The term ‘underachievement' refers to a mismatch between current levels of attainment and potential. ‘Underachievers' is a term sometimes used to identify groups of pupils who may be at risk within the education system. It can be misleading in that labelling any pupil as an underachiever can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.



It is true that certain population groups are not achieving the same results as others, however this varies by age, subject, region, social class and assessment methods adopted. There are usually a host of factors which impinge on underachievement, and membership of one particular group is just one of them. There are however, certain youngsters who are more 'at risk' of underachieving within our education system and this causes concern.

Social Disadvantage

There is a considerable body of evidence (Mittler 2000) to indicate that children living on or below the poverty line, with its associated difficulties, are vulnerable to low achievement. Whilst some children show resilience, others can be more vulnerable to the stresses poverty places upon them and their families, and show the signs of underachievement in the form of disruptive behaviour, withdrawal, poor attendance and low self image. A disproportionate number of looked after children underachieve (Campbell & Archer 2003) and in fact a significant number drop out of education altogether. This is often on account of poor tracking, breakdown in placements and frequent changes of school.


Ethnic minority pupils are not a homogenous grouping, and schools need to be aware of the characteristics of the cultural and religious backgrounds of their pupils when considering their education.

The under-achievement of Afro-Caribbean boys has been a cause for concern for some time (DfES 2003, Sewell 1997). Afro-Caribbean families are more likely on the whole to have pupils excluded from school, to be identified as having special educational needs or to experience behavioural difficulties. There is evidence to show that schools can be less tolerant of the behaviour and particular ethnic norms of black pupils (Wright et al. 2000).

Pupils from a Pakistani and Bangladeshi background can also be at risk of low levels of achievement (OfSTED 2000, 2001). Associated factors here include the lack of recognition of the child's first language, insensitivity towards religion and culture, as well as racism and bullying. Pupils from Indian and Chinese backgrounds tend, on the whole, to achieve much better than their peers.

Children from the traveller community can also be at risk of underachieving in the education system, despite good quality educational support services in most LEAs.

The children of refugee and asylum-seeker families will often come from a range of ethnic and linguistic backgrounds and experiences (some of which have been traumatic).  Expertise in working with these pupils tends to vary across the country and they can experience problems with negative attitudes.


It is only in the last few years that boys have become the focus of research and education intervention as attention focuses upon their learning and the existence of a gender gap. Currently girls on average are achieving higher levels of success in virtually all levels of education and in virtually all subjects. Research shows that boys are on the whole more vulnerable on a range of factors. They are more likely to be harmed in childhood accidents, more likely to be involved in acts of violence and show poor behaviour (83% of all exclusions from schools are boys).

Boys are increasingly leaving school with no qualifications (on average 7 000 more boys than girls leave school with no qualifications), and are more likely to be identified as having special educational needs. Most worryingly, boys have increasing rates of self-harm and suicide (Noble et al. 2001, Pickering 2001).


Relevance to teachers


Underachieving pupils will continue to underachieve unless their learning behaviour improves.

By applying the principles of learning behaviour and creating a learning environment in which relationships with self, others and the curriculum will flourish, teachers will be addressing some of the underlying causes of under achievement.

In the formative book Comprehensive values Pat Daunt (1975) outlines the equal value principle which underpins real inclusion. As opposed to equal opportunity, valuing pupil needs equally results in offering different opportunity according to need.

Underachieving pupils need different and higher levels of support and attention than other pupils and this applies particularly to one of the symptoms of their underperformance - misbehaviour. In order to implement the approaches and  techniques for improving learning behaviour, schools should have clear policies, strategies and action plans for improving learning behaviour and these should include special provision akin to the provision they are required to make for the special needs of pupils with learning difficulties..

Learning Support Units are one example of strategies for addressing underachievement through improving learning behaviour. Pupils admitted to Learning Support Units are on average 2 years behind in their chronological reading age. As just one example of the strategies employed by LSUs - improving  a pupil's ability to read and communicate in lessons can help raise their self confidence and reignite their engagement in learning.


Indicative reading


Campbell & Archer (2003) The Achievement at KS 4 of Young people in Public Care, Research Report RR434 Nottingham, DfES

DfES (2003) Aiming High: Raising the Achievement of Ethnic Minority Pupils, consultation document March 2003 ref: DfES 0183/2003

Hughes, M., Vass, A (2001). Strategies for closing the learning gap. Network educational press: Stafford.

Mittler, P. (2000) Working Towards Inclusive Education: Social Contexts, David Fulton, London.

Noble, C., Brown, J. Murphy, J. (2001) How to raise boys' achievement. David Fulton, London.

OfSTED (2001) Managing Support for the Attainment of Pupils from Minority Ethnic groups, Office for Standards in Education, London

Pickering, J (2001). Raising boys' achievement. Network educational press: Stafford

Sewell, T. (1997) Black Masculinities and Schooling: How Black Boys Survive Modern Schooling, Trentham Books, Stoke on Trent.

Wright, C, Weekes, D. McGlaughlin, A. (2000) Race, Class and Gender in Exclusion from School, Falmer, London

Daunt,P.E. (1975) Comprehensive values Heineman London


Gender, Ethnicity, Social Disadvantage Learning Support Units

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