IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


‘Lower attaining’ children’s learning threatened by performativity culture

15 February 2021

‘Lower attaining’ children’s learning is threatened by a systemic culture which focuses on performance rather than learning, UCL Institute of Education research reveals.

Workbooks and papers on classroom table. Image: Katerina Holmes via Pexels

The research drew on qualitative data from 84 interviews with 23 participant children who had been designated as ‘lower-attainers’ in mathematics, English or both, at the end of Year 3. The authors highlighted that they considered this ‘low attaining’ designation itself to compromise children’s opportunities.

This focus on children’s attainment in very limited areas of a prescribed curriculum may close down opportunities for the range of diverse children to flourish at school.

The researchers found that children experienced conflict between their own learning goals and goals set by the school, which greatly limited their engagement. The researchers noted that this may be an example where meaningful attainment may become disconnected from schooling.  

The researchers found that children who were told that if they worked hard they would ‘succeed’ were vulnerable to disappointment and self-doubt when they did not perceive that they were successful. 

They also found that watching faster peers go out to play as they completed their work could be a reminder of their comparative attainment immediately putting lower-attaining children at a greater risk of feeling helpless. 

The children seemed very aware of their labels as lower-attaining, even to the point of never referring to it to protect their sense of self. The researchers noted that when faced with challenges, some of the children tended to react with a helpless sense of incompetence, which resulted in an avoidance of challenge, lack of engagement and then a deterioration of performance. 

The researchers concluded that children’s willing and enjoyable engagement with learning challenges, was threatened in the primary school by the promotion of conformist behaviours, competition and comparisons of pupils’ respective attainments. 

The researchers examined these experiences through the lens of Growth Mindset, a theory that suggests that a person’s success is most impacted by their perception of their own ability and their willingness to engage in multiple ways of learning – with support - in order to improve. They also examined this in relation to children’s experiences of agency.

Author Professor Eleanore Hargreaves said: “The schooling system in England does not always foster the right mindset and does not provide the appropriate support for learning, where young children’s active and curious engagement could be tailored to learning goals, not just their endurance.”  

The authors conclude their paper by recommending that teachers persevere in relating to children on the basis of their interests and initiatives rather than by their official ‘attainment’.


Image: Katerina Holmes via Pexels