Providing for Able Students in Secondary Education

Clayesmore’s Senior Deputy, James Carpenter, writes about Clayesmore’s approach to teaching the “most able” 

A famous headmaster was boasting once about the high ability of the scholars in his school and a parent asked him: “But what happens to those in the bottom groups?” “Oh,” he said with a grin, “they usually employ the people in the top sets!”

There are many myths about able children, about who they are and how they should be taught. Mostly those called able are the children who learned to walk, talk and read earlier than their peers. For thirty years schools around the world have offered programmes in which the “most able” were extended and the needs of the “gifted and talented” met. Interestingly, the UK government scrapped the “gifted and talented” programme in 2010.

Every employer understands the paradox: the most able people at work and the most successful in life are often not the most academically well-qualified. Able pupils need to be challenged, of course, but they also need to learn to problem-solve, to collaborate and to communicate. Putting them in classes with lots of other early readers guarantees nothing: they get good grades but end up being employed by those in the lower sets.

Alison Gopnik in her book, The Gardener and The Carpenter (2016), encourages us, parents and teachers, to be “gardeners”. A master gardener creates with care and skill an environment in which everything worthwhile in the garden can flourish – and it is a great analogy for a school.

Where a school leadership team creates an environment in which every child is valued and skilfully nurtured we find happy, healthy and sustainable growth. Great teachers plan their lessons for those who attend them, starting from where they start, and extending them in every conversation they have. In the process the already able are challenged and, interestingly, more pupils emerge as able. I work in a non-selective school but each year our recent former pupils gain many first class degrees. One is doing a PhD in nuclear physics at Cambridge, another is a fast-jet pilot, others are thriving in business and the arts. One recently sent a picture of herself holding an Oscar for computerised animation – for her work on The Jungle Book. Ability comes in many forms.

High ability in music or sport might be evident from an early age but tenacity, collaboration, resilience, and healthy self-knowledge sustain it. Ally these to skilful pedagogy and students do well. Simply singing a different anthem every week in chapel means pupils communicate with some of the greatest minds of European culture – weekly!

Sometimes high ability might emerge later when a young person takes up a new subject in the sixth form – economics perhaps, or business, or photography, or hospitality. New skills and strengths emerge at all points in secondary education and good schools consciously make this happen.

But what does a school that stretches the most able look like? What kind of people teach in one? What are the tell-tale signs a parent should look for? A school that really develops able students can be identified by its culture of openness, its willingness to look forwards not backwards, and whether or not there is a genuine respect for the individuals who join it.

Judge a school by the friendliness of the pupils across age groups: it will tell you whether its culture really respects the individual, and whether such respect is modelled across the school. This goes far beyond pastoral care: it goes to the heart of developing able younger pupils.

Judge a school by its attitudes to change, and choose a school focused on your child’s future. Find out whether the school has embraced the new 9-1 GCSEs, or is it still clinging to the IGCSEs? This will tell you a lot about the culture among the academic staff and their attitude to change.

Judge a school by whether it offers new qualifications – is it looking around for the best for your child or is it expecting your child to fit into other, older, ways of thinking?

How successful is the school at teaching modern languages? Does it allow everyone to take two? Does it keep people learning languages for as long as possible? In a post-Brexit world the UK children who can speak languages will be among the most able.

What about the careers advice offered? Has the school embraced apprenticeships? Able students can work for BAE Systems and gain a top scientific degree. Or for Network Rail and study engineering. Or they can work for one of the big accountancy firms, be well-paid and in all these routes graduate with no debt.

What it is like to be in Year 9? For example, can you be in the school play in your first term? Can a Year 10 pupil who is keen on Chemistry mix with pupils in Year 12 to discuss it? Does the school offer the Model United Nations? This nurtures a real interest in research, debate, and current affairs. Students chair committees, negotiate with others, and speak in public to hundreds of people. Able pupils are stretched by all these things. In all these things able pupils are stretched in many ways beyond the classroom.

In Maths, ask about how things are taught. How is the bright non-mathematician engaged? How does the Cipher Club work? Does it include pupils of different ages? Is it run by pupils? How successful is the school at the national maths challenges?

Forget the prospectus, have a good look at the school’s assessment policy. It will tell you really how the needs of the most able are met. If you recognise it from 20 or 30 years ago you might want to look elsewhere.

OFSTED has encouraged schools to set pupils targets, but find out how this is done. Expectations are everything, and success depends on effort and attitudes far more than prior achievement. Are the students healthily self-critical? How much self-review takes place? How much journaling? Through guided reflection students become more self-aware, more successful, and more able.

If you have an able child, perhaps the best £10 you could spend this year might be on Carole Dweck’s book, Mindset. First published in 2006 it offers hope to everyone but casts new light on how to help able pupils too.

The best teachers are interested in each individual and their teaching will demonstrate this. They will be enthusiastic users of IT, and good at nurturing collaborative learning and problem-solving. They will be up to date in all they do and their lessons should look very different from lessons of 20 years ago. Temperamentally good teachers are always optimistic.

The Head who brags about his scholars is not a great head nor necessarily running a great school. The great Head is the one who believes in the ability of all her pupils and creates a culture that nurtures and inspires them all. The formal and informal systems in the school must not value hierarchies based on age but rather be open to all. Such attitudes help able young people, all of them, flourish.