The Lost Middle

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Should schools and teachers stop labelling children as ‘average’?

New research suggests that ‘labelling children as average’ hides their potential and could lead to significant underperformance in their GCSE examinations. Too many children are routinely identified as average and their abilities and problems are overlooked as a consequence.” (GL Assessment)

Last week I chaired a webinar for GL Assessment, discussing the findings of The Lost Middle report. I was joined by Shane Rae and Hilary Fine from GL Assessment as well as Jonathan Bishop, the Headteacher of Broadclyst Community Primary School in Exeter.

Research Findings

GL Assessment studied over 24,000 children and discovered:

  • only one in five students is statistically average across the verbal, quantitative and spacial ability ranges – not to be confused with the widely debunked learning styles.
  • even within the middle half of students, three-fifths of them are not actually ‘average’, but are stronger or weaker in one ability. For instance, 11% of this middle half are below average verbal learners and 7% are above average, even though they exhibit average quantitative and spacial skills.
  • In last year’s GCSEs, within the middle 50% of students, only 2% of those who were slightly weaker verbally gained an A or A* in English
  • For students who were slightly more verbally able, the proportion rose to 33%. Similarly, only 9% of ‘average’ students with weak verbal skills achieved a B at GCSE English in 2016, compared to 38% of those with stronger verbal abilities
  • In other words, among the half of all students in the middle of the ability range, the chances of students getting a B or above in English at GCSE range from 1 in 10 to 7 in 10, depending on their verbal ability bias.
  • At the other end of the scale, over half (53%) of students who were verbally weaker got a D or below at GCSE English compared to less than one in ten (8%) who were slightly verbally stronger.
  • The results were similar for quantitate ability; differences were less stark with spacial ability
  • Considering children to be ‘average’ can be particularly problematic for EAL children as the report explores in more detail – those who are middle ability range verbally and have good comprehension skills may actually have problems with knowledge and vocabulary for example.

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The report concluded that ‘if teachers can uncover learning strengths and areas for development early on, they will be in a position to target support more effectively’. A description of ‘average’ can tell a teacher where a student sits on the overall ability spectrum, but it won’t tell teachers that the student may have slightly lower verbal learning skills and that they may struggle with English more than most in their cohort, says Shane Rae.

No longer can teachers say to parents, “your child is average” … those days are over. Teachers who wish to be research-rich can target support more effectively, particularly where students underperform. This valuable piece of research explains how teachers can get the best out of their students. Read it and share it widely with your colleagues …” (Ross Morrison McGill)


You can listen to the webinar below and/or download:

  1. The study is based on data from 24,500 students who did CAT in secondary schools and the results for GCSE in 2016.
  2. Around 13,400 of these students have been identified as ‘average’ or ‘middle 50%’ in terms of overall CAT performance.

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In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account in which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated for '500 Most Influential People in Britain' in The Sunday Times as one of the most influential in the field of education - he remains the only classroom teacher to feature to this day ... Sharing online as @TeacherToolkit, he rebuilt this website (c2008) into what you are now reading, as one of the 'most influential blogs on education in the UK', winning the number one spot at the UK Blog Awards (2018). Today, he is currently a PGCE tutor and is researching 'social media and its influence on education policy' for his EdD at Cambridge University. In 1993, he started teaching and is an experienced school leader working in some of the toughest schools in London. He is also a former Teaching Awards winner for 'Teacher of the Year in a Secondary School, London' (2004) and has written several books on teaching (2013-2018). Read more...

2 thoughts on “The Lost Middle

  • 25th October 2017 at 9:24 pm

    It is fantastic to have you promoting this study. There is so much work to be done here in schools to use data more effectively and I am proud to have contributed to this very important report. Thank you for your support.

    • 26th October 2017 at 9:37 am

      It’s a great piece of research – the more we dispel myths the better for our students motivation and confidence.


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