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.”
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. 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.
 Heller Sahlgren, G. (2018), What works in gifted education? Centre for Education Economics.
 Hanushek, E. A. and Woessmann, L. (2012), Do better skills lead to more growth? Journal of Economic Growth 17: 267-321.
At NACE, we regularly hear from school leaders and practitioners who are striving to improve provision for highly able young people – but coming up against barriers to doing so, often due to widespread myths and misconceptions about this group.
Here are some of the most common, and the reasons they need to be discarded…
Myth #1. More able learners will do well regardless; they don’t need extra support.
The reality… Just like any other student, more able learners benefit from guidance and support to develop their abilities. They should not simply be left to “find their own way”.
It is also a mistake to assume that high ability in one or more fields translates to competence and/or maturity in many or all areas – including academic, physical, social and emotional development. More able learners may need help to overcome barriers such as socio-economic disadvantage, low cultural capital, gaps in their learning or underdeveloped language skills. Learners may have one or more special educational needs or disabilities alongside high learning potential or ability (dual and multiple exceptionality/DME).
In addition, many more able learners could benefit from specialised support for specific challenges that can come with high ability – such as perfectionism, imposter syndrome, low self-esteem, social difficulties, and a range of internal and external pressures. All are likely to benefit from support and guidance in accessing relevant wider experiences and making decisions about future education and career options.
It is also important to avoid assuming that high ability equals high motivation. Highly able learners may become bored and disengaged due to a lack of challenge or appropriate support. Some may feel overwhelmed by competing interests, abilities and activities (in- and out-of-school). Some may be averse to challenging themselves or taking risks, and/or feel uncomfortable with being perceived as highly able.
Being able to attain high grades with minimal effort can also lead to independent learning and metacognitive skills being underdeveloped, meaning learners will struggle when they do eventually face challenge. Like all students, the more able need the right environment and support to develop effective learning behaviours and attitudes.
Myth #2. All young people are potentially “more able” – so focusing on a specific group is pointless.
The reality… 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 to recognise this and to ensure these individuals are given the opportunities and support to develop as fully as possible.
While more research is needed, there is evidence to show that certain approaches are particularly effective for more able learners – and that focusing on understanding and responding to their needs has an impact. For example, more able learners commonly have a capacity to learn at a significantly faster rate and in greater depth; educators need to cater for this appropriately. Research also suggests they are particularly likely to benefit from approaches in which independent learning is nurtured.
What is true is that identifying more able learners is a complex and ongoing process, requiring consideration of multiple sources of data and observation; a focus on providing regular opportunities for ability to be explored and shown; and an awareness of the factors that can lead to ability being hidden or underdeveloped. However, these challenges should not be used as an excuse to avoid attempting to identify and respond to high ability.
Myth #3. More able learners are “easy” to teach and support.
The reality… In fact, effectively responding to the needs of more able learners can be quite a challenge! More able learners need teachers who are highly knowledgeable in their subject, skilled in recognising and responding to their needs, capable of providing sufficiently challenging materials and support, and able to build a supportive and stimulating environment and relationship. Alongside professional experience, educators can benefit from specific training in this area, and schools should seek to ensure that all staff are equipped to recognise and effectively provide for the most able.
It is also a mistake to assume that high ability equates to model behaviour. More able learners can be prone to any of the same behavioural, emotional or social issues as any other student. As touched on above (myth #1), they may also be prone to becoming bored and/or disengaged, which can lead to disruptive or frustrating behaviour. Teachers also need to be able to understand and respond to issues such as perfectionism, imposter syndrome, low self-esteem, social difficulties, and various other sources of anxiety/stress which more able learners can face.
Myth #4. More able learners are a homogenous group; the same approach works for all.
The reality… Each more able learner is an individual, with different interests, needs and aptitudes. Some may thrive on independent learning, others may benefit from much more teacher input and/or interaction with peers. Some will enjoy taking on leadership roles, others will shy away from the limelight.
However, while it is important to recognise that there is no single “right” approach, it is equally imperative that this does not become an excuse to avoid offering targeted provision for more able learners. While individual needs and context will always be key, there is also research and effective practice available to help schools meet the needs of the more able – and all schools have a duty to do so.
Myth #5. Focusing on the more able is elitist and should not be a priority for schools/society.
The reality… All young people – regardless of their background, context, attainment levels or any other labels – 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. Their needs are no less nor more important than those of any others.
However, well-intentioned attempts to increase equity in education can – ironically – lead to the most able being neglected. As Gabriel Heller Sahlgren noted in a recent 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.”
Misconceptions about elitism are often closely tied up with outdated views about ability (or “giftedness”) as inherent and fixed, and the more able as a very small and rigidly identified group. As touched on above (myth #2), there is now widespread recognition that ability is fluid and developmental, and that identification and provision for the more able should be ongoing and holistic.
There is also a growing consensus that focusing on high-quality provision for the most able can lead to benefits for a much larger cohort – helping to raise standards, aspirations and outcomes for all learners, and contributing to school- and system-wide improvements. More widely, we all benefit from a system and society which seeks to ensure every individual has opportunities to develop his/her abilities as fully as possible.
What other myths and misconceptions about more able learners have you encountered? Share your experience: firstname.lastname@example.org
Heller Sahlgren, G. (2018), What works in gifted education? Centre for Education Economics.