Policy at the sharp end
One of the nagging worries of all heads and governors is the feeling that they are not doing enough for their most able pupils. To add to the problem, the Government's own policies, aimed at raising overall standards, arguably do relatively little for very bright children, and may even hold them back. When I discussed this with Peter Carey, director of the National Association for Gifted Children, he pointed out that league tables look exclusively at the performance of middle-range pupils, and thus encourage schools to shift the focus away from the bright ones. "If you are an on-the-ball head of department you concentrate on getting as many pupils as possible into the category of GCSE grade C and above."
The same applies, he believes, at key stage 2 where league tables measure only the number of pupils in level 4. This, though, is not the end of it. "There's something more subtle - a stunting of creativity and risk-taking in teaching. "
Part of the answer, perhaps, is that schools should have policies covering their provision for the more able. This in itself raises questions: what should be the relationship between a school's policy for the more able and its special educational needs policy? And, particularly, to what extent should the special educational needs co-ordinator be responsible for the "more able" policy? The argument of whether or not the very able or "bright" child has special educational needs which parallel those of a child with learning difficulties is not new. As a middle school deputy head in the mid-Seventies I taught a "special" English group of 15 pupils aged 10 to 11 years who would, we thought, benefit from an enriched curriculum. It was a magical, memorable time. My pupils' work on the Pre-Raphaelite painters was displayed in Birmingham Art Gallery. The county's educational psychologist took an abiding interest in what we were doing, for in those pre-statementing days she had the time.
Much of what I did was deliberately in line with the approach we used for what we then called slow learners. We identified the pupils; we decided on suitable work, and we withdrew them to a separate group, with a specialist teacher, whenever it seemed appropriate. What we did not do for our bright ones was either track their progress in detail or support them in their mainstream groups - but neither, in those days, did we do those things for our less able pupils. Twenty years on, the debate about provision for the more able goes on. When I talked it over with Deborah Eyre, President of the National Association for Able Children in Education and author of Able Children in Ordinary Schools, she first reminded me that the Government specifically precluded the inclusion of bright children in the SEN Code of Practice, but then went on to suggest that "there is a feeling in schools that in the broadest terms, SEN means any children whose needs fall outside the school's main provision". But, I wondered, how many children are we thinking about here? The answer, it seems, again parallels the way that less able pupils are often counted: many people think 20 per cent. This will include a tiny number, perhaps 2 per cent, who are exceptionally "gifted" and who really do need to be carefully watched. The remaining 18 per cent are "more able". Many schools will jib at writing special policies for so many children. Twenty per cent at each end of the ability range leaves a disturbingly narrow range of "normality".
This term I spoke to the chair of a governing body which had thrown out the head's proposed policy for the more able on exactly those grounds. One answer, of course, is that the question of normality does not arise.
There are no yardsticks, only honest attempts to meet individual needs. To do nothing, say the experts, merely obliges conscientious teachers to make their own possibly ill-judged provision for the able children in their charge. "There isn't a neutral outcome," is how Deborah Eyre puts it. She argues that if the school does not think carefully about identifying able children, teachers will jump to wrong conclusions. "There's a lot of evidence that they identify good readers and neat and tidy writers who are able to work independently and make good relationships with adults. It's not until the school has been thinking about it for a while that they start to realise there are others who are not teacher-pleasers. Just because a child is on the 'at-risk' register, it doesn't mean they are not able".
If we accept the need for a policy on the more able children, who is to take charge of it? And can it, perhaps, just be a section in the special needs policy? According to Deborah Eyre, the answer is that the outcomes matter more than the policies. So in a small school, for example, there may be no alternative to having the SENCO include able children in his or her responsibilities. In Able Children in Ordinary Schools Eyre writes: "There is a certain logic in one person having responsibility for all for all children who need special care and attention." A larger primary, though, may be able to nominate a "co-ordinator for able children". Another may distribute responsibility to subject co-ordinators, with the guidance of a written policy and monitoring by the head.
At secondary level, Deborah Eyre says, "it becomes a management issue - identifying who does what. Often a secondary has a co-ordinator. They don't do all the work of course; they support the subject departments".
But what matters is not so much the chosen structure as that intentions are turned into practice. Thus while it is extremely common, according to Deborah Eyre, for schools to assert that they recognise the needs of the more able, in many cases "everything then turns out to be focused on learning deficit". Some of these questions were explored at a recent course on the education of able children, "Unlocking Potential", run jointly by the National Association for Special Educational Needs and the two major organisations working in this field, NACE and NAGC. Many who attended were teachers with SEN responsibilities, confirming that it is into their laps that this area of school life often falls.
Course delegate Jean Salt, head of learning support at Hardenhuish School, a GM comprehensive in Chippenham, says: "I have the statutory obligations of the SENCO but additionally an interest in the more able." Her school has no actual policy for able pupils - "We got fed up with talking and decided to do something." Nevertheless, it became clear from her description that a de facto policy does exist - the right kind, defined by actions and intentions rather than by words in a folder. There is a co-ordinator for able pupils, and a system for identifying them within both subject faculties and the pastoral structure. "We use a checklist to start with and run a register of able pupils similar to the one for pupils covered by the SEN Code of Practice."
Departments and individual teachers are then expected to provide for the needs of these pupils, which they do by providing differentiated and challenging materials. The school also runs activities - clubs, study weekends, university links - to help able pupils.
One obstacle which bright children may have to meet is that of being in a peer culture which rejects classroom success. No policy will be enough unless it resides in a school culture which values ability and achievement across a very broad spectrum. The task of the school, according to course delegate Peter Williams, who is deputy head of Hexham Middle, in Northumberland, is to bolster the self-esteem of able pupils. "It's got to be OK to be bright - it's OK to be good in one or more areas; it's OK to work hard - and, most importantly, it's OK to be wrong from time to time, because this encourages risk taking."