Great Expectations

Last week saw the publication of the OFSTED report “The most able students: are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools?” .  It concluded that bright students in the UK were being failed by those secondary schools who chose not to stream students early according to ability.  The report showed that two-thirds of previously high-attaining primary school pupils attending non-selective secondary schools did not translate this potential into the expected A or A* grade in GCSE Maths and English.  In fact around a quarter of those primary school high achievers even failed to obtain a B grade in Maths and English in 2012.  Put simply, academic potential at primary school is not being realised at second level in the UK and this is now a major concern for the UK government as they make the connection between academic achievement and economic growth. Education Minister, Michael Gove, didn’t pull any punches in response to the report’s findings:

‘They are not doing well enough because their secondary schools fail to challenge and support them sufficiently from the beginning.  ‘I believe the term “special needs” should be as relevant to the most able as it is to those who require support for their learning difficulties.’

The UK media had a field day and everyone from the BBC to Sky News scheduled interviews with gifted education advocates as the spotlight fell on the education provision for high ability children.  As an advocate I welcome such a debate and believe that gifted learners, particularly profoundly gifted learners have special educational needs; needs which are currently not being met by our own education system. However, this is a complex issue and Gove is looking at this problem from a purely economic and simplistic point of view, as indeed most politicians are wont to do. We shouldn’t ignore the human toll on a child who has disengaged in learning for whatever reason. Poor academic achievement can impact significantly on a child’s positive sense of self, their general wellbeing, mental health and ultimately their life chances. Many would be surprised to know that underachievement and mental health problems are primary topics on the community forum. Often parents report that individual teachers and schools do want to help these students but feel constrained by the curriculum, reduced access to resources and the lack of teacher training on the support of exceptionally able and twice exceptional students.

It’s interesting that the UK system seems to be having a retro reboot with a return to what looks like a quite old fashioned education model with ability streamed classrooms and more exams of increased difficulty.  In fact the Ofsted research seems at odds with similar reports here. Combat Poverty’s report Dividing Lines: Streaming, access to the curriculum and Junior Certificate achievement in Ireland 2010 concluded that streaming according to ability was inequitable for children in the lower groups and ineffectual even for those in the high ability groups. Meanwhile the 2007 ESRI report “ESRI Research into the experiences of students in the third year of junior cycle and in transition to senior cycle” found that streaming polarised students with those in the top stream being more engaged and positive about school, whereas those in the lower stream classes becoming progressively more negative and disengaged with learning:

“Streaming is having a negative impact on student engagement and achievement and . . . schools need to begin to consider how their approach to assigning students to classes is affecting student attitudes and outcomes.”

Much of the criticism around streaming focuses on the idea that it serves to widen the gap between achievers and non-achievers and that these children are often divided along socio-economic lines; children from disadvantaged backgrounds being over represented in the lower ability groups where they can remain under challenged with low expectations of academic achievement. Certainly streaming can be problematic if you are going to divide pupils on the basis of standardised tests alone as this approach will only place those who perform well in such tests in the high ability groups. They are less likely, for instance, to identify those students with high potential for academic achievement but with additional learning differences such as Aspergers, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia; children with English as a second language or children with challenging backgrounds. And yet a more flexible approach to streaming, placing students in learning groups based on passion and potential can be incredibly rewarding for both the teacher and student. You only have to look at a Saturday morning coder dojo group or a Maths summer school to see how inspiring and effective this kind of shared learning experience based on interest can be. However, children attending these extra curricular classes are largely self selecting and attendance requires parental support. School is the only place where children from all backgrounds regularly share the same learning space so it’s vital that we get streaming right in whatever form it takes. I’ve seen for myself how previously problematic children with low expectations of achievement can be turned on to learning during our MissionV Virtual Schools Project. These children showed improved attendance, demonstrated high digital literacy skills and crucially found a reason to succeed at school. If access to such a project had been based purely on standardised test results then these children would not have had the opportunity to demonstrate previously undiscovered talents.

Streaming according to standardised test performance is a blunt instrument. When it comes to the identification of high ability learners it can only help to identify those who respond well to testing such as the high achieving student, or  “the Successful”. This learner type is often easily recognisable as the description fits the “accepted” version of the gifted learner, referring as it does to those high achieving students with a positive view of school, a great work ethic and a good working relationship with their teachers. But what about those students who don’t fit this picture and despite having enormous learning potential fall through the cracks in the system?  Or what about those children whose ability is beyond the reach of standardised tests?   How should we group these learners? These types defined as the Challenging, the Underground, the Double Label, the Dropout and the Autonomous are described in the NCCA’s Draft Guidelines on Teaching Exceptionally Able Students.



Illustrations by Anna Giblin,

If we change our focus away from a performance led definition of what it means to be highly able and move towards one that concentrates on the huge learning potential of exceptionally able students then all gifted learners, regardless of their background, have a shot at being identified, supported and given the appropriate educational challenges that will allow them to fully engage in education and achieve at high levels. Creating the right conditions for successful learning for all abilities is the key here and that means improving student engagement; helping underachieving students to self motivate, develop persistence, tenacity and good study work practices. Mixed ability classes can and do work but require greater flexibility on behalf of the teacher and as a consequence greater support from the school for the teacher. Certainly the lack of teacher training on the identification and support of exceptionally able and twice exceptional learners does not help.

Unlike the Ofsted Report, Emer Smyth in her ESRI study on JUNIOR CYCLE EDUCATION: INSIGHTS FROM A LONGITUDINAL STUDY OF STUDENTS advises second level schools to:

  • Adopt a subject sampling approach so that students are not ‘locked into’ choices too early
  • Move away from streaming to adopt a more flexible approach to ability grouping
  • Promote access to higher level subjects from early in junior and senior cycle; hold high expectations for all students
  • Support for differentiation within mixed ability classes; CPD and peer support

The key word here is expectations, we must ensure that we raise the bar for all students of  all ability levels and with it our expectations of what they can achieve. At the same time we must also ensure that those at the highest level do not languish in a classroom that teaches only to the middle. That is a sure fire way to transform a gifted learner into an underachiever or even dropout. These children in particular must be afforded the opportunity to soar beyond expectations.

Additional Reading:

Australian CPD Gifted Education Package for Teachers Recorded Webinars

SESS – Exceptionally Able

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