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Identifying Underachievement

Part of the Westminster Government guidelines for identifying high potential learners is for schools to have a focus on ability rather than achievement, so that underachievers are supported to realise their potential. We hope that the following information is not only useful for schools in England, but also in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

It is acknowledged that there is significant underachievement among high potential learners, and that gaps exist between the progress, achievement and attainment of some of the most disadvantaged groups and their peers.

High potential learners come from all backgrounds and have a wide range of different abilities and talent. Schools have a responsibility to actively seek high potential in all pupils and school assessment systems need to be effective in order to identify individuals and groups of students that are underachieving.

Particular attention needs to be paid to groups of vulnerable students, including:
  • Low socio-economic groups
  • Black and minority ethnic (BME) groups
  • Those with English as an additional language (EAL), including bilingual students
  • Students in small rural schools with limited resources
  • Those with special educational needs
  • Those with medical conditions or disabilities
  • Students in public care
Students may be unidentified as high potential learners because they:
  • Have limited opportunity to develop and demonstrate their abilities
  • Are not supported or encouraged to take advantage of their abilities
  • Have an incomplete historical record
  • Have poor writing skills
  • Have barriers to participation that are economic, cultural, emotional or social
Characteristics of underachieving high potential learners include:
  • Poor test performance
  • Achievement at or below expectations in one or all of the basic skill areas
  • Daily work frequently incomplete or poorly done
  • Superior comprehension and retention of concepts when interested
  • Vast gap between level of oral and written work:
    • Exceptionally large repertoire of factual knowledge
    • Vitality of imagination: creative
    • Persistent dissatisfaction with work accomplished, even in art
  • Avoidance of trying new activities to prevent imperfect performance; evidence of perfectionism, self-criticism:
    • Shows initiative in pursuing self-selected projects at home
  • A wide range of interests and possible special expertise in an area of investigation and research
  • Evidence of low self-esteem with tendencies to withdraw or be aggressive in the classroom:
    • Does not function comfortably of constructively in a group of any size
    • Shows acute sensitivity and perceptions related to self, others and life in general
    • Tends to set unrealistic self-expectations: goals too high or too low
    • Dislikes practice work or drill for memorisation and mastery
    • Easily distracted; unable to focus attention and concentrate efforts on tasks
    • Has an indifferent or negative attitude towards school
    • Resists teacher efforts to motivate or discipline behaviour in class
    • Has difficulty in peer relationships: maintains few friendships
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