Published on: 22 Jan 2016

Assessment is critical in helping us uncover all these children and develop their abilities

Who gets missed?

Pretty much wherever you go in the developed world, governments are issuing policies to ensure that no child is left behind.

It seems that a common issue in our education systems 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 of us 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.

Kids 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 and it becomes clear that the child simply cannot keep up.

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.

One way to identify this talent is by looking at strengths in spatial thinking – a talent for thinking by using images and only afterwards converts these thoughts to words; someone with a capacity for mentally generating and transforming visual images.

Spatial ability is acknowledged by psychologists as a key element of ‘general ability’, one of the basic mental tools we all have and need to use. However, many children are either unaware that they have a strength in this ability or it has been dismissed as merely being ‘good with their hands’ or ‘gifted at art’. Research has shown that spatial learners often flourish in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), and developing children’s spatial thinking can increase their achievement in these subjects.

As Professor Nora S Newcombe writes in American Educator, spatial skills can be developed with time and encouragement. She states that, “Abilities grow when students, their parents and their teachers believe that achievement follows consistent hard work, and when anxiety about certain areas such as math is kept low.”

So we need to identify girls with potential at school and encourage them to take up STEM subjects – building their confidence that they can succeed and that the relevant skills can be learnt.

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. As Dame Kathy August put it at our National Assessment Conference, “The hard to spot children may be very compliant, but actually go through school without really ever getting involved. They are the ones who always just miss out.” With challenging, could these pupils be achieving a B or even an A?

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.

And the great thing about assessment is its longevity. 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 finally the reason why a pupil might be hiding their light under a bushel is finally revealed and you can watch as they begin to realise their true potential.

Do you need to identify the hard to spot pupils in your school? Have a look on our website for some assessments might help and follow our series on Twitter using #HardtoSpot.

Greg Watson is the Chief Executive of GL Assessment. Follow Greg on Twitter @Greg_GL_Assess

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