Guest Post: 7 reasons to focus on more able learners

Why focus on the more able? This question underlies the formation of NACE 35 years ago, and our continued focus on improving provision for this group, working alongside our members and partners.

Largely due to several widespread myths and misconceptions, we know that many in education today struggle to address this issue – and that more able learners are often not supported as well as they could be. With this in mind, here are seven reasons we believe more able learners merit attention in all schools – regardless of phase, location, sector or context.

  1. Equality of opportunity

One of the most common and damaging misconceptions is that focusing on more able learners is elitist. In fact, the reverse is true. Just as much as any other group, more able learners deserve to have their needs recognised and catered for. At present, however, provision for the more able lacks national consensus and consistency, leaving many learners underserved.

Ironically, a focus on “equity” can in fact lead to the most able being overlooked. As Gabriel Heller Sahlgren notes in a 2018 review: “[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]

  1. Respond to underachievement

Research from organisations such as The Sutton Trust consistently highlights pervasive gaps in achievement and opportunity amongst more able learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is a major concern – and it’s also likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. We don’t know how many young people could be achieving more, whether they fall within the “disadvantaged” category or not.

Schools have a responsibility to put in place robust processes to identify and respond to underachievement – ensuring that all young people have opportunities to explore, share and develop their abilities as fully as possible.

  1. Make a real difference

While more able learners are far from being a homogenous group, there is evidence to show that when schools take well-planned and consistent action to address their needs, this can make a real difference to their progress and attainment. At NACE, we support schools to draw on and share existing research and case studies of effective practice, as well as developing their own professional enquiries to identify what works for their own context and learners.

Over the coming year, we will share the results of our current research in this area – working with NACE Challenge Award-accredited schools to identify effective approaches for more able learners in the classroom and the school-wide factors which support this.

  1. Respond to specific needs, vulnerabilities and challenges

Contrary to the common assumption that more able learners do not need as much support as others, they can in fact need just as much (if not more) support as their peers. 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 available.

  1. The “rising tide” effect

In ensuring the curriculum offers sufficient challenge for the more able, schools have the opportunity to raise standards and opportunities for all. As we frequently 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.

  1. Wider benefits for societies and economies

More broadly, 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] And most would agree 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.

  1. ALL young people deserve our support

Zooming back in from a whole-school, national or 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 those with the potential to achieve at the highest levels, whatever their background, aspirations or additional needs.

Find out more…

Ready to make a difference? Join us at the NACE National Conference on 20 June to explore the latest research and evidence-informed approaches for the more able, focusing on strategies to deliver a curriculum of challenge and opportunity for all. 

For more information, including details of available CPD and support for your school, visit the NACE website.

[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.

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