Seek attainment mobility

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Create connections – reverse delayed attainment

What if the most important role of education is to enable attainment mobility? …to support presently low (or middle) attaining children to become high attaining.

What if we were better at reversing delayed attainment so that schools and academies genuinely secured attainment mobility?Maybe then we would have a world class education system.

Attainment mobility is the key challenge for education… but, we are far from securing this mobility… our system may well be preventing it.


What if we are beguiled by high ability and have a false belief that exceptional performance is due to innate talent? What if we are conditioned to explain demonstrations of ability in any discipline as a result of a God-given talent, a genetic pre-disposition or an innate gift? …ability is written in our genes prior to birth.What if this has limited our belief in what is possible or what children are capable of? What if our culture reinforces it?…

” I think the X factor is something that you are born with; you either have it or you don’t.” Nicole Sherzinger (Sept 2017)

“You spot that thing you cannot buy as soon as they sing.” Sharon Osbourne (Sept 2017)

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However, what if Anders Eriksson is right? That there is…

“…no such thing as predefined ability – the brain is adaptable and training can create skills that did not exist before. This is a game changer. Learning now becomes a new way of creating abilities rather than bringing people to the point where they can take advantage of their innate ones … People are not born with fixed reserves of potential; instead potential is an expandable vessel, shaped by the various things we do throughout our lives. Learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s potential but rather a way of developing it. We can create our own potential.”

What if after 40 years of research Anders Eriksson has been unable to find evidence of innate talent and that every example of exceptional performance that he has researched has its roots in opportunity, supported effort and deliberate practice over time? (Excepting that there are some physical traits, like height, for example that are advantageous in some fields)

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” (Albert Einstein)

What if education unwittingly reinforces present attainment as a limiting factor for children? What if we unwittingly create conditions for present attainment to be the determining factor for a child’s outcomes, their targets, aspirations and their future? Embarrassingly few low attaining on entry go on (through) education to gain the qualifications they really need to be successful in life?

What if this false underlying belief means that when we see differences in levels of attainment (for example on entry to EY, KS1, KS2) that we attribute this to differences in genetics and believe individuals are limited to certain levels of attainment; they have lower innate potential than presently high attaining children? Low attainers, will remain low attainers and high attainers have a natural predetermined ability that comes from birth. (or even that we assign differences to context and opportunity… but see this as immovable as “natural talent”)

What if we have become conditioned to believe (even if we do not deeply believe it) that attainment is largely fixed?

However, what if there is no innate talent? What if differences in levels of attainment are the result of the following conditions over time?

  1. growing up in a family that consistently provides opportunities, over time.
  2. where significant others support and encourage effort. Often an expert coach or tutor whose direction enables deliberate practice.
  3. where risk and failure is embraced.
  4. and where expectations are high; it is not ok to give up.

… and what if this leads to accumulated advantage over time that enables much higher performance and a reinforcing sense of ones ability over others. What if this self belief is further reinforced by the widely held assumption that this elevated performance is the result of innate talent?

What if the reverse of these conditions are hopelessly compromising and leads to delayed attainment? What if this leads to accumulated disadvantage over time? What if this is further reinforced by the widely held false assumption that this lower performance/attainment is the result of a differences in our genes?

What if the key limiter and barrier to attainment mobility is early linguistic under-privilege? What if we do not do enough to reverse this linguistic disadvantage?

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For all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing even what they have will be taken away. (Matthew Effect)

BUT…

What if… we foster a “delayed attainment” mindset for any attainment level that is not presently high attaining? Could this transform how we educate?

What if this means that presently low attaining children are not less able or less innately talented/gifted, they experience delayed attainment?

What if this delayed attainment leads to greater self de-selection to avoid failure; often leading to the development of sophisticated work avoidance, coping strategies and poor behaviour that only serves to reinforce our false beliefs about ability and innate talent?

What if we don’t understand this – or truly believe it .. and consciously or unconsciously label children and limit what we believe children with delayed attainment can achieve?

What if this false assumption of talent and the labelling based on ability (or present level of attainment) – becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy?…

“When people assume that talent plays a major, even determining, role in how accomplished a person can become … we assume that people who are not innately gifted are never going to be good at something, then children who don’t excel at something right away are encouraged to try something new.” We also do the reverse by supporting early advantage and enabling children to accumulate advantage, such that they begin to appear gifted or innately talented… proving that we were right all along.

What if we take early advantage and foster it, support it, put it in the top set, label it, ask it more questions, praise it, give more training time, send it to sporting academies? What if these accumulating advantages only reinforce our belief that innate talent triggers ability? What if society and education accelerates the gap between those who have early opportunity and supported effort and those who don’t? What if we do not even realise that we are doing this?

What if the keys to attainment mobility lie within curriculum, assessment and pedagogy? What if this should emphasise:

  • Knowledge: because knowledge is power. (limit discovery of knowledge and prioritise application of knowledge)
  • Understanding: supported deliberate practice.. meaningful and purposeful application of knowledge.
  • Interleave and spiral curriculum around a coherent narrative of learning – to address linguistic disadvantage and enable connections to be made as limited proximal zones develop. (Vygotsky)
  • Expectations: that all children can achieve given time… supporting children not to de-select themselves… (“meeting them there”)
  • Assessment that secures self-esteem, learner ownership, rewards and points to the next learning.
  • Create opportunities.. to spark interest and intrinsic motivation.

What if we should not insist that it is all about progress?.. and what if we are overly satisfied when children entering with low (delayed) attainment make better progress than similar national starting points?  What if this progress only really becomes relevant if children attain at a level/grade that supports good progression, opens opportunities and enriches their future lives? What if it is attainment that really matters to low attaining children over time?

What if we judge the effectiveness of education through the lens of its effectiveness to secure attainment mobility?


What if we…

  • never assigned ability, performance or attainment to genetic advantage or innate talent or some fulfilment pre-destined potential, and…
  • understood that ability is born out of opportunity, commitment, supported effort and deliberate practice over time, and consequently…
  • saw education as the vehicle for enabling attainment mobility by levelling up the playing field for all.
  • understood that teaching every lesson, every day is the key to attainment mobility.

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  • we expected more of individual children; ensuring that given opportunity and supported effort that there is no limit to a child’s potential, certainly not at GCSE levels of attainment.
  • actively recognised that society and education actively supports both accumulated advantage and accumulated disadvantage.
  • we do not use “ability” and only used present level of attainment. We acknowledged that presently low levels of attainment are the cause of delayed attainment. We changed our language so that we:never use… Low, middle or high ability
    • do use… presently low, middle or high attaining.
    • and consider these  significantly delayed attainment, delayed attainment or expected attainment (instead of LA, MA and HA)
  • we valued and measured attainment mobility as a measure of a Schools success: conversion of low attaining (LA) to middle attaining  (MA) and to high attaining (HA). Attainment of LAs and MAs at 9-4 Basics and HAs at 9-5 Basics.
  • recognised that it is attainment that triggers social as well as attainment mobility; it is attainment more than progress that is important to life chances and greater opportunity in a child’s future.

Maybe then:

  • we would evaluate education by how well schools/academies are genuinely places of attainment mobility that reverse delayed attainment.
  • we would replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and support all children to reach any potential they choose.

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Dan Nicholls | October 2017

Director of Education | Cabot Learning Federation

1 thought on “Seek attainment mobility

  1. Thinking outside of the box; great, I love it. And just imagine…….what if educators stopped using the phrase ‘differentiation is by outcome’…….we could get some phenomenal results from out SEND students.

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