If Joe and Sally have similar capabilities, why is Joe doing so much better at school? This was the crucial question teachers at Claypool primary in Bolton asked themselves, as they worked to gain a Basic Skills Quality Mark.
What they came up with was a list of 21 learning inhibitors, or "special categories of need" which hinder individuals' achievement (see box). These include children who don't shine at anything without extra encouragement and those born under-weight (an indicator for slow motor development), children in care and those who themselves are carers.
Using Claypool's creative approach, all children are evaluated according to these categories, explains head Glenys Evans, and then efforts are made to tailor learning so as to neutralise their effects.
For instance, if a child has to look after parents with difficulties their circumstances can affect their achievement. The school makes sure they meet with someone from a support organisation, and that they go out for treats, in addition to receiving academic help.
"Life isn't equal," says Mrs Evans, "but we can strive to make it as equal as humanly possible. Our aim is that they should determine their own futures and not have their futures determined by somebody else, or by the situation they're born into".
Teachers and support staff keep an eye on children who fit more than one category; some have as many as eight. "We are looking for something that will work for each child", says Mrs Evans.
The most obvious and common of the inhibitors is lack of confidence and motivation; last year 35 of Claypool's 220 children were on this list, and the school has developed a comprehensive bank of "enhancers" for them (see box).
Staff and other pupils find ways to bring unconfident children into sports and other activities, to find reasons to praise them, to make them feel special through such simple things as making sure they are included in a photograph for the local newspaper.
A "reading buddy" system at the beginning of the school year pairs older pupils with newcomers. The big buddies introduce the four-year-olds to their mates in the playground, and generally befriend them. "We think that's terribly important", says Mrs Evans.
Some children desperately need that support; others simply enjoy it, she says. "They all rise to the occasion because they know they have this little person in their care, and it's down to them and no-one else. Even the most streetwise kids will pull out all the stops for their little buddy. It means that deep down inside them they have those resources. We bring that out and praise them for it".
Abeda Pandor, the school's special categories coordinator, says techniques for boosting children's self-esteem sometimes involve parents. For instance, a praise or reward chart might go back and forth between home and school.
And she is thrilled with the impact of positive parenting classes she has run. They have led to both parents and offspring having greater confidence, and to calmer children in school. Importantly, they have meant that the parents and the school are singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to the messages they give children.
To evaluate children, their self-esteem, confidence and motivation are rated on a 1-5 scale. For instance, children on the lowest level contribute very little in lessons and may become distressed if asked to join in; they might have poor posture and show signs of anxiety such as nail-biting.
Meanwhile, the most confident children willingly participate and encourage others to do so, show a high level of interest, and are always seeking ways to challenge themselves and to find out more.
Other categories also have associated techniques. Children who were born prematurely or underweight have extra activities to develop large motor skills, such as dance with big movements - if they need it. The point is that staff at Claypool know who they are, and are alert to their needs. The interventions are soundly based on research, and in this case, national evidence shows that prematurely born children have a catch-up period, when they lag behind their peers.
Once children have been assessed, teachers build up a programme for the term, in which work on different categories rotate. Staff monitor children's progress, and later reassess them.
On paper, it may sound clinical, but in practice it represents an ongoing system of nurturing every pupil according to their own needs. "We are always tinkering around the edges to get it just right for every child", says Mrs Evans.
But work on the 21 categories is in addition to a strong concentration on personal and social skills, and building self-esteem, particularly in the early school years. "Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to see the Year 6 children leaving at the end of the summer feeling good about themselves: confident, independent learners who can fend for themselves".
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THE MANY WAYS IN WHICH CHILDREN CAN BE HELD BACK
CLAYPOOL'S 21 SPECIAL CATEGORIES OF NEED 1 Children with poor speaking skills - those who have difficulty communicating their thoughts in words
2 Children with poor listening skills
3 Children with short concentration spans
4 Children who receive minimal support from home to develop basic skills
5 Children who lack assertiveness
6 Boys who underachieve in English
7 Boys who underachieve in maths
8 Girls who underachieve in English
9 Girls who underachieve in maths
10 Children who lack confidence, self-esteem and motivation
11 Children who are disaffected with learning
12 Children not participating in clubs and the wider school life
13 Children who do not "shine" at anything
14 Children who are negatively affected by family circumstances
15 Children with a poor attendance record
16 Children who are looked after
17 Children who are carers
18 Children who were born prematurely or with low birthweight
19 Children whose mother tongue is not English
20 Children who are very able pupils
21 Children who attend before or after-school clubs
'ENHANCERS' FOR CHILDREN WHO LACK CONFIDENCE, SELF-ESTEEM AND MOTIVATION
* Pair the child with a buddy who is understanding and supportive during independent work
* Give regular praise with comments, stickers and certificates
* Arrange for the pupil to have tasks of responsibility, such as sending messages to the office
* Acknowledge achievements with nomination for star of the month or rewards such as representing the school
* Pair up with a younger child to teach them or show them how to do things
* Organise short talks for the child to present to a small group on a subject they are knowledgeable about
* Have a hobbies day where children are selected to bring in items of personal interest to discuss and demonstrate
* Use esteem-building resources in a series of short sessions
* Encourage parents to participate in a positive parenting course
* Use information and communications technology to develop motivation, such as taking photos with the digital camera