It seems that a common issue in our education system is that while we are able to spot and challenge the high achiever, we find it much more difficult to identify those who, often down to a simple barrier to learning, are not being helped to achieve all they are capable of.
What often frustrates many educators about this situation is that if these pupils can be spotted early enough, there is a chance they can be taught the skills they need to progress.
With this in mind, I thought it worth reminding ourselves who some of the hard to spot children are and why they are missing out.
Children with a reading difficulty
Far too few children who have an issue with reading are picked up in primary school. Often the problem only becomes apparent when the child joins secondary school, when so much teaching and learning is text based.
We have published some research with the University of York on this subject. The research, which studied 857 11 to 16- year-olds, found that there were some students in every secondary school year group who had a reading age of 6 or 7 years. In addition, 54% of 12 and 16 year olds were shown to have significant reading problems but were not identified on the school’s SEN Register.
If we could spot these children earlier, we could have a huge impact on their achievement and their ability to access the secondary curriculum.
Girls with a talent for science
Helen Wollaston, the director of the WISE (Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) campaign states in her 2014 report that we need to create a ‘different experience’ for girls at school.
This is also borne out by the fact (highlighted in the same report) that while only 21% of pupils entered for a Physics A Level are female, 76% of female candidates achieve an A*-C grade as opposed to 71% of their male counterparts. That being the case, it should not be too hard, once we identify girls with potential, to show them evidence that success is most definitely achievable.
The quiet or disengaged pupil
This group of pupils share a common characteristic – the fact that their behaviour masks hidden abilities or barriers to learning.
There is the pupil who does not raise their hand in class, manages a C in tests and never causes problems and so their true ability is often lost. Then there is the intelligent, disruptive child who does not see the point in learning, but whose behaviour often becomes the focus of the school’s attention so their potential remains untapped.
And there is the pupil who hides the fact that they are having difficulties. “It’s a bit like adults who can’t read. You develop a whole series of brilliant strategies for avoiding people discovering you can’t read,” explains Peter Wylie, Director of Education of the Baker Dearing Trust. These are possibly the most challenging individuals to identify, as they have gone under the radar for so long.
Assessment is critical in helping us uncover all these children and develop their abilities. “Research shows us that tests can help to show a student’s true ability; they give an extra bit of information,” says Daisy Christodoulou, Research and Development Manager at ARK Schools.
They also protect against unconscious teacher bias, says Daisy. “A wealth of research shows that teacher assessment is often biased against disadvantaged pupils and those from ethnic minorities. This research can be difficult to accept, and the researchers carrying out such studies are at pains to point out that such bias is unconscious. But the flaws in the way humans make judgements make it even more important for us to cross-reference that judgement with external checks like standardised tests.”
And the great thing about assessment is a little can go a long way. You do not need much of it to uncover pupils falling behind or not using their full abilities. Assessment data can give you that ‘A-ha!’ moment when the reason why a pupil might be hiding their light under a bushel is finally revealed.
Do you need to identify the hard to spot pupils in your school? Have a look on our website for some assessments which will help and follow our Hard to Spot blog series at
Greg Watson is the Chief Executive of GL Assessment