One headteacher, Mavis Grant, knows it all too well. In the socially blighted west end of Newcastle, a staggering 86 per cent of pupils at her neighbourhood primary, Mary Trevelyan, receive free school meals, with 37 per cent on the special needs register. Even more frightening, many of their parents are functionally illiterate, leaving the children unable to speak in full sentences when they start school at the age of four.
Against this harrowing backdrop, Mavis Grant and her staff have been developing strategies to ensure that these children reach secondary school with a fighting chance. This means addressing the low self-esteem and poor cognitive skills many of them bring to school, from the moment they first cross the threshold. Following the national curriculum verbatim is not the way they do it. As Mavis Grant explains: "You have to differentiate the curriculum from the learning and social needs of individual children."
While she is a champion of every child's entitlement to the expressive arts and other non-core sections of the curriculum, she also believes that for many of Mary Trevelyan's pupils, priority has to be placed on literacy and numeracy. "Some of the national curriculum is not particularly relevant to the needs of children. Teachers would rather concentrate on these skills at key stage 1 than on history and geography," she says. "If we target particular groups of underachieving children for specific periods, we can improve their literacy skills over about two terms."
In a Raising Standards in Literacy project carried out with five and six-year-olds last year by Newcastle education authority, funded through Grants for Education Support and Training (GEST) and evaluated in an HMI report, overall results were comparable to those achieved in Reading Recovery schemes.
However, the GEST money has gone, and under-resourcing is a major problem at Mary Trevelyan which has lost one-third of its staff in the cutbacks of the past two years.
Nevertheless Mavis Grant and her team continue to target groups of children to get them on track early in their schooling. The need to buck up children's self-image as they go through the tortuous hoops of acquiring these skills is as vital to the learning process as the Three Rs.
Mavis Grant makes sure her pupils get their rewards "for every kind of work, for all progress - for good manners, for academic achievement, for bravery, anything".
Educational psychologist Elaine Riley of Northumberland County Psychological Services is another advocate of the powers of positive feedback, but cautions that it must be used appropriately. "Underachieving children know what's going on," she says. "They compare their work to others around them and see that theirs is appreciably worse. If they get praised for doing a good job, they're likely to tear up their work and throw it away because they simply don't believe it. Teachers need to qualify praise, to say why they like the drawing, to help ensure that underachieving children experience success. This will help give them confidence to challenge themselves, to believe that they can do a new task instead of assuming that they can't. 'Teacher expectation' has become a terrible cliche in recent years, which is a shame because with the underachieving child in particular, it can make all the difference."