OPINION: the 'fast track' is not best for able pupils, says Johanna Raffan

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Once again selective schools are at the centre of political debate, and fast-track classes are seen as a way of ensuring the brightest are not held back.

Research across a range of primary schools shows little teacher time is devoted to able children. The reason most commonly given is that because these pupils can "get on", they are left to complete tasks alone and teacher time is devoted to others whose needs are seen as greater.

Indeed, both in this research and in extensive in-service training nationally, teachers express guilt about devoting any time at all to the most able - not because they do not see a need but out of concern that any attention given to the needs of the most able might be seen as elitist and undesirable.

One of the attractions of selection may be that the school focuses some of its provision towards the needs of the academically able. Traditionally, through the grammar school system, this has been done at the expense of other children. It does not have to be like that, however. Successful comprehensives can offer a wonderful mix of setting, partial setting and mixed ability teaching, based on the profile and needs of the individual school. The National Association for Able Children in Education and the Department for Education and Employment project, Supporting the Education of Able Pupils in Maintained Schools, has worked extensively with non- selective schools to consider what might constitute good-quality provision for able pupils within the context of equality of educational opportunity.

It is obvious even from this small-scale project that with appropriate planning and teacher in-service training, non-selective schools can become very good at meeting the needs of the most able. There is no lack of professional agreement about how best to meet the needs of the brightest in non-selective schools, but rather a lack of serious political will from either party to address this issue.

Much of the political debate has rested on two erroneous assumptions. The first is that accelerated learning or fast-tracking is the best approach for able pupils. While this may appear an obvious solution, research into its effectiveness is far from conclusive. There is evidence to show that where children are removed from their peer group they do not always make good long-term progress and may be emotionally damaged.

The second assumption is that non-selective schools work in mixed ability classes. In secondary schools setting is on the increase and in primary schools many children work in ability groups for at least some activities.

Better, more equitable provision is possible within the comprehensive system. But it will not occur if children of high academic potential are viewed as over privileged and therefore unworthy of consideration or resources. Their needs are not superior to the needs of others, as implied by the funding of the grammar school system, but neither are they inferior and deserving of neglect.

The author is past chair of the National Association for Able Children in Education and head of Holyport Church of England Primary School in Maidenhead.