- Since September 2014, inspectors must write a separate paragraph on the achievement of the most able pupils.
- Early identification of the most able students is crucial so that teaching can be adapted and the curriculum tailored to meet their needs.
- Good transition arrangements that support the move from primary to secondary school have an impact on the achievement of the most able.
- There should be flexibility in the curriculum, allowing the most able pupils to be challenged and extended.
- There needs to be expert teaching, supported by effective formative assessment and purposeful homework, to stimulate students’ enjoyment of the subject.
- Schools should have a programme that encourages and supports the most able students to apply to the most prestigious universities.
In the November 2013 issue of School Inspection + Improvement Magazine, the article ‘Meeting everyone’s needs: most able students’ outlined the findings of the Ofsted report, The most able students: are they doing as well as they should in non-selective secondary schools? The report was critical of the provision for the most able in many schools, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, concluding that too many of these pupils fail to reach their potential.
Although highly critical of the majority of schools, the report identified common characteristics in schools that were doing well for their most able students. These were the mirror image of the weaknesses. The report is really saying that these are the most important factors but that they are prevalent in only a minority of schools.
Features of good practice
In their visits, inspectors identified the following common characteristics in schools that were making good provision for their most able pupils:
- 'The school’s leaders were determined to improve standards for all students.'
- 'High expectations were generated among the most able students, their families and teachers through promoting high aspirations and expectations, deploying highly qualified and committed staff and creating a dynamic and innovative learning environment.'
- 'Effective transition arrangements supported the move from primary to secondary school.'
- 'The most able students were identified quickly so that teaching was adapted and the curriculum tailored to meet their needs through effective pre-transfer liaison, gathering and analysing a wide range of data and using it for setting and class groups, early identification and fully evaluating the range of activities provided for the most able students before they started at secondary school to determine their impact, and adapting future programmes to respond to the findings.'
- 'The schools built flexibility into the curriculum, allowing the most able students to be challenged and extended through matching the curriculum to needs, raising expectations through extra-curricular activities, using pupil premium funds to enrich educational experiences and imaginative homework projects.'
- 'Groupings of pupils allowed the students to be stretched from the very start of secondary school.'
- 'Expert teaching, supported by effective formative assessment and purposeful homework, stimulated students’ enjoyment of the subject.'
- 'In these schools effective training and cooperative practice ensured that teachers learnt from one another through a CPD programme to improve teaching and learning for the most able students. Alongside learning from, and de-veloping practice with, their peers, the schools had established effective links with different external agencies such as universities, external consultants and other local schools.'
- 'There were tight checks on the progress of the most able students so that any slippage was identified early and acted on through ensuring that staff had a thorough and detailed knowledge of the most able students, a comprehensive approach to assessment and rigorous tracking and monitoring.'
- 'Effective programmes encouraged and supported the most able students to apply to our most prestigious universities through high-quality support and guidance early in the school, well-established links with a range of universities, achieved through participating in a variety of events such as ‘taster’ sessions, visits to the university campus and information sessions from university staff and ex-students attending university acting as role models.'
Identifying the most able
There is a simple question that can generate a very productive discussion among staff: How would we recognise an exceptionally able pupil?
The Ofsted report would suggest that the most able pupils are those who achieved Level 5 at the end of Key Stage 2 and, presumably, that Level 6 pupils will be identified as exceptionally able. Certainly schools must have high expectations of the higher-attaining pupils but by this measure, in 2013, 41% of pupils would have been classed as the most able mathematicians since they achieved Level 5+. So this approach is too simplistic.
As with special needs pupils, schools need to go beyond identification to diagnosis if they are to match the curriculum and teaching styles to different types as well as levels of ability. This means compiling a portfolio of evidence that provides different perspectives on qualities and abilities. Trying to identify pupils from a single benchmark is not enough. A test result may suggest that a pupil is average while a portfolio of work from the primary school plus the class teacher’s report may contradict this.
The most important thing is for staff to discuss and clarify what they understand as ‘most able’ and apply this definition to all new pupils.
Types of ability
A very simple model categorises ability in three ways:
- High intelligence: these pupils will attain the highest levels in standardised tests. In the primary phase they are very good at dealing with closed questions and tasks.
- Creativity: these pupils are not necessarily identified through testing. Their abilities are recognised in their mental agility and originality in tackling open-ended questions and tasks.
- Gifted: these pupils show high ability in specific areas, such as physical, artistic or technological.
It must be noted, however, that these categories are not mutually exclusive.
National curriculum levels
Used properly, the national curriculum levels are much more than numbers. For example, one of the criteria for exceptional performance in speaking and listening is: ‘They take a leading role in discussion and listen with concentration and understanding to varied and complex speech.’
Subject-specific grade descriptors
Inspectors use the general grade descriptors for section 5 inspections but the subject-specific descriptors for survey visits (i.e. an inspection of one aspect of the school’s work). These are much more detailed. For example, in English one of the de-scriptors for ‘outstanding’ achievement in writing is: ‘Pupils’ writing shows a high degree of technical accuracy. Pupils write effectively across a range of genres, frequently showing creativity in their ideas and choice of language’.
There are specialist descriptors for all subjects and they are available on the Ofsted website.
The checklist approach
There are many commercial checklists available and a general abilities list is provided in the Toolkit (‘Checklist – Identifying more able pupils’). This can be used as it is but is more powerful as part of a professional development programme. For ex-ample, several staff may complete the list on the same pupil and compare their findings. The discussion that ensues, about what they mean and what evidence they have to support their judgements, should be used to refine the list.
Use the following item in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:
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