National Grammar Schools Association
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An Open Letter

Response of the NGSA to the education sub-committee of the education and employment committee relating to the enquiry into highly able children

1. The National Grammar Schools' Association, representing all Grammar Schools in England and Wales, is pleased to offer the following observations relating to the education of highly able children. Schools which are members of the NGSA have, by definition, a concern with more able children and much experience in providing opportunities for such pupils. We believe the practices and approaches we have found beneficial might have a broader application and offer the following thoughts for the committee's consideration.

2. We feel it is important that the size of the cohort is not defined in too stringent a manner. The terms of reference of the Education Sub Committee embraces 'highly able children' and it would not be unreasonable for that term to refer to those within the top 5-10% of the ability range.

3. A more restricted definition of the 'highly able' may exclude from the cohort pupils who have the capacity to benefit from some of the approaches to teaching and learning commended in this paper. We must also be mindful of the fact that a school's perception of a child as 'highly able' may, in part, be a function of the education that child is offered. For, if pupils are offered a more stimulating environment, that in itself may cause to be uncovered talents which had previously remained concealed. We would do well to think of the 'highly able' as an appreciable group and expect that the principles and procedures conducive to their development, might have a broader application on the education system.

4. In identifying the 'highly able', schools ought also to be mindful of the general characteristics such pupils normally possess.

These may include:

  • Offering evidence of superior powers of reasoning
  • Having an ability to generalise and handle abstractions
  • Having the ability to perceive both meaning and relationships
  • Having a natural curiosity about the world of ideas
  • Having a wide range of interests
  • Having a broad rather than restricted attention span
  • Having a vocabulary of greater breadth and sophistication than normal
  • Having the ability to work independently and in a sustained manner
  • Showing both initiative and originality in approaching new problems
  • Having the ability both to retain and to manipulate information
  • Having a great interest in questions of a general or philosophical nature such as the nature of man, his origins and his destiny
  • Having the ability to read rapidly and with understanding Having a particular aptitude for Mathematics and especially for problem-solving

5. Clearly not all children will possess all of these characteristics but many of the 'highly able' will possess many of them. Schools need to be mindful of the general characteristics of 'highly able' children and to take steps to encourage them.

6. It is probably the case that more schools will claim to make provision for the 'highly able' than will actually do so. Perhaps on too many occasions lip-service is paid to 'differentiation' but the number of occasions on which teachers think specifically and directly about what might be done to promote the more rapid development of those with particular intellectual strengths, is probably few. In part this may reflect the practical difficulties involved in making separate provision for pupils who represent a small proportion of the year and in part it may reflect a tendency to rely on Departmental 'extension' materials which fail to materialise.

7. The start of a sensible approach to the education of the 'highly able' is to recognise that the 'gifted' cannot be left to make their own way any more than can the 'less able'. The 'gifted' need intellectual nourishment and continuous, critical and constructive assessment. They may also need to proceed at a different pace and, very frequently, on a different programme and they should be encouraged to read, to use libraries and to seek out information for themselves.

8. In addition, making provision for the 'gifted' is not simply a matter of streaming or setting. More able pupils need teaching but not over-teaching. Their work should offer variety, flexibility, stimulation and an element of choice and the evidence suggests that the extent to which teachers remain themselves enthusiasts for their own subject area is of importance in the influence they have on the young.

9. Specific approaches to the teaching of more able can take a variety of forms. The most useful relate to enrichment, extension and acceleration.
  • Enrichment means providing further material relating to a topic already studied. It is generally offered Departmentally and may be either within or outside the school day.
  • Extension refers to the provision of different activities and additional options and may entail the withdrawal of groups, collaboration between Schools, counselling or partnership agreements with, for example, Institutions of Higher Education.
  • Acceleration refers to the speed with which a pupil is able to proceed through the education system. It may embrace streaming or setting and it may also provide the opportunity for pupils to receive an education outside their own age cohort.

10. We feel it is right for schools to be encouraged to develop approaches in each of these three areas and we are mindful that, if such programmes are not developed, children who have the potential to move forward rapidly to a higher level will be denied that opportunity. We feel it is right for schools, following the broad guidelines set out on this paper, to be encouraged to develop their own procedures as part of their general curricular arrangements just as schools already make generous provision for those with learning difficulties. Any failure on the part of schools to effect an appropriate response to the issues presented by the 'highly able' may induce alienation and disaffection and may leave abilities unnurtured and talents under-developed.

11. The view of the NGSA is that the education of 'highly able' children is more likely to be encouraged within a community in which they are able to work alongside pupils of comparable abilities and aptitudes. Here, Grammar Schools have a distinctive role to play and the NGSA would argue that giving consideration to increasing the number of Grammar Schools in Britain would be a development profoundly helpful to the more able. In the view of the NGSA Grammar Schools tend to have a focus on the more abstract or the conceptual elements within education and within such communities the habit of open debate, dissent and constructive criticism is well embedded. The 'highly able' need challenge, stimulation and provocation with the opportunity to develop a genuine independence of mind. The 'highly able' represent a distinct national resource and it cannot be in the interests of the nation for that to be squandered. A Grammar School environment represents precisely the forum in which the talent of the most able is likely to fructify.

12. The NGSA also commends the development of arrangements which would facilitate the pooling of knowledge and information on the education of the 'highly able' and it argues that this is an area in which collaboration has been under-developed in the past. The DfEE may be encouraged, for example, to maintain and make available a 'good practice' file and schools may be offered funding for a significant contribution to the file. An inducement to disseminate could be remarkably productive and the gain to the school community from such an initiative could be profound.

13. Central to our joint endeavours on behalf of the 'highly able' ought to be a major thrust at the level of conceptual and analytical thinking. Our most able pupils need to be given something positive against which to react. They need, as well, something which gives free play to the world of ideas. Moreover, they need to be taught by those who are confident in the handling of such ideas.

We hope our observations are of interest to the Education and Employment Committee.

We believe they will be helpful to those whose development the Committee wishes to promote.

Committee of the National Grammar Schools' Association