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Why focus on more able learners?
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Why focus on more able learners?

Posted By NACE, 31 May 2019
Updated: 03 June 2019
Often school leaders and practitioners can feel on the back foot when explaining their focus on improving provision for the most able. Next time someone asks, be ready with a clear and confident response…

Whether openly posed or – as is often the case – an unspoken doubt, this question underlies the formation of NACE 35 years ago and our continued efforts to campaign on behalf of this group, alongside our members and partners.

For many in education, this question has become a fragmented one. There is a temptation to avoid tackling it head-on – focusing (with good reason) on disadvantage and social mobility, the wider benefits of raising levels of challenge and aspirations for all learners, or the impact on whole-school improvement. These are all valid and important issues, but they also sidestep the primary thrust of the question.

The direct answer is simple. All young people – regardless of their background, context, attainment levels or any other labels they may acquire – can benefit from and deserve to have their specific needs catered for. This is no less the case for the more able than for any other group. We must ensure that these learners experience high-quality challenge and support to develop their abilities.

A variety of myths and misconceptions, combined with a focus on raising average or lower levels of attainment, have contributed to more able learners slipping off the national agenda in England, Wales and elsewhere. These misconceptions include the assumptions that more able learners will excel regardless, that they will thrive in any environment, that all young people are potentially of high ability and therefore there is no specific group in need of additional support, or that able learners only exist in certain schools.

Not an elite agenda – in fact, the reverse is true

One of the most damaging misconceptions is the belief that focusing on the more able is elitist. In fact, far from being an elite agenda, focusing on provision for the more able is about ensuring equal opportunity for all. More able learners, just as much as any other group, deserve to have their needs recognised and catered for – and there is evidence to show that specific interventions and approaches can have a positive impact on their development. Currently, provision for more able learners in England, Wales and many other countries lacks consensus and consistency – leaving many learners lacking sufficient stretch and challenge.

Indeed, somewhat ironically, a focus on “equity” can in fact lead to the most able being neglected. As Gabriel Heller Sahlgren notes in a 2018 review of existing research in the field: “[A]s governments in general tend to focus in particular on increasing equity and raising achievement among low-performing pupils, the needs of gifted children are often ignored in western countries.”[1]

Outdated approaches are not an excuse for neglect

Fears about elitism are often linked to outdated view of “giftedness” as fixed, predetermined and/or class-based. With developments in understanding around neuroplasticity, the impact of mindset, effort and environment, there is now widespread recognition that ability is fluid and developmental.  However, it is still the case that some people have the potential to achieve particularly highly in one or more fields. It is important that schools are equipped to recognise this and to ensure that such learners are given opportunities and support to develop as fully as possible.

While underachievement is not the only reason to focus on more able learners, it is a genuine concern. Research from bodies such as The Sutton Trust consistently highlights the pervasive gaps in achievement and opportunity when it comes to more able learners from disadvantaged backgrounds in particular. However, this is still only part of the picture. We don’t know how many young people could be achieving more, whether they fall within the “disadvantaged” criteria or not.

Wider benefits – for learners, schools and societies

Schools have a duty to ensure all learners have opportunities to explore, discover, share and develop their abilities, in all fields. The current focus on ensuring a broad and rich curricular and extracurricular offer for all has the potential to support this goal. In ensuring the curriculum offers sufficient levels of challenge, schools have the opportunity to raise standards and opportunities for all. And, as we see from schools working with the NACE Challenge Framework, a holistic focus on improving provision for the most able is likely to impact positively on provision, ethos and outcomes across the whole school.

There are also clear benefits at societal and economic levels in ensuring the potential of the most able is realised. Research suggests that increasing attainment at the highest levels has a particularly significant impact on annual per-capita growth.[2] Few would contest the view that modern economies need access to the full range of their population’s cognitive and creative abilities to stay competitive, and to address the major challenges and changes of the coming years.

A duty to meet the needs of every individual

Zooming back in from the whole-school, national or indeed international perspective, at its heart our mission is about the individual young people who could and do benefit from being recognised and supported as more able. While acknowledging that the “more able” label is – like all labels – imperfect, and that identification is a complex and ongoing process, we cannot allow these challenges to become excuses for neglecting the needs of those with the potential to achieve at the highest levels.

Importantly, there is evidence to suggest that this group – while by no means homogenous – do have specific needs and propensities, and that schools can respond effectively to these. More able learners can be particularly vulnerable to disengagement and to a range of pressures with both internal and external sources – including perfectionism, fear of failure, low self-esteem, imposter syndrome and social difficulties. Schools have a duty to ensure effective, specialised support is provided at all stages to ensure all more able learners have a chance to thrive.

What drives your school’s focus on more able learners, and what common myths and misconceptions have you encountered? Contact us to share your views and experiences.
[1] Heller Sahlgren, G. (2018), What works in gifted education? Centre for Education Economics.
[2] Hanushek, E. A. and Woessmann, L. (2012), Do better skills lead to more growth? Journal of Economic Growth 17: 267-321.

Tags:  disadvantage  identification  myths and misconceptions  research 

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