Martin Stephen: 'Ofsted says comprehensives are failing the most able but teaching bright children isn't rocket science'

It doesn't take a selective system to nurture the best minds, says a former head of St Paul's boys' school.

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The Independent Online

In 2011, I was privileged to receive private sponsorship to research a book on how countries across the world educate their most able children. This spawned an interest in what the UK provided for its most able students, a subject faced head-on by the recent Ofsted report with its damning critique of the current state of the nation.

There is no doubt from a study of how the world does it and a parallel study of how we do it that it is easier to educate the most able in a selective system. Like meets like more easily, and critical mass is reached more quickly. What is also true, and which frankly surprised me greatly, is that it is perfectly possible to do a good deal by the most able within the confines of a non-selective, comprehensive school. With the right will, any type or brand of school can teach its most able pupils to their full potential. It is more difficult in a non-selective school, but perfectly possible.

One example is the Ship scheme (Students with High Intellectual Potential, now re-christened the Ignite scheme), run out of a group of ordinary, non-selective schools in Adelaide, Australia. It produced outstanding results, not the least of which was a group of articulate, confident and feisty boys and girls who could have more than held their own against the products of the most sophisticated UK independent schools. It is a further tribute to that scheme that it did so without drawing resources away from the non-Ship students, and without dividing the student body against itself. So why can't we repeat that success over here?

One reason is the widely held belief that the most able need no extra help, and because of their innate ability will anyway rise to the top and do well. This is rubbish. High ability is not a guarantee of self-motivation or high attainment. It's also a favourite with governments looking to see where the next round of cuts can fall with the least damage.

It's not that the most able are fragile or even vulnerable – the bespectacled geek who might as well hang a sign saying "bully me" on their back: research suggests that they are, if anything, more resilient than the normally gifted cohort. Rather, it is that our most able children frequently do not wish to show their ability, either because it makes them stand out from the crowd and hence become more open to ridicule and bullying, or because it means the school makes them spend valuable partying or hanging-around time on more work, and places an increased burden of expectation on them.

Not only are a frightening number of our most able children unwilling to be recognised as such and immensely skilled at keeping their head below the parapet. They put a lot of their ability into working out how to avoid work, and are also brilliant at manipulating their teachers.

The classic pattern is to shut up the maths teacher by producing an A* piece of work while neglecting every other subject.

The next choice for a special piece of work will be dictated by the teacher who is getting most heavy, and so on. Just as the maths teacher starts to get worried, a stunning piece of work turns off the red light on the teacher's dashboard for another few weeks. The clever child has an uncanny ability to know just when their work, or lack of it, is about to set off a teacher's trip-wire. They play one off against another as if born to it. The biggest enemy to a successful programme for the most able is the naïve belief that such children self-identify. Some do; many don't.

A second killer is that up to two-thirds of teachers do not at heart approve of special programmes for the most able. Sometimes this is on ideological grounds. The "every child is born a Mozart" school of thought argues that all children are born with equal potential, and that through upbringing and social conditioning we create a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby only a handful are seen as having great potential. Much more common is the fear many teachers have of being shown up by the most able. They believe that to teach the most able, the teacher has to be at least as clever as, and ideally more clever than, those taught.

It's as if the successful football manager or music teacher believed they could do their job only if they were better players than the most gifted in their team or orchestra. This is also nonsense. Sir Alex Ferguson was an OK player, but a genius at showing others how to do it. The best lesson to the most able group I've ever seen was delivered by a 45-year-old PE teacher who cheerfully confessed he'd never got a degree. The "outstanding" lesson in teaching the most able reverses the roles of teacher and taught. The children lead, the teacher supports. Bright children learn as much from each other as from their teacher.

A third, malign influence is the belief that to pay Peter you have to rob Paul, that resources given to the most able are inevitably resources taken away from the remainder. This is the biggest rubbish of all. The most able can gallop through the curriculum in half the time it takes the normally gifted. The time saved can either be ploughed back into enrichment programmes for the most able, or given to the normally gifted to increase their provision.

Even if the school does no more than use acceleration or compaction or to speed the most able through the core curriculum, and offers them no extra enrichment, it will still ease the path of the most able by reducing boredom. The most able have been shown to hate "layer-cake" teaching and repetition, and boredom is the biggest single killer of the most able. The most able can save a school money.

The biggest reason of all for the failure of the UK comprehensive school to rise to the challenge of teaching the most able is a failure to recognise that the most able are simply another special-needs group. Stephen Hawking and Wayne Rooney are both stars, but teaching them the same thing in the same way was never going to work. One size doesn't fit all, and if it's true of socks it's even more true of young human minds. Sending all children to the same school doesn't mean they all have to do the same thing, easier though that is.

It matters a lot that we recognise that mixed-ability schools can bring on the most able. The UK has a sophisticated education system, where we can even contemplate bringing back an element of selection. Much of the world is struggling to support or introduce even basic education systems, and selection is simply a luxury they can't afford. That's why it's more important than ever to ensure that we can harvest the world's richest remaining carbon-free resource – the talent of our most able young people – in non-selective schools. It can be done. You just have to want it enough.

Dr Martin Stephen is a former head of St Paul's boys' school in London and Manchester Grammar School and is now the director of education for the Gems education group

Aiming high: The Australian way

The Ship (Students with High Intellectual Potential) project in Adelaide, Australia – now renamed Ignite – allows pupils to fast-track through the curriculum so they can spend more time on more taxing and interesting classroom work.

In the school visited by Dr Stephen, it involved the top-performing 30 per cent of the pupils, who were chosen for the programme by their teachers.

It is described as a programme that "contains less review and repetition than the normal curriculum because gifted students usually understand concepts quickly".

Features of the programme include students working with their intellectual peers and a focus on "critical, creative and caring thinking".

The timetabling is flexible, with students on the project mixing with other pupils for some lessons – such as religious education.