Let it shine

The talent of the brightest is often overlooked as schools focus on the majority. Deborah Eyre says it is time they were given a better deal
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The Independent Online
The education of able children is an area filled with contradictions and confusion. It is generally assumed and frequently stated that it is easy to teach the most able and that it is other categories of pupils who are more difficult to help. At the same time, research evidence indicates that teachers are not very good at teaching the most able and under-achievement is the result. According to a wide range of researchers, including Bennett, Alexander and HMI, the work that teachers set for able children is insufficiently challenging and not well matched to the children's ability. Indeed, a look at a random sample of Ofsted reports would confirm this is a key issue identified in many schools (20 per cent according to Ofsted in 1995) including selective ones.

Perhaps one reason why provision for able children is generally so poor is because many educationists do not see it as important. By law, schools are required to provide an appropriate education for all children but, while most schools think carefully about what kind of provision needs to be made for children with special educational needs, far fewer look carefully at their provision for able pupils. It is assumed that able pupils do not need particular consideration and will do well whatever the situation. Parents of able children will recognise this syndrome. Schools are often unable to articulate clearly their strategy for helping able pupils to maximise their potential and sometimes appear to be at a loss as to what kind of provision to make. Of course able children will not be successful on their own. Like all other children, they need clear educational goals and targets if they are to achieve appropriately.

Schools alone are not responsible for this neglect of able pupils. The Government does not seem very interested either. It fails to provide funding, guidance or training in this area, at a time when schools are inundated with advice on how to improve. This lack of interest has a trickle-down effect. Most local education authorities do not have a person responsible for advising schools on how to provide for their most able and some do not even have a policy.

One reason for this lack of interest lies in confusion about the nature and needs of able children. Most people continue to think of them as being easily recognisable and having all-round high ability - miniature boffins. This image, however, represents a small fraction of the able- child population. Most are not good at everything and they are far more likely to be very good at certain types of things - maths, languages or creativity, for example. Significant numbers of children may have high ability in specific areas, at least as many as the 20 per cent identified as SEN. Even those with all-round high ability may not go on to be successful. To achieve highly, ability is not enough. Suitable opportunities, support and motivation are all needed if potential is to be converted into performance.

So the actions of ordinary schools can and do make a difference. The Assisted Places Scheme, often cited as providing for able pupils, is therefore something of a red herring as it only caters for 1 per cent of the secondary school population. Most able children are being educated in ordinary schools so it is those that need to look at how they can improve provision for able children.

It is interesting to note that, although education has been in a state of continual change since the national curriculum was introduced in 1988, none of these changes have led to significantly more challenging provision for the most able. Indeed, the preoccupation with getting pupils up to a minimum level has led some schools to ignore above-average performers. When so much of a school's reputation hangs on its A-C GCSE scores it is tempting to dismiss the needs of those who are predicted to gain A/B and concentrate on the C/D divide. As reported SAT scores become a feature of primary schools, similar temptations will prevail. It is, however, likely that, if the emphasis on "value added" education is increased, the value added to able pupils may be highlighted as a cause for concern.

So can a school make itself more effective in providing for the most able? The answer has to be yes if it has the will to do so, but progress will not come quickly or easily. Like all school development work, improving provision for the most able is complex and needs careful management by the head teacher or senior managers. Schools which make effective provision are first and foremost good schools. Good provision for the most able cannot be superimposed on a shaky framework.

The least expensive aspect of effective provision is in creating classrooms in which children are required not only to do, but also to think deeply. This is sometimes problematic in a profession obsessed with accountability. Demonstrating coverage of the national curriculum has become more important for many teachers than focusing on what pupils are actually learning. To motivate the able, learning has to be both interesting and challenging. So teachers will need training and guidance if they are to improve. They may also need a little space to try out approaches without initial assessment. Continual assessment of teaching leads to reliable but stale practice.

Ultimately, providing for the most able does have a cost. But how can we make the case that these children are less deserving than others? They, too, have a need for personal fulfilment and our country cannot afford to allow its most able and talented to under-achieve through mass neglect. Recent research from Ofsted suggests that if a school considers its provision for able pupils, then general standards will rise. Maybe that should be our catalyst for taking action.

The author is Senior Lecturer (Able Pupils) Westminster College, Oxford. Recipient of the 1996/97 Fulton Fellowship in Education.

'Able Children in Ordinary Schools' by Deborah Eyre was published last week by David Fulton Publishers.

NACE: National Association for Able Children in Education, Westminster College, Oxford. 01865 245657.

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