to work as a whole-school team. Many of the issues that have been discussed so far are more about environment and personality than actual measurable achievement. But teachers can, of course, make an effort to tackle problems associated with over-activity, day dreaming, lack of concentration, etc. At the same time more one-to-one teaching and mentoring together with a robust home-school relationship might make it possible to offset some of the problems that children bring into school from home. Some of these might be directly related to actual learning. If this is the case how each teacher teaches, manages their classroom and tackles behaviour will be a key issue. They will have to be shown strategies that help them with classroom based problems such as dyslexia, dysphasia, sensory or physical impairments and individual learning preferences, working alone or in a group, open-ended or closed activities.

There are many more issues directly related to teaching styles and planning, and it is important to recognise that underachievement can be directly related to what happens in the classroom because our effective and successful teachers are able to improve childrens’ self-concept and morale and have a lasting influence on many children who lack appropriate role models at home.

Could we do more?
It is important to have an effective assessment and identification process in place that draws on all kinds of information and helps us to identify those children who are underachieving. Intervention strategies need to be available whether it is teaching in small groups or one-to-one mentoring using skilled teaching assistants. Consistent praise and reward systems need to be in place that celebrates progress and achievement both in the classroom and more publicly in assemblies. Parents need to be told about their child’s progress on a regular basis. Professional help from outside school such as counsellors can be used as well as instructors who can enrich the school’s extended activities and provide out-of-school clubs that are both interesting and stimulating. If there are specific learning issues, targeted support from teachers will be essential. For example, it might be possible to focus on study skills or group collaboration or strategies to complete work on time. All these intervention strategies have to take place within an ongoing cycle of training in identifying and meeting the needs of underachieving children.

If we are able to identify underachievement and then develop appropriate strategies to tackle it, we will be moving children forward and, at the same time, helping to raise achievement across the whole school. Children with unfulfilled potential can be frustrating, because as teachers we always seem to have the expectation that every child will want to do their best – and in very obvious ways those who underachieve just don’t do this. But positive, sympathetic, supportive and skilful intervention can help underachieving children make considerable progress and often change their attitude toward school work. It is important not to be negative and to just expect low achievement from certain children. If you remember, such children can have low expectations as well as low self-esteem. If we spend less time with them or just categorise them as ‘less able’ it is very likely that this will reinforce their patterns of underachievement.

Finally, I think we need to move away from just seeing these children in terms of their learning problems or their potential to help improve school performance. Many underachievers have issues with motivation, socialisation, self-image and taking responsibility for their actions and their behaviour. These are ‘pastoral’ issues that affect the social fabric of the school and will inevitably affect how these children relate to the society they belong to at home. Schools are not able to create citizens for an ideal society on their own, but it is possible to share responsibility with a wide range of agencies in supporting teachers to develop skills in tackling underachievement in its widest educational and social sense.

Roger Smith is a former primary headteacher