Realising pupil potential: learning from the research

What can schools do to give learners the best chance of fulfilling their potential? A round-up of findings from some research reports

Author details

Liz Worthen is the head of content at Optimus Education. Starting her career as a secondary school English teacher, Liz has since worked in education resource and CPD programme management. She has a particular interest in workforce development...

Most young people have high aspirations for themselves – or at least they start their school career that way. What can be more problematic is gathering the knowledge, skills and characteristics needed to fulfil those aspirations. (See Aspiration interventions for more on this.)

So what can schools do? Here I've pulled together findings from some research reports around careers, social mobility, addressing disadvantage and fulfilling potential. 

1. Start early

‘A growing body of research suggests that high quality pre-school can improve educational outcomes (and hence social mobility) later in life for children from low SES [socio-economic status] backgrounds’ (Ethnicity, Gender and Social Mobility).

Schools with nursery provision attached can support in this area by promoting professional development and working to retain qualified teachers in nursery and reception classes. One of the issues raised in Closing Gaps Early is that in the drive to provide 30 hours of free childcare, the focus has shifted from the quality of provision to quantity, and that this is particularly to the detriment of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

A quality careers education opens horizons for children and young people

Our In-House Training Early Years Bitesize series provides short, accessible training sessions, based around the eight areas of the early years framework. 

More Than a Job’s Worth: Making Careers Education Age-Appropriate makes the point that careers education should start early. A quality careers education opens horizons for children and young people, and supports the challenging of stereotypes. 

In an early years setting, this could mean having a 'jobs corner' in the classroom, where costumes, props and stories relating to different professions encourage children to explore. 

The report also recommends working with parents throughout the process. For example, inviting them into school to discuss their own work or hear careers talks alongside their children.

2. Parents matter

According to the Social Mobility Commission's report Low-income pupils' progress at secondary school, differences in the home learning environment can have a greater impact when pupils move from primary to secondary school. 

For example, pupils from lower-income backgrounds:

  • may get less help with homework as subject matter becomes more challenging
  • may not get opportunities to engage in activities outside school that support study
  • are less likely to get direct support such as tutoring
  • may have less parental input on decisions such as subject choices. 

There are a range of ways schools can try and counter this imbalance, such as:

  • running homework clubs, or individually targeted homework sessions
  • providing after school and extracurricular activities
  • offering parenting programmes
  • using pupil premium funding to provide mentoring programmes.

The Sutton Trust's Potential for Success report highlights the positive difference that family support makes: 'students are more likely to do well at GCSE if their parents think it is likely their child will go onto higher education'.

Where pupils may be concerned about participating in programmes, interventions or extra-curricular activities because they want to continue fitting in with friends and peer group, getting parents and the wider community on board can help.  

'Extracurricular activities have the potential to develop both academic skills, and essential life skills which can help highly able students to succeed – such as confidence, motivation, resilience and communication skills.' (Potential for Success).

3. Group mindfully

Setting is cited in most of the reports listed below as a barrier to fulfilling potential. This is for several reasons.

  • Setting works best for those in the top sets. Evidence suggests it doesn't have a positive impact on attainment for pupils in middle and lower sets. 
  • Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, ethnic minorities and boys are more likely to be placed in low ability groups.
  • Early setting (e.g. at KS1) ends up being more about SEND and summer-born pupils.
  • Being in a lower set can negatively affect pupils' aspirations (and their parents): 'I'm in a lower set so there's no chance I'll go to university'.
  • Decisions re tiers of entry at GCSE can be based on setting. If you're in a lower set, you won't be able to access the highest grades. 

Tiering and setting

An extensive body of literature explores within-school ability grouping and stretches back over a century (Hallam & Parsons 2013). This evidence suggests that, while those in the top sets benefit from a positive peer-group effect, the practice widens gaps between those in top sets and those in middle or bottom sets and does not raise average attainment (ibid). Furthermore, a number of quantitative studies show that such practices are likely to hinder future social mobility, as children from low SES backgrounds, ethnic minorities and boys are more likely to be placed in low ability groups (Hallam & Parsons 2013; Parsons & Hallam 2014). Early setting, (for example at primary school) is shown to reduce progress by pupils who begin primary school in lower ability groups at all key stages. It also negatively impacts on children and their parents’ aspirations, partly by reducing the positive peer effects noted above (Parsons & Hallam 2014). Setting can therefore have a profound negative impact on pupils’ future social mobility. 

Ethnicity, gender and social mobility

If you still feel that setting is the best approach for your subject or context, then consider the following advice. 

  • Ensure any pupil grouping is flexible and regularly reassessed.
  • Don't rely on teacher assessment alone. Tests are probably a more objective way of making decisions re pupil groupings, but still need to be used carefully (e.g. do the tests themselves carry cultural bias which favour particular pupil groups?).
  • Consider teacher deployment carefully. There's a tendency for the 'best' teachers to be assigned to top sets, but they may have more impact with a lower or middle set.  

4. Check your own bias

As mentioned above, one of the problems with setting is how decisions are made as to who ends up in which sets. Teacher perceptions and expectations of different groups can have a negative impact on attainment. The 'Ethnicity, gender and social mobility' report suggests four ways in which bias might shape achievement:

  • low expectations of work and behaviour
  • ability grouping that is skewed by low expectations
  • exclusion
  • over-identification of SEND. 

The 'Potential for Success' report highlights a further risk around the identification of pupils as 'highly able'. Learners with potential from disadvantaged backgrounds 'are of particular concern, as these students are more likely to be missed when identifying the highly able, and are more likely to fall behind and struggle to fulfil their potential'. 

Whether we like it or not, as human beings we are subject to conscious or unconscious biases regarding what pupils are capable of. This can lead to lowered expectations of some pupils or pupil groups. Having high expectations of all learners is fundamental to their success. 

So what can we do to address unconscious bias? Unfortunately there isn't as yet much research or practice available for a school-specific context (see section 4.4 of Boys on Track for more on this). 

But what schools can do is to:

  • emphasise progress over ability
  • ensure all classes have stretching activities
  • make interventions and extra-curricular activities available to all pupils where possible
  • acknowledge and value group differences, rather than trying to be 'colour blind' and ignore them
  • use a range of strategies for assessing pupils and identifying the highly able, including testing
  • acknowledge and explore sources of bias with staff.

If you're interested in exploring unconscious bias further, these articles are all written from an education perspective. 

5. Nurture teaching and subject expertise 

Consistent, high quality classroom teaching is the best route to ensuring that pupils fulfil their academic potential. The 'Potential for Success' report points specifically towards the role of teacher subject expertise in helping not just highly able learners (see section 2.2): 'there is a growing body of research indicating that strong content knowledge does impact on student attainment'. 

Unfortunately, many disadvantaged students do not have access to teachers with specialist knowledge, particularly in maths and science. Experienced teachers (who are more likely to be the best teachers) are also less likely to work in disadvantaged schools. 

Disadvantaged young people are more likely to be taught by teachers who are less experienced and have lower qualifications. A young person in the most affluent schools is 22 percentage points more likely to be taught physics by someone who has a degree in physics or related subject than a young person in a disadvantaged school. (Closing the Regional Attainment Gap)

What can schools do to try and counter this?

  • Consider focusing CPD resources on developing subject knowledge and expertise. If setting appraisal objectives, could there be a subject knowledge focused one?
  • Value and utilise your experienced teachers (see the UPS skills audit for ideas). 
  • Rethink your recruitment practices to attract the best teachers for your school. 
  • Think carefully about how you retain and nurture your teacher talent. Are you an employer of choice

Research reports

This article draws on reports and issues highlighted in Will Millard's keynote on understanding the gender attainment gap at the Engage and Support the Progress of Boys conference. 


Last Updated: 
29 Mar 2022