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Perspectives on more able
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While the education policy landscape changes, those who work in schools will agree on one constant. 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.

As Sir Michael Wilshaw stated in 2016, “if provision for the brightest children is good, it is likely that other groups of learners are also being well served.”

Education is concerned with enhancing learning. Our evidence base is evolving, as we learn from one another, from other countries and increasingly from other disciplines. In this “Perspectives on More Able” series, NACE aims to shine a spotlight on effective policy and practice for the more able, providing a forum for views, opinions and debate.


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Top tags: research  book reviews  myths and misconceptions  aspirations  collaboration  feedback  gender  identification  member offers  metacognition  mindset  neuroscience  parents and carers  questioning  wellbeing 

Book review: Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools

Posted By Neil Jones, 22 January 2020
Book title: Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools (2019)
Authors: Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts
Reviewed by: Neil Jones, Lead Practitioner for Most Able Students, Impington Village College, Cambridgeshire


The book aims to draw teachers and school leaders into subtler thinking about how and why boys, as a group, can fail at school. It also provides tips on how to improve the situation, pastorally and academically. There are different ways of being a boy, just as there are different ways of being a girl, when learning to manage one’s experience as a learner. Indeed, the authors argue that gender is a less important lens through which to view underachievement than are class perception, views of what constitutes mental health, curriculum and pedagogy. The book urges all teachers and school leaders to focus on making meaningful achievement possible for all students; and to avoid ‘what’s not wanted’: essentialist, low expectations of any group.

Why should NACE members read/be aware of this book?

Members should read this book as the dominant theme running throughout its 10 chapters is the need for challenge for all students. The authors take the firm view that cultures of underachievement are not transformed by ghettoing more able and talented learners away from the others. Challenge needs to run through every aspect of a school community. The authors argue from first principles and give examples to demonstrate that a culture of challenge and excitement works by infection. Divide-and-rule on the basis of baseline ability, on the other hand, reinforces failure in lower-achieving groups, and it is boys as a group who tend more to be negatively categorised, and who end up fulfilling teachers’ and leaders’ prophecies of failure.

What’s new?

Rhetorically, the authors carefully unpack how their views on ‘the boy problem’ have changed. With humility, but not the masochism that sometimes goes with teachers’ blogs, they trace the changes that experience has required of their thinking and practice. What is new for teachers thinking about more able and talented provision is the urgency with which we are persuaded to be gender-blind in our judgements, which should make our assessments of need and ability more responsive.

Key takeaways:

  1. There are no specific techniques for teaching boys well.
  2. Teachers’ high expectations of themselves and their students, in subject knowledge and behaviour for learning, trump gender considerations (such as single-sex classes, or male students being taught by male teachers) every time. 
  3. Setting by ability is more counterproductive than productive. The implication is that it should be avoided wherever possible. (For more on this, see NACE Trustee Liz Allen CBE’s review of Reassessing ‘Ability’ Grouping: Improving Practice for Equity and Attainment.)
  4. Pastoral care should acknowledge that some boys swallow cultural stereotypes of masculinity, and schools should challenge these.
  5. We need to change the negative labelling of ‘masculinity’. The phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ is counterproductive and highly charged. Instead, the authors advocate language such as ‘tender’ and ‘non-tender’ masculinity. Tenderness carries with it connotations of sincerity, vulnerability, openness and strength. Too often, anti-social behaviour is described away as being ‘toxically masculine’, whereas it is simply anti-social.

Final thoughts:

Written in 2019, the polemic of the book is of interest in the context of the culture wars in North Atlantic cultures following the financial crash of 2007/8. Gender is a point of contention in wider polarisations in identity politics, between, at the extremes, a pessimistic and anxious liberalism and a boorish and know-nothing authoritarianism. These authors know their purpose and appear to hold both sides of this shrill argument in equal contempt. Their focus is on getting the best out of all young people in schools.
At times, this is a flaw. I would have welcomed the authors’ views on how the British educational establishment has viewed this issue, and how this might overlap or differ in other countries. This is a pretty a-historical account, and there is much written elsewhere on the issue of boys in education, from at least Socrates on! But, taking the book on its own terms, as being the fruit of two excellent teachers’ research and day-in, day-out practice in schools, this is an invigorating call to break out of gender stereotyping and fight hard for every learner to go as far and fast as they can.
Read more… Attainment and the gender gap: understanding what works – case study from Impington Village College
Before you buy… For discounts of up to 30% from a range of education publishers, view the list of current NACE member offers (login required).
Share your own review… Have you read a good book lately with relevance to provision for more able learners? Share it with the NACE community by submitting a review.

Tags:  book reviews  gender  myths and misconceptions  research 

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Book review: Reassessing ‘Ability’ Grouping: Improving Practice for Equity and Attainment

Posted By Elizabeth Allen CBE, 08 January 2020

Book title: Reassessing ‘Ability’ Grouping: Improving Practice for Equity and Attainment
Authors: Becky Francis, Becky Taylor, Antonina Tereshchenko
Reviewed by: Liz Allen CBE, NACE Trustee


Combining the outcomes of a large-scale research project with a thorough literature review and international practice, this book is a must read for all engaged in education policy and practice.

It considers how “ability grouping” is more accurately defined as attainment grouping, with the consequent limiting impact on classroom practice and on pupils’ chances of achievement. Compelling evidence is presented to show that misallocations reinforce “gendered, classed and racialised patterns of inequality”, especially when schools attempt to use more criteria than evidence of prior attainment.

The challenges of setting are explored, as are the opportunities of mixed ability grouping – a practice that calls out for deeper research. The impact of grouping practices on young people’s attainment and on their perceptions of themselves as learners is evidenced in depth.

The concluding reflections and recommendations are food for thought for primary and secondary school leaders, subject leads and practitioners.

Why should NACE members read/be aware of this book?

The research tests the contention that setting by ability improves outcomes for the more able.

The small, short-term benefits for “top set” pupils come at a high price. Six factors – including misallocations, lack of flexibility between sets, setting by groups of subjects and inequality of teaching – result in a “self-fulfilling prophecy” of underperformance, loss of self-confidence and social exclusion. There are issues for “top set pupils” – a fixed ability mindset; a sense of superiority, entitlement, disdain; or a sense of guilt, ambivalence, discomfort. The research draws the conclusion that “comprehensive” schools are fostering social division by attainment grouping.

The research findings require consideration by all practitioners who are committed to providing all young people with the best grouping in which their abilities can flourish.

What’s new?

Research into the impact of mixed attainment grouping is welcome. The practice is misunderstood and underused; this book explores the reasons why and looks in depth at the high-attaining schools who are committed to mixed ability grouping.

Each type of setting is analysed and its impact on equality of learning opportunities and achievement is presented. Insights into the best setting and all-ability practice provide schools with excellent starting points for in-house research-informed professional conversations.

Key takeaways and next steps for schools:

  • Give mixed ability advocates the opportunity to demonstrate that it is an equitable alternative, even for maths.
  • Take warning that inflexible attainment grouping can “widen the gap”. The evidence suggests this is pronounced in primary schools’ in-class grouping, especially when the naming of groups is hierarchical (e.g. from moped to Ferrari).
  • The literature review, record of methodology and suggestions for next steps provide schools with a robust approach for in-house research.
  • Setting needs to have high integrity and is most equitable when it is by subject.
  • Chapter 9’s “dos and don’ts” are essential reading for research-led schools.

Additional reading:

The book builds on Carol Dweck’s work, providing invaluable evidence on how grouping practices impact on mindset.

As the book draws attention to the consequences of misallocation, Making Data Work (Becky Allen, November 2018) is a helpful report for schools to consider when they revise their grouping strategy.

Inappropriate pedagogical practice and non-specialist teaching are identified as key factors in widening the gap. What Works? (Lee Elliot Major and Steve Higgins, Bloomsbury 2019) offers evidence of what works in primary and secondary schools to transform pupils’ progress.

Before you buy… For discounts of up to 30% from a range of education publishers, view the list of current NACE member offers (login required).

Share your own review… Have you read a good book lately with relevance to provision for more able learners? Share it with the NACE community by submitting a review.

Tags:  book reviews  research 

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Book review: Rosenshine’s Principles in Action by Tom Sherrington

Posted By Hilary Lowe, 08 January 2020

Book title: Rosenshine’s Principles in Action
Author: Tom Sherrington (2019)
Reviewed by: Hilary Lowe, NACE Education Adviser


Barack Rosenshine's Principles of Instruction are widely recognised for their clarity and simplicity and their potential to support teachers to engage with cognitive science and education research. In this book, Tom Sherrington takes Rosenshine's original 10 Principles of Instruction and condenses them in a succinct and very readable digest into four strands – sequencing concepts and modelling; questioning; reviewing material; and stages of practice – accompanied by guidance on how to use them to develop classroom practice at all key stages.

Why should NACE members read/be aware of this book?

In the context of learning for the more able, the four strands can be adapted to encompass the depth, breath and pace needed to challenge this group.

What’s new?

While the 10 Principles already bridge research and classroom practice, this book makes them even more accessible to teachers through Sherrington’s synthesis of the Principles into major synoptic strands, together with underpinning guidance on how to use them.

Key takeaways and next steps for schools:

  • Take time to understand the underlying model for Rosenshine’s Principles.
  • Consider to what extent each of the four strands already forms part of the school’s main teaching repertoire for all, and for more able learners, and the gaps.
  • Reflect on what is distinctive for more able learners.
  • Try out and review in several curriculum areas to illustrate the application of the principles, and share with other colleagues.

In summary:

This book fits well with much of the evidence-based pedagogic repertoire many schools are developing and merits strong consideration for further exploration in practices for more able learners.

Before you buy… For discounts of up to 30% from a range of education publishers, view the list of current NACE member offers (login required).

Share your own review… Have you read a good book lately with relevance to provision for more able learners? Share it with the NACE community by submitting a review.

Tags:  book reviews  research 

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7 key takeaways for parents to help children succeed

Posted By Brunel University, 08 January 2020

NACE member Professor Valsa Koshy founded the Talent Development Programmes at Brunel University in 1996. Based on the findings of her research and intervention programmes, she shares seven key takeaways for schools to share with parents and carers to help their children succeed.

Recently, Brunel University released a news item and video outlining seven steps parents and carers can take to help their children succeed.

The importance of parental engagement in shaping children’s education and future has played a central role in the intervention programmes carried out at Brunel University. The team has worked closely with Professor Charles Desforges, whose seminal 2003 research report looked at parental involvement in the development of children. The report demonstrated that parental engagement has the greatest impact during the early years of schooling and that the benefit of parental involvement among primary school children is greater than the quality of an individual school, irrespective of social class and ethnic groups.

Yet my conversations with headteachers highlighted that in some schools parental engagement activities have been reduced due to competing priorities and increased workload. Our present intervention project provided some useful insights which we wanted to share with parents, through schools.

The research: who, what, how and why

The seven vital steps highlighted in the video are based on data gathered from 1,400 parents of younger children (5 to 11 years). Data was collected using focus group discussions and individual interviews with parents.

Participants came from all backgrounds, with 154 forming a representative sample of parents, which included parents of children in low-income families who receive pupil premium (PP) funding, as well as parents in highly successful professions and with high salaries. The project included families of four living in single rooms and children who are provided with a mid-morning snack by their schools as they come to school hungry and fall asleep in lessons.

The project was based on our shared beliefs that all children deserve a happy childhood full of joy, optimism and good physical health; and that children thrive best in environments which acknowledge their special strengths, help them in mastering challenges and in sharing their interests, curiosity, creativity, critical thinking skills and depth of understanding.

Participating parents were allocated targeted readings and activities they could do with their children, based on the book I co-authored with medical doctor Elizabeth Koshy: Find and Nurture Your Child's Gifts: Boost your Child's Learning Potential and Wellbeing (4-11 years). The book provides authoritative literature on talent development, good health and practical activities, plus over 30 case studies of children whose lives were transformed as a result of parental support.

Our research showed how supportive, effective parental education can:

  • Improve children’s self-esteem, attitudes to learning and achievement;
  • Enhance children’s wellbeing, especially mental health, and reduce anxiety;
  • Help children to reflect on their strengths, talents, passions and future careers.

One major element was the team’s realisation of how education and wellbeing are strongly interlinked. Based on all the information gathered, we identified seven areas which parents told us they found most useful to help their children succeed. These are included in the video, with examples.

Seven key takeaways for parents:

1. Intelligence is not fixed and we can change a child’s learning potential

Parents need to know and understand aspects of intelligence. Research evidence from neuroscience tells us a person’s intelligence is not fixed at birth and that it can increase and ability can change. Brain plasticity is the capacity of the brain to change; the human brain maintains an amazing plasticity throughout life.

Greater understanding of aspects of intelligence helped parents to abandon deterministic views about educational stereotypes. Sharing the information that they can become better learners, in every case, helped children to put in more effort and lifted them out of the feeling of hopelessness.

Eight-year-old Liam’s mother told us: “My son was rounded up in the playground and teased and called a ‘dunce’ because he was in the bottom group (lowest set) for maths. When I told him that people can actually become cleverer by putting in more effort instead of giving up, his eyes lit up. He started working hard. I also told him if he talked about his ideas his brain will make more connections. He took this literally and I found him talking to our cat about different shapes and their properties. He told me he is getting more ticks and his teacher has told him he will be moved up a group soon. He said to me that it means ‘I don’t always have to be in the bottom group.’”

2. There is no universally accepted definition of any of these terms: giftedness, talent, high ability

The terms “gifted”, “talent” and “high ability” are widely used but we do not have a shared definition. Often “gifted” is used to describe someone who shows outstanding talent in one or two areas, not necessarily in academic domains. Parents who participated in our project found Harvard University Professor Gardner’s theory, that intelligence is multi-dimensional and is displayed in different fields, most helpful. Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences helps to identify a full range of abilities and talents that people possess. Not just an intellectual capacity, but other intelligences – including musical, interpersonal, spatial-visual and linguistic intelligences. Although this theory has been around for many years, only three of the parents had heard of it.

Eight-year old Elena’s mother said: “Elena tells us that she has found her ‘special intelligence’ and it is spatial intelligence [visual-spatial – thinking in terms of physical space, as do architects and sailors]. Elena is autistic, likes to draw cathedrals and is brilliant at doing jigsaw puzzles.” Although not all Gardner’s intelligences are tested in school, Elena became more motivated, has higher self-esteem and has improved in her academic results.

3. Find and develop your child’s passion

Most children we worked with enjoyed undertaking personal passion projects. This idea of introducing passion projects appealed to all parents. Some children changed their passion and others stuck to them. The project team was told by parents that this is the biggest single thing they would cite as making their children happier and more fulfilled. It reduces anxiety and is an excellent way to spot your children’s special talents.

Nine-year old Lexi, who was suffering from intense anxiety about tests in school and was about to be referred to a psychologist, started her passion project on reading; she developed higher self-esteem, pride in her work and no longer needed treatment for anxiety.

4. Develop your children’s wellbeing

Through the project activities, parents recognised the vital importance of addressing their children’s wellbeing. There is very strong evidence that many young children lack self-esteem, are being subjected to bullying and suffer high levels of anxiety, which can all lead to depression and self-harm.

5. Children’s abilities do not depend on their parents' social backgrounds

The message and examples which showed that children’s abilities do not depend on their parents’ social backgrounds were well received and changed both parents’ and children’s attitudes and aspirations. An example is included in the video.

6. Spend quality time with your children

This was considered one of the most important messages by parents. Many parents told us they were too busy and did not have enough time to spend with their children. They were told that talking to children, asking good questions and wondering about things together encourage the learning process by making more connections in the brain. Examples are included in the video.

7. Fight low expectations in children with special needs

Children with special needs can do extremely well at school with parental support. The video features the example of Donna, a grandmother, who told me about her grandson, Zak, who has severe visual impairment in one eye. Zak was recently accepted into one of the most prestigious schools in the UK after taking a competitive entrance examination.

Final thoughts

Was it all joy and optimism throughout the project? What keeps me awake at night? One haunting image is that of a nine-year-old asking me for my phone number when I was working with him, saying: “I would like to phone you when I have cracked the maths problem. I like solving maths problems and it stops me feel hunger, because mum has not got enough money to buy food.”

Readers, we have some work to do here!

The book we based the project on, Find and Nurture Your Child's Gifts: Boost your Child's Learning Potential and Wellbeing (4-11 years) by Professor Valsa Koshy and Dr Elizabeth Koshy, is published by enrichchildrenslives (ISBN: 978-1900905-15-2). It is available from Amazon.

Additional reading:

• Koshy, V. and Pinheiro-Torres, C. (2013) Are we being de-gifted, Miss?'' Primary school gifted and talented co-ordinators' responses to the Gifted and Talented Education Policy in England. British Educational Research Journal, 39 (6). pp. 953 - 978.
• Koshy, V., Brown, J., Jones, D. and Portman Smith, C. (2013) Exploring the views of parents of high ability children living in relative poverty. Educational Research, 55 (3). pp. 304 - 320.

Have you read a book or recent research publication with relevance for the NACE community? Share a review.

Tags:  aspirations  mindset  neuroscience  parents and carers  research  wellbeing 

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How to help your students become Expert Learners

Posted By Robert Massey, 08 October 2019

In this contribution to our “Perspectives on More Able” series, author, teacher and lead for high-attaining students Robert Massey shares his views on helping all students become Expert Learners.

How do we help our ‘students who are a bit cleverer than the others’? Their faces beam at us expectantly in every classroom, drama workshop and games lesson, and we are told to apply the dreaded ‘d’ word to plan for them… Yes, I’m talking differentiation, but you can come out from behind the sofa, because that nasty word has gone now...

What we used to do was label such students as ‘gifted’ (excellent in one area) and ‘talented’ (excellent in several) and hope that our hard-pressed G&T Coordinator could come up with some viable strategies for us on a frantic CPD day. Alternatively, we could label such a pupil a ‘child genius’ (like the TV programme) and watch amazed as they swallow and regurgitate facts with seemingly little effort. Then we could leave them to get on with it and concentrate on students at the 3-4 GCSE pass threshold.

I hope I can persuade you to abandon these terms and, more importantly, this approach. Why? Because we have research evidence from cognitive psychology and neuroscience to help support the learning journey of every student you teach and to allow them all to become what I’m terming Expert Learners. Moreover, this research is tempered by hard-won classroom experience. This won’t produce overnight results because instant solutions in education are unicorns: what so many consultants and software salespeople are trying to sell us are the equivalent of swimming with mermaids.

Getting started: three key principles

1.       Get clear on your terminology. ‘Able’ and ‘more able’ are widely used by official bodies such as Ofsted and are useful, but often lack definition and relationship to a set of data. ‘High attaining’ or ‘high current attainers’ are a step forward because they are objective, verifiable and temporary rather than fixed. Whatever terms you select, make sure that every parent, pupil and teacher understands what they mean.

2.       Teach to the top. Tom Sherrington is a great advocate of this. Look at your class, which you know better than anyone else, and set out the benchmarks of excellence for them. Offer all the support and scaffolding needed for your middle and low attainers but set the bar at the top of your class, defined and put into practice by you and your department. No exam board, ALT or MAT can define ‘the top’ for the class you’ll teach tomorrow, so you need to do it yourself.

3.       Modelling matters. Adults lead, students learn, students lead. Metacognition is a game-changer. You explain and demonstrate what, for example, a point-evidence-explain-link paragraph of English, history or RS looks like; your class learn, reflect upon, repeat and question the process; they become self-aware learners (slowly, not overnight) so that students themselves become Expert Learners. Notice – not the ‘cleverest’ or the highest attaining, but the most adept and empathetic learners in the room, able to support their peers in ways which powerfully supplement what you do.

Five practical strategies to make this approach work for your students

1.       Recall and testing for understanding. Research in cognitive psychology tells us that your learners can practise and improve how they move information rapidly and regularly from their overloaded working memories into the secure storage of their long-term memories and then retrieve it. Students need repeated, repeated and repeated practice in short-term factual recall to help enable this, and teachers need to check for understanding all the time – and then test for it.

2.       Questioning. Self-aware learners can model to each other some of the main types of questioning: for understanding, for depth, for the development of an idea. They have faced thousands of questions in their lives: formulating their own questions and responding to them builds confidence and expertise among peers.

3.       Feedback. You knew it would matter, and it does. It’s powerful if students learn to recognise different types of feedback and its stages, from simple task-oriented feedback to more complex assessment of processes, and then model it and apply it.

4.       Collaborative learning: emphatically not poor-quality group work. If your students can obey rules in team games or act in a play, they can work together in lessons, and there is research evidence that this can improve both attainment and behaviour. Building more opportunities in the classroom to allow students to take a lead rather than passively follow instructions is key.

5.       Stretch and challenge yourself and your colleagues. It’s not the job of a solo G&T Coordinator to wave a wand and raise attainment. Rather, she or he can work fruitfully with Heads of Subject to share ideas about learning and teaching across your school or college so that you help build 10 or a dozen leaders of learning, championing excellence and sharing it with colleagues.

There are lots of books (more each week, it seems) about how to teach.  Some even claim to train you to teach the perfect lesson. There are far fewer from the perspective of the learner. Far fewer still from the perspective of the high-attaining learner. That means your learners and mine, who can all, regardless of their current attainment, become Expert Learners – and therefore higher attainers.

My book From Able to Remarkable: Help Your Students Become Expert Learners has just been published by Crown House. It offers a lot more detail about the approach and strategies I’ve summarised here, and I hope it will help you to have the confidence to ditch ‘gifted’ and focus on expertise for all your learners.

NACE member offer

Crown House Publishing is offering NACE members a 20% discount on all purchases from its website, including Robert Massey’s From Able to Remarkable: Help Your Students Become Expert Learners. For details of this and other current member discounts, log in to our members’ area.

Tags:  collaboration  feedback  identification  member offers  metacognition  myths and misconceptions  questioning 

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