Educational potential, underachievement, and cultural pluralism

Donald Gillies

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The term 'underachievement' is widespread in modern educational discourse, invoked most frequently in relation to a perceived failure to reach 'potential'. In this paper, it is suggested that such terms, though widely used, are highly problematic, masking ideological assumptions which concern socially constructed, culturally sensitive, subjective, and relative matters. In fact, underachievement is most often used to mean low academic attainment and the paper argues that this is already better understood in terms of well-known factors such as prior attainment, socioeconomic disadvantage, and systemic biases. This paper also suggests that there is a danger of pathologising the low attainer when in fact it may be the system which is failing the learner. Further, the paper argues that the monologic focus on individual academic attainment as the sole measure of 'achievement' fails to take account of alternative cultural values and risks the charge of cultural imperialism.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)23-32
Number of pages9
JournalEducation in the North
Publication statusPublished - 2008


  • educational underachievement
  • acadmic attainment
  • underachievement

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