Serving the Hidden Middle, Not Just the Tail



There is nothing more galling for a parent who has stretched themself to pay for an education, to feel that their child is just ‘getting missed in the middle’.

‘Hidden middle syndrome’ is a bane of all schools. We tend to devote 80% of our resources to the tails. The high performers are eye catching and reward us handsomely if we invest in them.The low performers reward us negatively if we don’t. How many HMs or pastoral DHs find their time consumed with just a handful of pupils and their tricky families?

This is a source of huge frustration to both teachers but also, I think, increasingly parents who have stretched every bean to send their child to our school.

How can we redress it?

The answer, I want to suggest, is to know when to apply the right attention to the right child.

The tail get our attention because they are visible and audible. This noise is not necessarily the sound we should be listening for. In fact, we need a way of filtering it out to hear the more hidden signals.

I wrote last term about two kinds of ‘hidden signals’. Hidden vulnerability– more often manifest in boys- and Over-regulating– more often manifest in girls.

Both of these are masked. They go under the radar unless we have better listening. I suggested some ground rules to improve listening amongst colleagues. Using these ground rules, and training our common room to listen more acutely, can really help.

But there is one more thing we can do: it is an axiom in life that we pay attention to data we have, and ignore data we don’t have. If we don’t have data about that ‘middle tier’ then how can we pay attention to it?

But, how can we get that data when, by definition, it will NOT be on the behaviour, detention, welfare, outstanding or top performing lists?

The answer is to track all pupil’s social-emotional development year on year, just as we do their academic development.

In so doing, the subtle, personal character of the child emerges as a narrative year by year. The ‘average, middling pupil’ becomes an interesting, particular and specific child. The ‘just doing fine’ pupil becomes a ‘technicolour person struggling with the little challenges and opportunities of schooling’. The anonymous become identified; the over-looked become tended.

Tracking all pupil’s social-emotional health is not just about reducing wellbeing crashes; it’s about honouring and making visible the hidden middle we might otherwise overlook. We wrest back control from the noisy tail.

I recall a story told by a DH Pastoral at a recent AS Tracking training event. He described a pupil, recently joined in the sixth form. The boy had slipped in fine, were doing OK, as far as the classic measures were concerned. Middling. But their AS Tracking suggested a pupil with both huge drive but which was being hidden away from the school.

Trusting this signal, the DH pastoral probed gently with the pupil and parents. It turned out the 16 year old had developed and was running a highly lucrative online business late at night.

Hidden talents… But with them many hidden risks (exhaustion, disappointing academic grades, unrealistic expectations, isolation… to name a few)

This school had found a way of ensuring this ‘middling boy’ got the pastoral care he deserved.

Pastoral care which, if truth be told, his parents were paying for.