Let's talk about how we label high attainers

'Most able'? 'Gifted'? 'Talented'? Just how should we refer to these students? Nathan Burns explores

Nathan Burns

A prize that currently recognises academic excellence by young people in the North East and their contribution to their community will soon also recognise excellence in technical education

I recently began a job share as a more able and talented coordinator in my wonderful North Derbyshire state school. Upon taking on the role, I posed the following question to Twitter:

I thought I might gather a few ideas, resources and organisations to turn to as I began to develop my knowledge in the role. But what unfolded was a huge debate over the terminology used to define our highest-achieving students.

A number of posters proposed that through the use of terms such as “more able” or “gifted and talented”, we set up a dangerous dichotomy of those who are able, and those who are not able. Between those students who are grouped as gifted, and the rest who are, presumably, not gifted.

These are, of course, not the intentions of this terminology. The purpose of labelling a group of students as high-attaining, more able or talented, is not to stipulate that other students are not, or cannot be, highly attaining, able, or talented. 

Rather, these are broad-brush terms used to group students who share high targets and expectations, as well as those students that excel within the arts, music and sports. But do we need to consider the potential negative effects on other students, as this poster suggests?

However much we may wish to avoid labelling students, we do need to be able to track the progress of those students whom we expect to attain the highest grades at GCSE. We also need to ensure that these students are receiving the support and enrichment that they require to achieve their future aspirations. 

Of course, such support and enrichment must be personal to each student. The support one Pupil Premium student requires will be different to the next, for example. More able and talented students do not all require the same support and enrichment, but, as with any student, we must identify where their weaknesses are and where they require further support.

If we can agree that labelling these students is necessary, is there a different way we can go about doing it? One poster suggested the use of the term “high prior attainment”, which begins to move away from the dichotomy of has it/doesn't have it, towards a focus of attainment. It also hints at a flexible grouping of students, which is exactly how it should be. 

Perhaps we go further, as this poster suggests, and just do away with the category altogether. If, at the end of the day, the priority is high-quality teaching, stretching those who are doing well, and ensuring a wide diet of high-quality opportunities for all students, ought we not just do this, and do away with having a select group of students? 

The debate over how we should label these students will no doubt rumble on. However, what is clear is that high expectations, for all students, as well as keeping as many doors open for as many students as possible for as long as possible is crucial.

Names are important, but if we are doing the right thing by our students, the acronym we assign to them should make no difference to their educational outcomes.

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Nathan Burns

Nathan Burns is an assistant progress and achievement leader for KS3, as well as a Maths teacher

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