Why do we continue to find it so difficult to cater for the most able students?

Image via @gapingvoid

Image via @gapingvoid

Ofsted has again concluded that not enough is being done to ensure that the most gifted students from non-selective secondary schools achieve their full potential[1]. This comes as no surprise to those of us who have been working in this field for a long period. The issues are well rehearsed, the danger-points well known and the solutions clear, yet we seem unable to make significant progress. Whilst some schools do really well, they remain the minority.

In my book published 1997[2] I quoted HMI reports from 1992 and 1978 which were saying just the same thing. In 2010 this remained an issue[3] and it is still one now. So whilst differing types of school structures – GM school, specialist schools, academies, free schools – may come and go, and the curriculum be regularly updated, the same problem remains.

Where we have issues in the education system generally we also – unsurprisingly – find them related to the most able. The three groups most at risk are: students from disadvantaged backgrounds, more able boys, and students in schools where able students are in a minority. Nationally, boys and those from disadvantaged backgrounds are currently the most likely to be underachieving and so able boys or more able students from disadvantaged backgrounds are merely one symptom of a more general problem. We won’t solve this aspect unless we tackle the wider issue of why these groups underachieve in our education system, whatever their ability level.

In respect of schools where ‘able’ students are in a minority, this is just short-hand for low performing schools. Where expectations are low they are low for everyone including, but not uniquely, for the most able. So again we need to tackle the wider problem and raise general expectation levels not just offer something separate for a selected group.

Sean Harford, Ofsted’s National Director of Schools, quoted in the Education Endowment Foundation newsletter said “While inspectors found pockets of excellence, too many of these children are not being challenged sufficiently – and thousands of highly performing primary pupils are not realising their early promise when they move to secondary school.”

This is well known territory. We know that secondary schools struggle to create challenging opportunities in the classroom and often shy away from the inquiry based learning approaches that engender this challenge in favour of more routine practice and teaching-to-the-test. This happens more frequently when teachers are teaching unfamiliar new curricula, when they are teaching subjects which are not their specialist subject, or when low level behavioural disruption is commonplace.

Equally, the temptation to ignore those who can already demonstrate mastery of the test requirement is strong in a test driven environment and leads to ‘good enough’ rather than excellence being the order of the day. It is here at the classroom level that we need to focus effort so that expectations and levels of overall classroom challenge improve. When this is done all students raise their relative levels of attainment not just the most able.

The Ofsted report highlights KS3 as a particularly troublesome area with Year 7 being an undemanding year for many more able students. Over the years secondary schools have looked at many approaches to improving continuity between primary and secondary. Maybe an important focus is therefore accurate diagnostic assessment early in the Autumn Term of the transfer year. Establishing learning needs is just as important as ‘settling in’ and for the student those early weeks are an indicator of what is to come. Lack of early demand leads to boredom – not a great way to start secondary school.

The quotes from students in this Ofsted report are also depressingly familiar and mirror those collected by NAGTY (National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth) in the 2002-2007 period and from many research studies predating that. Where students are actively involved in their learning they thrive; where it is an impersonal done-to-them experience they don’t.

Finally, careers advice and guidance. We know that one difference between middle class families and those from lower socio-economic groups is the middle class parenting style which Annette Lareau[4] calls ‘concerted cultivation’. This means they leave nothing to chance and see their role as ensuring that their children receive all to which they are entitled. By contrast those from lower socio-economic groups adopt a less interventionist approach restricting their role to care. If this is the case, then it is not a surprise to find that in the chaotic approach to careers advice and guidance which exists in our school system, those from disadvantaged backgrounds are losing out.

In this respect schools must act in loco-parentis for vulnerable groups and aspire on their behalf – remember the novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – and this is best and most effectively done where they take that role of behalf of all their students. At the very least schools should be explicit in Year 7 about the fact that students from this establishment go on to a wide variety of post-school destinations including top universities, but that to have a chance of joining them students need to be prepared to work hard throughout their secondary schooling and persevere when the going is tough.

The real message from Ofsted’s recent report is that when there are problems in the education system generally, the most able students are not immune. They suffer along with everyone else. We can seek to resolve this by providing special opportunities for an identified group called the ‘most able’ but we are more likely to be successful if we expect more from all our students, and make those expectations explicit.

We need to move away from creating sheep and goats and only expecting high attainment for a small minority, and instead pitch at a higher level in all classrooms and help all of our students to have a fighting chance of securing an ambitious post-school destination.

I welcome the fact that Ofsted continues to monitor provision for high attaining students but suggest we need a new approach to tackling this issue. Ofsted sets the regulatory framework. I think it must consider whether its current approach drives mediocrity rather than excellence, and hence underachievement amongst the most able is an inevitable outcome.

Professor Deborah Eyre is a NET Leading Thinker

[1] Ofsted (2015) The most able students

[2] Eyre.D. (1997) Able Children in Ordinary Schools. London: David Fulton Publishers

[3] Eyre.D, (2010) Room at the Top. London: Policy Exchange

[4] Lareau, A. (2011) Unequal childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life. London: University of California Press


2 thoughts on “Why do we continue to find it so difficult to cater for the most able students?

  1. It’s a shame, Deborah, I agree, after so, so many years of ‘most able’ work. Yet I am even more disappointed that there is still so little celebration about the MANY schools who do so much, successfully, yet unlauded, for their ‘Aspiring’ and ‘Perspiring’ most able learners, in the context of challenge and high expectations for all.


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