Stuck in the middle

18th May 2007 at 01:00
Surprisingly, the most neglected pupils are the 'average' ones, who just quietly get on with it. Hannah Frankel reports on ways to ensure that these invisible children are seen and helped to fulfil their potential

Who are the most overlooked pupils in schools? Is it the white working class boys, the gifted and talented girls, or perhaps those who barely speak any English? Surprisingly perhaps, it is none of these.

The ones most likely to slip through the net are the silent majority of "average" pupils, according to heads and teachers. They work quietly and conscientiously, get their homework in on time and are barely noticeable in class. By definition, they become invisible.

Under the Government's personalisation agenda, schools should increasingly meet the needs of every pupil, but inevitably some are harder to reach than others. Disruptive and loud pupils make themselves heard. Brilliant pupils are generally recognised and, for different reasons, so are the less able or those with special educational needs.

Pupils on the CD borderline are also likely to receive more attention - if schools can increase the numbers gaining five A* to C grades at GCSE, they can creep up the all-important league tables. But as Peter Rudd, from the National Foundation for Educational Research argues, national initiatives largely ignore middle-level pupils. "It could be said that the test and exam system encourages this neglect," he says.

"Many secondary schools are concerned with their A* to C grades, and not with improving the middle to lower grades. The English education system is based on thresholds, and this may act against 'average' pupils."

Alcester Grammar School in Warwickshire recognises that some pupils are not reaching their potential because they are entirely "middle of the road".

Being a selective school at 11 years (although not at 16), it does not have such a wide spectrum of abilities as comprehensives, but it is still aware that some pupils get lost in the system. "They are able, but we never see them," says Iain Blaikie, headteacher. "They shy away from the spotlight so are unlikely to put their hand up in lessons or contribute much outside the classroom. Teachers found they had almost nothing to say about them at parents' evenings. They're not outstanding but we think they deserve more recognition and praise."

All staff at Alcester were asked to identify what became known as their "invisible pupils". Initially, pupils were given a card for teachers to fill in to monitor their level of participation in class, but it made them feel as if they were on report and the idea was dropped.

Now the programme is run on a more informal basis, with those who are being targeted accessing greater support and encouragement in class. "They like the fact that they've been spotted," says Iain. "They clearly are not used to it and it makes them feel special. Their parents are also impressed that we are investing time and resources in their child. Up until now they've had little meaningful feedback."

Michelle Bovey, head of Years 10 and 11 at Alcester, is co-ordinating the project. She asks form tutors and subject teachers to look out for pupils who do enough to get by, but who will benefit from greater intervention.

"We feel they could achieve at least a grade higher if we give them the confidence to interact more in class," she says. "We have many intelligent pupils here, and it can be intimidating for slightly less able pupils to raise their head above the parapet."

Michelle meets with the pupils once every half-term and they choose one subject to focus on. She also liaises with staff to ensure that they are progressing and being challenged in lessons. Although it is too early to measure any firm academic improvements, the pupils have already shown progress. Many have moved up a level, are outstripping their predicted grades and appear confident.

"Some have flourished," says Iain. "They are taking part in lessons, volunteering and getting involved in extracurricular activities. It's really lovely to see."

Jim Goodall is now retired, but he recognised average pupils as a neglected group during his time as a science teacher in Wales. He is passionate about helping them and has written in The TES comment pages on the issue. Through experience, he is convinced that Alcester's focus on attention and celebration is the way forward. "The main thing they suffer from is a deficiency of praise, but that can be rectified through quite simple measures," he says.

"They can get embarrassed in large groups so I found covert rather than overt praise is best. It worked well if I kept them back as a group after the lesson and congratulated them for all the good things they had done. I told them I had high aspirations for them. They are often the least troublesome children to teach, but that is exactly why they can be taken for granted."

Siddal Moor Sports College in Heywood, Lancashire, is also keen to stretch all of its 1,050 pupils, including the so-called average ones. As a result, it moved to a house system to give pupils a greater sense of belonging and more individual attention.

"In the old days, teachers simply expected pupils to perform, but now young people seem to need more attention and rewards to reach their potential,"

says Helen Freeborn, headteacher. "We found we were giving the lion's share of attention to gifted and talented pupils or to those with special needs, but the ones in the middle got very little."

The school now encourages as many pupils as possible to take on responsibilities. More than 40 per cent of Year 11s are prefects, while others are house captains, form leaders or mentors - titles they receive for good behaviour, effort and attendance, as opposed to being exceptional pupils. "You're a fool if you only concentrate on the CD borderline pupils, because Ofsted is increasingly interested in value-added," says Helen.

"A pupil who has moved from a G to an F in order to hit their target score is just as important as one who has moved from a D to a C. Parents may be more aware of A* to Cs than value-added, but if you neglect your contextual value-added scores, you can find yourself in special measures, and parents will notice that."

But Dylan Wiliam, deputy director of the Institute of Education, University of London, says it is not necessarily helpful to shower attention on any one group above another. "Any performance indicator will prioritise some at the expense of others," he says. "I expect what we are really talking about when we refer to average pupils is middle-class white boys. Undoubtedly some are coasting, but these pupils are pretty well served by the education system as a whole. They are still likely to do much better than other groups."

In fact, white British boys almost dictate the average at GCSE. Last year, 52.6 per cent achieved five good grades, compared with an average 52.2 per cent for boys as a whole, and 40.3 per cent for black boys.

Professor Wiliam argues that instead of individualising the curriculum, teachers should vary their teaching styles so pupils are sometimes doing what they feel comfortable with, sometimes being stretched.

"Differentiating in 30 different ways in a single lesson is too much to expect of teachers," he says. "Instead, they should be inventive in their approach - sometimes giving a lesson that suits the kinaesthetic, sometimes one that suits the visual, and so on. That will push the group as a whole.

"It's important that pupils can access material that is not within their learning style. Pushing themselves out of their comfort zone will help them reach even higher standards."

The lack of research in this field tells its own tale. While academics recognise that these "average" pupils will benefit from greater attention - a report three years ago found that pathfinder projects target disaffected secondary pupils and high achievers at the expense of pupils in the middle - their loose definition makes them an elusive and unglamorous group to target.

"It's an important issue," says Professor David Jesson of York University.

"School targets have a degree of responsibility." Schools are so keen to maximise their A* to C grades, he says, that "quality" passes get obscured, meaning that schools can become complacent about challenging their A, B or C grade pupils.

Earlier this year, the 2020 Vision review group explored how personalised learning could become a reality in schools. It recommended that every secondary pupil should have a "learning guide" who will meet them at least once every half-term, monitor their progress and act as their advocate in school.

However, while a Government spokesman says it is "focusing on the progress made by each and every child", the spotlight remains on the attainment gap between boys and girls or those from different social and economic backgrounds. There is no specific mention of the average pupil. Without any direction, such pupils can all too easily get lost in the system


"Average" pupils tend not to get noticed, and this can make them switch off. To help keep them engaged, I use the following technique.

Create a report book with achievable targets, for example, arriving on time, having the correct equipment.

Members of my form go on it for a week. For maths, English and science, the reports could last for two weeks and have four or five targets.

Points then equate to prizes: five merit marks; a certificate; a postcard of praise sent home; a phone call home; a praising letter sent home signed by the teacher and either a head of year or a form tutor.

Any prizes sent home are held in much higher esteem by the pupils, so encourage them to work hard before getting these.

The effect is to motivate pupils and to build relationships. Start by issuing three pupils with reports each week. The real surprise comes when you ask for volunteers to go on report.

Chris Wheeler teaches at Ashton-on-Mersey School in Sale, Cheshire

The missing link

For special needs:

For gifted and talented:

For pupils with English as an additional language:

For underachieving ethnic minorities:

For average pupils: no support group

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