Ah, the children of the bright; what sweet music they make. Brainiac kids are so hot right now. This year’s BGT was swamped with precocious mini-Careys; Channel 4 is running Child Geniuses, with X-Babies being put through hoops by the Mavens of MENSA; and Ofsted has announced that more able children in schools aren’t being catered for:
The report - The Most Able Students: Are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools? found more than a quarter (27%) of previously high-attaining pupils had failed to achieve at least a B grade in both English and maths.
Baron Wilshaw agrees. He told the Today programme the most able ‘arrived "bright-eyed and bushy-tailed" from primary school, but a cycle of under-performance could quickly set in. They tread water. They mark time. They do stuff they've already done in primary school. They find work too easy and they are not being sufficiently challenged."
And broadly speaking, he’s absolutely right. The more able are marginalised in many schools. I worked as a G&T coordinator for several years, and found attitudes towards the more able fascinating. Firstly there's no overstating the impact that high-stakes, sharp threshold accountability measures like league tables have on their treatment. They acquire the status of very safe seats in General Elections: they’re bankers, battles that schools don’t need to fight.
If there was one thing that highlighted the gangrene in how we obtained whole school comparative data, it was the way in which C/D borderline kids were fetishized and welcomed with palm leaves, drowned in interventions and nurture groups, while the least able were written off as a loss and the most able were battery farmed for golden grades.
Wilshaw’s no idiot; he knows this, and says so. He also pinpoints another problem - some schools, some teachers not knowing what to do with the more able. One of the issues is - and always is - workload. Busy staff face a body of students, the majority of whom will be, by definition, in the middle of the ability range. It makes weary sense to pitch a lesson to this demographic. And then there are the utility monsters, the very needy. How much of a teacher’s time is siphoned off dealing with the poorly behaved and the least able? Like a boiling pan or a fire alarm, they’re hard to ignore. Finally, there’s the expertise issue. What do you do with the fast kids, or those years above their peers?
I’ve always found it interesting how differently we view the poles of the ability spectrum. The less able or unable have SENCOs, Individual Education Plans, Statements, ring-fenced provision, teaching assistants, learning support units, scribes. The most able? If they’re lucky a member of the teaching staff might be paid (and often isn’t) a point to handle G&T. The London Challenge, God rest its soul, at least had the G&T initiative at its heart. It might have been an administrative hydra, with insanely variegated provision, but at least it had status. Now schools are placed in the leaden position of having responsibility for stretching the gifted, without funding to support robotics clubs, university outreach, mentors and extension materials.
So what to do?
Here’s how I’d make sure that the clever clogs don’t get clipped:
1. Identify. Who are my most able pupils? Previously schools had to report their G&T cohorts to the LEA so that their progress could be monitored. The problem was this lumped in high jumpers with polymaths with maestros, and English teachers would wonder why their spring-heeled but dopey students were expected to excel. And as the list was an aggregate of abilities, it often left out those who excelled in one area but not others. It was predicated on general academic ability across the board when pupils often vary.
The solution is for every department to look at prior attainment data, parental feedback (for those very, very hidden talents) and formal test scores, as well as in class performance, to identify their own list of more able.
Just as important is to try to identify students who have displayed aptitude in one area, but have failed to do so in another. They may have scored highly on their SATs, but do poorly in lessons. I used to collect this kind of data and compile what I called my Shadow G&T list: the under-achieving gifted and talented. It’s a powerful way of creating social mobility, and looking beyond the data to find the potential in the child, whatever their background. It can produce some surprising results: I once confronted an angry, low ability girl and told her to stop pretending she couldn’t do better, once I analysed her feeder data. I told all her teachers to expect high ability results from her, and not accept less. She was one of those rare transformations, when you discover that a pupil was being treated as she acted, rather than how she could be. Maybe that’s what Wilshaw means. I certainly believe that high expectations should be tattooed inside our hearts for every child, until the minute they leave school for good- maybe not even then.
2. Provision. Anyone even a hair above average ability will understand this - school work can dull your senses if it’s pitched below your capacities. Students often settle for what they find on their plates, especially if it’s all they’re expected to do. Give them gruel, they’ll develop a taste. There are hundreds of strategies for more-able students. Usually the best ones are in class. Extra-curricular provision can be transformational (and often produce the most memorable effects on students) but it’s in the classroom where most of their time is spent. Teachers need to be trained more clearly on simple techniques that can revolutionise the work a gifted pupil does, eg setting them tasks a year above their age; accelerating them into the year above (astounding, but caution required); asking for work to be redone - after school if necessary - if it doesn’t meet the required level. Forcing yourself to give them time in lessons to explain things at a higher level, just as if they were as important as a weaker kid (fancy that); setting slightly different homework, and so on.
3. Monitoring. Meet with the pupils on a termly basis, perhaps as a group, perhaps individually. Set them targets (something personal to their abilities), and then assess them on those targets. Provide a pupil mentor, perhaps from a few years above, also gifted, and see how social interaction with more able students can raise their own expectations and aspirations. It is a weary, lonely place to be the brightest in your class. Genius, as the Ray Charles album says, loves company.
Of course this is all time consuming. I’d have a dedicated member of staff with the lightest timetable, paid to do this as their primary role. I’d have them recruit teaching assistants/mentors to work with them in or out of the classroom. I’d arrange IEPs for them all. I’d have them stretched just an inch before they can do no more. And I’d treat them all as if they were just as important as any other pupil with any other need. Because this is the final problem: discrimination. It seems laughable to see the more able as discriminated against, but this hides an ugly prejudice: that their abilities put them beyond the compassion of the school; that they have already exceeded some notional mean, and therefore don’t deserve to be any brighter or more challenged. It’s the softest, most camouflaged ism there is - anti-exceptionalism.
But able doesn’t mean rich, or pampered, because I find high ability in the poorest of backgrounds. High ability is high ability. If you have a Marxist bent, I could say, ‘To each according to their need’. Well, they need it; they also deserve it. Sometimes they merit it. And how we treat our Olympians says a lot about how we see ourselves. Do we want to be the jealous Nietzschian pygmies? Or do we applaud the exceptional whenever we see it, encourage it, and share in its success?
They can’t help being clever. But we can help them.