Wanted: a crack regiment

17th July 1998 at 01:00
Very able students deserve very able teachers, argues Colin Butler

Education has been a bit noisy lately, so the single most important statement of the year has unfortunately gone unheeded. It was made by Anthea Millett, chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency during the second TES-sponsored seminar for the University of Keele Improving Schools Network. "It is vital, " Ms Millett said, "that as we teeter on the edge of serious recruitment problems, we do not lose our nerve and tumble into reduced entry standards. " ("Trainers want better grades", TES, June 12) What had Ms Millett going was the prospect of a weak 1998 intake becoming weak middle managers in a few years' time. And, since middle management in the form of heads of department delivers all the subjects a school teaches, you can see how right she is.

But what concerns me just as much is this: unless teaching can attract and keep exceptionally able teachers, it will not be able to meet the needs of exceptionally able pupils. That will be a grave loss for them, since they obviously need teachers with minds as good as theirs. It will be a haemorrhage of talent for the country, too.

The exceptionally able might make up only 2 per cent of an average year group, but they massively make up in talent what they lack in numbers.

Well-meaning headteachers frequently confuse the exceptionally able with the bright, and imagine that good exam results indicate adequate provision for all. Not so. Public exams and the bright are made for each other. The bright are co-operative, they catch on quickly and, once they see what's required of them, they get on with it.

The exceptionally able, on the other hand, are like rattlesnakes - fast and deadly. Isolated by their ability, they can be ill-behaved under-achievers. But teach them on their own terms, and you soon learn what "the sky's the limit" means when it comes to intelligence - and, ruthlessly, where your own limitations are as well.

Age doesn't come into it. Every Friday afternoon, I take a top sixth-form class in logic, and it naturally has its quota of exceptionally able pupils. It's the only class I teach that reminds me of bungee jumping: emerging on a high or hitting bottom are the only options. Occasionally I also teach 10 to 12-year-olds in free-time get-togethers organised by a colleague in the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC). There, at least, I ought to have the upper hand, but I still remember giving an Edward de Bono puzzle that had perplexed some top sixth-formers to some of these youngsters, thinking that it would slow them up a bit. Before I had even finished handing the equipment out, some had finished the puzzle. To rub it in, a more difficult variant was proposed and solved, and it was, "What do we do now, please?" The exceptionally able, even more than the bright, need teachers who are equal to their needs, and there are signs that the powers-that-be recognise this. OFSTED's Educating The Very Able is a case in point. However, neither the exceptionally able nor anyone else will get a good education unless top talents can be attracted into teaching. That is why I'm backing Anthea Millet.

Dr Colin Butler is senior English master at Borden Grammar School, Sittingbourne, Kent

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