Understanding Underachievement: an investigation into the differential achievement of secondary school pupils.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


  • E. Smith


Publication details

JournalBritish Journal of Sociology of Education
DatePublished - Nov 2003
Issue number5
Number of pages11
Pages (from-to)575-586
Original languageEnglish


This article considers the notion of 'underachievement' as it is applied to pupil performance in school. It argues that rather than being a straightforward concept, underachievement is one where little consensus exists over its definition and measurement. Previous work on underachievement has tended to cluster around two manifestations of the issue. On the one hand, there is the comparative notion of differential achievement—often specifically low achievement—as used in media commentaries and, on the other, there is its definition in psychological research as the discrepancy between an individual's performance on a test of mental ability a subsequent school examination. Using a stricter definition of underachievement that takes into account a range of background as well as academic variables when predicting examination performance, this paper describes the construction of a model for predicting individual performance in future Key Stage 3 examinations. Individuals whose examination performance was then significantly lower than expected were termed underachievers. The composition of this group was examined in light of existing 'moral panics' about underachieving working-class boys.

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