How to support your most-able pupils without extra workload

Providing work to challenge your brightest pupils doesn't have to be such a mammoth task, says one head of English

Laura Thorne

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In June 2013, Ofsted published a report asking whether more-able students were doing as well as they could in non-selective schools. The report called for higher expectations to be placed upon schools where more-able students were not achieving their full potential.

Teachers across the country groaned collectively in response to this; the workload of an individual teacher was already bordering on unbearable. How would this new focus impact on it? Would teachers be expected to create a range of different resources, tasks and challenges for every single lesson? Would differentiating up and down essentially mean creating entirely separate lessons for children at either end of the ability scale?

For a while, it seemed to be going in this direction. In order to meet Teachers' Standard 5 in past lesson observations, I found myself producing writing frames and help sheets for the least able, as well as challenge cards and more complex exemplar responses for the most able.

On many occasions, I wound up hunched over my laptop late at night, scoffing a family-sized bag of Doritos as I tried to ensure that all my students were properly catered for.

Luckily, I now work in a school where there is a strong collaborative approach to supporting our brightest students, and this has made all the difference. We have members of staff dedicated to tracking the progress of more-able students across the school and each department has a "champion" leading the approach in their subject. We are given time in meetings to share best practice, and observations of other colleagues are actively encouraged.

Working collaboratively

Last year, senior managers expressed a desire to see the most-able students working more independently in lessons. To facilitate this, departments were encouraged to work collaboratively in directed time, producing challenging and stimulating work that could be handed to students on arrival to the lesson.

With the input of all teachers in the department, we were able to develop effective independent work for the most able that included a variety of things: more complex text-dependent questions, alternate learning objectives, independent projects and even the study of academic non-fiction at key stage 3.

I have facilitated many lessons now in which my most-able students have worked independently from the lesson using some of these resources.

For example, when my Year 7 class were considering the characterisation of Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist (if you’ve read the novel you will know that this is already challenging in itself), my brightest students were using text-dependent questions to explore Dickens' use of satire and its impact on the reader. I could almost feel the buzz of brain activity as I strolled past their table; they were 100 percent engaged, empowered and inspired. But I hadn't had to stay up all night desperately creating my own differentiated resources to get them to this point. I had simply drawn on the collaborative strength of my department.

It may seem like a mountainous task to produce most-able resources for all of your units of work for all year groups, but trust me: it really isn’t. The time saved by no longer creating last-minute "challenge tasks" will allow you to use your evenings for more important things, like washing the dishes or catching up on Love Island.

Convince senior managers to allocate your department the time needed to plan and create resources together, use the collective brain power of your excellent teachers and come up with five great ideas which can be adapted for each topic. You certainly won't regret it.

Laura Thorne is assistant head of English at Redbridge Community School in Southampton. She tweets @lauthorne

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Laura Thorne

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