Must we tiptoe around this ability minefield?

28th January 2011 at 00:00

The last world war ended for England in 1945; it started for English education in 1944. Since then our most able children have been at the heart of a hopelessly politicised educational battlefield.

One end of the political spectrum mutters the magic words "grammar school" as if they were the most potent spell in Hogwarts, failing to realise that the cost of educating the most able is to send two thirds of children to second-rate schools and write them off - a price too high for any society to pay.

Meanwhile, those at the other end of the scale see the spectre of elitism rearing its ugly head at the mere mention of "most able". Just try to get two left-wing MPs to admit that some children might be cleverer than others.

I should probably have realised that I was going to stroll straight into this minefield when I accepted a proposal to undertake a research project entitled "Educating The Most Able: The Global Perspective".

It is politically correct these days to state that the most able benefit from being educated in the mainstream. They bring great light to mixed-ability classes. This is the same argument used years ago to justify boys' schools going co-educational: the girls civilise the boys. But while this is fine for the boys, it's rough on the girls - what do they get out of it? The same question must be asked about our most able pupils. What about their special needs?

The educational research establishment has not helped them much. The fact that at six years of age children from disadvantaged or deprived homes are up to 18 months behind their more fortunate peers has fuelled a torrent of complaints that children are not allowed to show that they are very able. This concern is justified. But it has had the effect of elbowing out of the way research into how to identify the most able and, having identified them, what (if any) specialist treatment they need.

One lengthy research paper on educating the most able dedicated its first half to suggesting that every child was potentially a genius, sometimes known as the "Every Child is Born a Mozart" theory. Having decided that the most able didn't really exist, it then spent the rest of its time on looking at how to identify the most able (a bit pointless if you've decided they don't exist), and then moved on to how you should teach them. The ideas in that section would probably fail to light up the classroom.

The more the UK turns its head away from the existence and needs of an academic elite, the more we create centres of elitism. Recent research from the Sutton Trust was used to bludgeon public schools, suggesting that they had an increasing stranglehold on places at leading universities. But what the research actually revealed was that a smaller and smaller number of schools and colleges - crucially, the independent and maintained - were sending a higher and higher proportion of pupils to those universities. In other words, the most able pupils colonised certain secondary education institutions to make them their launch pad to leading universities.

The most able feed off each other. They stir, inspire and provoke each other to a critical mass. The problem with the trench warfare that typifies English educational debate is that no one has realised it is possible to let the most able reach critical mass in a comprehensive.

Will I find in my researches that some other country has got it right where we have got it wrong? I doubt it. The hot-house systems of Asia and China undoubtedly identify the most able, but, if our universities are to be believed, while they produce basic knowledge of maths and science that put UK pupils in the shade, they destroy creativity and imagination. The much-lauded Scandinavian countries, with much smaller populations, have managed to abolish the class system as it exists in the UK, which makes them a fallible comparator for what we should do.

The fact is that the state education system needs to realise the capacity of all those who pass through its doors, be they the least able, the most able or the most of us who are somewhere in between. Seeing whether the rest of the world can teach us anything will be fascinating.

And the Holy Grail? That the UK might be the country to provide the example of how to teach the most able, and that the globe will follow.

Dr Martin Stephen is high master of St Paul's School in London. Email:

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