Enriching the learning of able pupils is a better aim than acceleration, says Steve Abbott
Able students have recently been the focus of much attention. Although the Mathematical Association disagrees with the Department for Education and Employment's promotion of acceleration as a way of meeting the needs of "gifted and talented" pupils, we commend the Government for recognising the issue. Ministers quite rightly want to nurture our brightest young people.
The big question is how well schools are equipped to develop the abilities of pupils who may have more "raw intelligence" than their teachers. It is not enough to transmit knowledge: if new generations are to go further than we have, they will need to be creative and able to discover new ways of understanding the world. There is a real need to improve the teaching of able students, especially in maths.
Research by Mike Askew and others suggests that the best maths teachers have a really sound understanding of the maths they teach (Effective Teachers of Numeracy, King's College London, 1997. A summary can be found at www.teach.tta-org.uk).
Because such teachers have a mental map of the complex interconnections between elementary topics, they can approach concepts from several directions in response to students' preferred thinking styles. But this familiarity with school maths takes so much time and effort to acquire that many teachers never make the transition from merely telling students about standard methods.
The MA receives many requests for guidance on maths for able students, often from the very "gifted and talented" co-ordinators that Excellence in the Cities has funded. We have responded by developing guidance materials (available at www.m-a.org.uk) and by including a "teaching able students" strand in our Annual Conference this Easter at the University of St Martin, Lancaster. We have told shools standards minister Estelle Morris about the urgent need for professional development that improves teachers' understanding of elementary maths. If the Government is as committed to raising standards among able students as it undoubtedly is to improving average attainment, it will address this issue through the National Numeracy Strategy training.
There are some indications that the need is being acknowledged. Recently Tony Gardiner, reader in maths and maths education at Birmingham University, and I met with Excellence in the Cities co-ordinator Tim Dracup. After pressing the case that "enrichment for added depth" should replace "acceleration" for able mathematicians, we raised the need for training. Despite his unwillingness to concede on the damaging effect of acceleration policies, Mr Dracup did offer money to support Dr Gardiner's proposal to create a pilot training programme with one of the Excellence in the Cities LEAs.
Incidentally, the meeting left me wondering wether the DFEE knows how schools operate. Does Mr Blunkett understand that most schools teach material to pupils in higher maths sets that is a year or more ahead of those in middle and lower sets? I suggest we reinterpret the term "acceleration" to refer to this generally accepted practice, which receives widespread support. I suggest that further guidance be given to schools to indicate how they can provide able students with "enrichment for added depth" that leads to A and A* GCSE grades in Year 11. This is different from the idea that schools should seek to rush able pupils through GCSE: after all, the best teachers of the future will be those with the deepest understanding of elementary maths.
Steve Abbott is deputy head of Claydon High School, Suffolk, and president of the Mathematical Association, 259 London Road, Leicester LE2 3BE. Tel: 0116 221 0013. Web: www.m-a.org.uk