How can we identify and support 'hard to spot' children?

Identifying 'hard to spot' children using standardised tests

Daisy Christodoulou, Research and Development Manager, ARK Schools

From the earliest days of national curriculum levels, we’ve known that levels conceal more than they hide. Pupils categorised as being a level 2 at age 7, for example, have been shown to have reading ages ranging from 5.7 to 12.9. Similarly, at age 11, approximately 25% of all pupils get a 5c on the KS2 reading test, meaning there is bound to be significant variation between pupils with the same level.

“Pupils who are already disadvantaged can miss out sometimes – this is why tests are so important.”
Daisy Christodoulou, Research and Development Manager, ARK Schools

Lumping pupils into large, broad and quite vague categories like levels (or the popular ‘emerging, expected, exceeding’ model) practically guarantees that some pupils will be miscategorised. Pupils who genuinely struggle or excel at a subject will be placed in the same category as pupils who are much closer to average.

Take the example of a quiet, hard-working and well-behaved child who has an average level. She may still have great difficulties with reading, but have developed coping mechanisms that hide her struggles. Because she is so diligent and has an average level, a teacher may not pick up on her struggles.

Standardised tests can help to identify such pupils. They report a pupil’s performance on a much finer and more nuanced scale than levels. Standardised scores run from approximately 70–140, meaning that individual differences can be seen with much greater clarity. Second, the structure of tests like GL Assessment’s New Group Reading Test (NGRT) allows you to diagnose where a pupil’s difficulties might lie – for example, when she reads, is she struggling with vocabulary, or with decoding words?

Not only that, but 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, and that it is not particular to teachers, but rather a feature of all human judgement. 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.

In practice, I’ve found that teacher and test judgements do agree in the majority of cases. But then there are an interesting handful of cases where there is a discrepancy. Some of the time, this is because the student just had a bad day when they took the test. But in other cases, the test really has picked up on something interesting that the teacher might not have noticed. Often, the test has identified those two or three ‘hard to spot’ pupils in a year group - pupils whose strengths and weaknesses, for whatever reason, had proved difficult to identify.

Even if it’s only a small number of pupils, it’s surely worth the effort to make sure we stop them falling through the cracks.

Top tips on identifying 'hard to spot' pupils

“We’ve got to know as much about our youngsters as Tesco knows about me.”
Dame Kathy August DBE
  • Work hard to uncover strengths and weaknesses pupils may be hiding by engaging them every day.
  • Increase the questioning of pupils in the classroom on a particular topic to test knowledge before moving on to the next.
  • Change pupil attitudes: address reasons why a pupil may be ‘reluctant to have a go’.
  • Use pupil assessment data which is well tailored and regularly reviewed to pick up patterns of learning.
  • Use cognitive ability tests to uncover potential that can be masked by a lack of confidence.
  • Use the progress triangle: Identify needs, track needs, measure progress.

Working with families of 'hard to spot' children

Poppy Ionides, Educational Psychologist and Consultant

I was reminded of the skill and subtleties required for communication with families about ‘hard to spot’ children recently when talking with a mother whose child’s unusual behaviour in nursery was noticed and discussed with her. Appropriate support was put in place at nursery. But the possibility of referral to investigate diagnostic labels was not raised by practitioners. It had been assumed (wrongly, in this case) by practitioners that waiting for the family to ask about referral possibilities was the best way forward.

Again and again pieces of case work have illustrated to me the way in which assumptions held by practitioners – often unconsciously so – can be a barrier to effective working with families around ‘hard to spot’ children. Keeping a series of questions in mind helps to uncover and challenge these assumptions. For instance:

What are the hopes of the family?

Some families are keen to involve professionals from outside education, others are not; some families are keen for difficulties to be discussed and assigned a label, others are not; some families are deep in denial of the possibility of difficulties, others are not.

Does the child present in a similar way in different environments?

Children’s presentation in a particular place is an interaction between the child and the place rather than being defined purely by characteristics of the child. A child who is withdrawn and tearful within a classroom is not necessarily so at home. Finding out how a child presents with the family gives rich strands of evidence to add to observations and assessments in non-home settings.

By noticing and putting aside our assumptions when working with ‘hard to spot’ children and their families we help to maximise the chance of positive outcomes for all.

Even if the child presents similarly for you and home, do the family share your view of the situation?

Families view their children’s presentation through their own lens of culture and experience. For example, behaviour that is typically framed in the UK in medical terms might be understood very differently within another culture (e.g. in some cultures, autism is viewed as punishment for a family’s previous sins); characteristics that can be problematic within a school context (e.g. lack of interest in literacy, assertion of individuality) may be considered to be no problem at all or may even be celebrated within the home.

By noticing and putting aside our assumptions when working with ‘hard to spot’ children and their families we help to maximise the chance of positive outcomes for all.

Reaching 'hard to spot' readers through personalised teaching

Steve Cox, Assistant Principal, and Cath McCarney, Vice-Principal, Bluecoat Academy, Nottingham

No teacher wants to miss a child who is struggling to read, the one who went undetected because they’d learnt to mask the fundamental gaps in their understanding.

In schools such as ours, the potential risk of such a child flying under the radar could be high. We certainly face challenges; we’re a comprehensive academy trust of 2000 students, with a large special educational needs (SEN) cohort and many EAL children. Literacy levels tend to be lower than the national average when students join, and it’s not uncommon for children to start Year 7 with a reading age of five or six.

Nonetheless, we’re quietly confident that significant progress in reading ability isn’t just possible, it’s happening every day in our school. With the Complete Digital Solution, we can drill down into exactly what is going on and adjust teaching, learning and the curriculum accordingly

In fact, we are already enjoying vast improvements – we’ve seen students make almost two years progress in just six months – and our GCSE results reflect this.

Here are seven strategies that we’ve found most effective:

1. Benchmark on entry

We use CAT4 to benchmark Year 7 entry and examine ability. We have over 75 different feeder primary schools so this greatly helps validate the Key Stage 2 results.

2. Know children’s reading age

Knowing the standardised reading age of every student is as important a part of contextual information as special educational needs or pupil premium. Every member of staff is aware of the reading ages of the children so they can respond with appropriate teaching.

3. Be ambitious

We’ve set each child an aspirational target of progressing two reading age years for every one academic year. NGRT is central to helping achieve this – we use it at the beginning and the end of each year, and in the interim to monitor progress.

4. Personalise resources

In a Year 11 class, reading ages might span from 7 to 17 years old. No way could all students access and understand the same written material. So, staff take time to differentiate the text using freely available readability score websites. Our aim is to personalise our lessons as much as we can so we can provide outstanding lessons to students of all abilities – and that requires robust and consistent assessments to validate our teacher judgements.

5. Support and challenge all abilities

We hold literacy lessons and phonics groups in Year 7 for those who need extra support; challenge the academically more able with advanced activities such as peer mentoring; have volunteer readers come in from the local community; and pair readers from Year 10 with Year 7 twice a week.

6. Remove barriers to learning

We use PASS to look at anything else that might be going on. For example, in Year 11, we noticed a small cohort of boys with very low expectations of themselves. After a ‘soft’ mentoring programme, we rapidly saw an improvement of achievement and attitudes.

7. Be focused

Our whole academy is on board with improving literacy. In fact, one of our improvement priorities for teaching and learning is the planning of regular lessons that explicitly enhance the reading skills for all our students.

Addressing negative attitudes to learning

Jane Starbuck, Newark Area SENCo, Nottinghamshire

Monitoring the progression of 8,000 pupils’ emotional and social development, across a cluster of 17 schools, is no small task. My role is to develop provision for SEN and ensure the needs of vulnerable or challenging pupils are met. One thing I’ve often come up against is how hard it is to demonstrate the headway we’ve made when it comes to these areas.

My remit covers primary and secondary schools as well as a special school, so I needed something that could be used across the board to maintain consistency in the way we assess. PASS fitted the bill. When I discussed with head teachers the type of attitudinal information we could expect to collect, the response was very positive. Everyone felt excited about gaining a unique insight into our young people.

Now we know self-confidence is the biggest area of concern, we can work out what interventions we need to put in place.

PASS gives us hard data on individual pupils, cohorts, schools and as an area. As we discover who is disengaged, we can work on specific ways to re-engage them.

Some schools are telling me it has pinpointed what they knew or suspected, but for others it has brought to the fore things they hadn’t expected to come up. Over the cluster, we’ve been surprised by the low scores in perceived learning capability and in finding out that self-worth as a learner is so low and so widespread. Self-confidence has a clear effect on ensuring children making the progress they are capable of so it’s certainly giving us all food for thought.

I had no expectations about what the results might show, but I’m particularly interested in the children with the lowest scores. Most of these children are known to us already so now we can drill down into exactly what the issues are, get staff discussing each child in-depth and look at how we can best help.

The feedback from individual schools has generally been, ‘Wow!’. School leaders in particular have been extremely positive. They know Ofsted looks at the impact of specific initiatives, such as the Pupil Premium Grants (PPG) and PASS helps evidence these. It’s even useful when drafting individual schools’ PPG website statements. Previously it has been nigh on impossible to show any impact when it comes to emotional development, but PASS helps.

Now we know self-confidence is the biggest area of concern, we can work out what interventions we need to put in place. Schools are writing this into their improvement plans and looking at different things to build esteem, including kick-boxing and film making classes, celebrating success with parents, discussing what makes a good learner and concentrating on circle time.

This approach helps us make sure schools have the tools they need to successfully educate the child as a whole.

Accelerating achievements for all children

Mark Dakin, Headteacher, St Giles Primary CE School, West Midlands

Our teachers and senior leaders are keenly aware of how important it is to make sure all children achieve well. Our school receives the Pupil Premium for nearly half its 365 pupils, a quarter speak English as an additional language and 17% have SEN.

We have a diverse range of barriers to learning, from speech and language issues when children join in Reception to a lack of expectation from parents who perhaps didn’t have a positive experience of education themselves.

Meeting the needs of individual children is of paramount importance to us, so we rely on robust and trustworthy assessments to track their progress, especially in core subjects. They help identify those in need of extra help, as well as those who are particularly able.

External assessments also act as an early marker for those who may have special educational needs. We consider ourselves adept at spotting these, but having an additional filter ensures no child slips through the net.

We use the Progress Test series for English, maths and science, which our teachers think are fantastic. It validates their thoughts and gives them confidence that their judgement is right from an objective point of view. They feel reassured that pupils are achieving the levels they should be.

External assessments also act as an early marker for those who may have special educational needs. We consider ourselves adept at spotting these, but having an additional filter ensures no child slips through the net. We’ve noticed some children being picked up who previously wouldn’t have been identified so easily or with such clarity.

We’re also better able to address the learning loss many children face over the summer holidays. We’re in an area of deprivation where families that read a lot are in the minority, so children often lose academic knowledge during the summer. However, we now know which areas to target with homework to match the gaps.

Teachers are able to draw up a list of topics to directly address any gaps in knowledge which helps focus our efforts on moving children on quicker and faster with immediate effect.

In short, with a summative picture of the attainment of children at the end of an academic year, we can identify any new learning that needs to take place. We’re building a very powerful and complete picture of children’s attainment as they move through the school and this will help their achievements accelerate.

Top tips on supporting 'hard to spot' children

  • Build good relationships with pupils to encourage two-way discussions.
  • Personalise how you work with pupils as every child will respond differently to different approaches.
  • Have pupils work collaboratively to encourage peer assessment.
  • A child’s hidden talents can be revealed by other pupils as they can feel more confident among their peers.
  • Look at data to identify patterns and address any difficulties immediately.
  • Intervene earlier to catch any issues, shifting the focus to pre-intervention when it is easier to address gaps.
  • Engage with parents to unearth any barriers to learning.
  • Introduce small group interventions to build confidence and knowledge.


“Interventions should be pre-intervention rather than post-interventions.”
Dame Kathy August, DBE

As is often the case with educational interventions, time is of the essence. The danger with ‘hard to spot’ children is that the longer they go under the radar, the more learning time is being wasted. Spotting these children earlier could have a huge impact on their achievement and their ability to access the curriculum. And, of course, it’s only by identifying who is disengaged that you can work on specific ways to reengage them.

The good news, as Beccie Hawes, Head of Service at Rushall’s Inclusion Advisory Support Team, points out, is that she is yet to find the unteachable learner. Rather, it is a question of unpicking the behaviours that are communicating something about the students’ learning and instigating appropriate support.

While no two children will have exactly the same combination of factors affecting them, there are a number of commonalities amongst the ‘best practice’ ways our case study school have employed in order to stop ‘hard to spot’ pupils falling through the cracks.

These include the following.

  • Adopting an approach that uses various sources to collate and compare information on ability, attainment and barriers to learning.
  • Digging beyond the surface and investigating the root causes of underachievement or disruptive behaviour.
  • Personalising lessons and resources by differentiating pupils’ performance on a nuanced scale.
  • Building consolidation points into the curriculum plan to support and challenge all abilities.
  • Providing appropriate and early interventions that specifically address the issues.
  • Using data to eliminate any unconscious teacher bias.
It is always possible to spot and help the ‘hard to spot’ if the right processes are in place.

No matter how large a school is, how diverse the demographics of the student population, how many sites it is split over, how many feeder primary schools, how high the percentage of children who speak English as an additional language, have special educational needs or qualify for pupil premium – it is always possible to spot and help the ‘hard to spot’ if the right processes are in place.