That there are strong practical and moral arguments for addressing gaps in educational attainment is easy to accept. In ‘The Light is Worth the Candle’ Professor Denis Mongon writes that closing these gaps “is a contribution to three distinct though overlapping ambitions that any society should expect of its education service:
- private returns, the personal benefits to individuals, often expressed in terms of income, occupation, wellbeing and health
- social returns, often expressed as improvements in general health, social participation and social cohesion
- economic returns, generally thought of as increases in employment and labour productivity (Blundell, Dearden & Sianesi, 2001, quoted in Owens, 2004)”
“Closing the gap is about identifying those groups of students who are least successful in a school or network of schools, reflecting on the causes and taking action to raise the students’ outcomes closer to the averages in that context and therefore closer to or, in high-attaining contexts, even further beyond, national averages.” (Leadership for closing the gap and reducing variation in outcomes: developing a framework for action Mongon, D. & Chapman, C. National College for School Leadership, 2011)
Closing the gaps is not sufficient however. Getting closer to the average is short sighted. What is required is a paradigm shift not a series of incremental improvements. In my opinion this could be achieved by shifting our attention to the front of the curve rather than focusing on the middle or tail.
Not addressing gaps in educational attainment leads to personal disappointment and dysfunctional societies . So a huge amount of effort is dedicated to helping those pupils deemed most at risk of falling behind their peers. Ongoing action has indeed narrowed the gap in many schools. But the picture is far from perfect and nationally there is clearly still much to be achieved.
I do wonder however whether even in high-attaining contexts the first group is still seen as the area for main effort and therefore high-attainers are given proportionately less attention. Now, you could argue that this is as it should be, given that the former group represents a larger percentage of the school population. But given that “complex, expert occupations are increasing as a proportion of the employment market, while routine cognitive roles and manual work are in proportionate decline.”(Mongon, D.) surely we should be looking at raising the attainment of all pupils beyond national averages. I have always worked with a model in mind that a ‘rising tide raises all boats’.
For a time there was a distinct effort made to address the particular challenges faced by high-attaining/more able (MAPs)/Gifted and Talented (G&T) pupils in order to make sure they made appropriate progress. I’ve been involved with MAPs and G&T pupils in my own school for over ten years now but specific initiatives concerning the G&T started way back in 1999 with the Excellence in Cities programme that included a G&T strand. The National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY) lasted for five years from 2002 and together with the National Strategy for G&T really brought much needed support for this group of pupils. Local Authority Advisors and Leading Teachers for G&T in schools were trained and set about acting as the ‘champions’ of G&T provision. When Warwick University’s contract for NAGTY ended it was followed by a further initiative, Young Gifted and Talented (YGT). This lasted until 2010 and the following year funding for the National Strategies ended and G&T materials were archived; the money and support simply seemed to dry up and Leading Teachers were left to continue the work within schools to help G&T pupils make the best progress they could. Brady and Koshy reflecting on the whole affair noted “a frustration that initiatives were not in existence long enough to ensure their success.” One of their witnesses said “Just as you start to get things right the [initiatives] seem to disappear.” (Reflections on the implementation of the Gifted and Talented policy in England 1999-2011, Brady, M & Koshy, V. Gifted and talented International 2014, Vol. 30(3) 254-262)
It would be wrong of course to claim that the end of such specific support programmes has meant that more able pupils aren’t doing as well as they should but Ofsted have nevertheless highlighted some worrying trends:
- Almost two thirds (65%) of high-attaining pupils leaving primary school, securing Level 5 in both English and mathematics, did not reach an A* or A grade in both these GCSE subjects in 2012 in non-selective secondary schools. This represented over 65,000 students.
- Just over a quarter (27%) of these previously high-attaining students attending non-selective secondary schools did not reach a B grade in both English and mathematics at GCSE in 2012. This represented just over 27,000 young people.
- In 20% of the 1,649 non-selective 11 to 18 schools, not one student in 2012 achieved the minimum of two A grades and one B grade in at least two of the facilitating A-level subjects required by many of our most prestigious universities.
Ofsted have stated that “these outcomes are unacceptable in an increasingly competitive world. If we are to succeed as an economy and society, we have to make more of our most able young people. We need them to become the political, commercial and professional leaders of tomorrow.” (The most able students: Are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools? Ofsted, Jun 2013, Ref No. 130118) They returned to the issue in 2015 calling for a “focus on the needs of disadvantaged pupils in Key Stage 3, including the most able, in order to close the achievement gap as quickly as possible.” (Key Stage 3: the wasted years? Ofsted, Sep 2015, Ref No.150106.)
School’s routinely evaluate how far they’re helping the ‘at risk’ groups close the gap but Ofsted have raised awareness that more able pupils also need continued careful support. Acceptance of this requires an understanding that schools may be part of the problem. It would not be that surprising to find that stereotypical views of the more able cohort were partly to blame for the situation. The NCSL suggests that the most effective schools recognise that to close the gaps they need to change both implicit and explicit features of school practice. In terms of the implicit features we’re talking about the prejudices that staff may have for students. While to tackle the explicit elements we’d be turning our attention to in school variations in practice.
The NCSL literature states that it is essential to avoid stereotypes because “averages are always confounded by personal and local variation. Trends within groups always obscure wide individual variation in outcomes and unknown variation in discarded potential. Treating any of the common groupings as homogenenous would therefore be a misleading nonsense.” But they point out that “there is a continuous thread of evidence that teachers can be prone to biased expectations about students based on simple, single characteristics…”
From personal experience I’d suggest that there is still often an automatic assumption that more able pupils will get by without support and that it is often the default expectation that the most able pupils will go on to attain the best exam results, secure places at Sutton Trust 30 Universities and go on to do very well in later life. But what if having a stereotypical view of higher ability pupils combined with high expectations and a system in which there was proportionately less support was causing a problem rather that being part of the mechanism for closing the gap?
- are not harmful to particular groups of children: the vulnerable should not be left behind while the gifted and talented should not be constrained
- do not cause other gaps to open: what does a young person gain from five A*–C GCSE grades if the process robs them of inquisitiveness and the joy of learning?
- promote self-esteem and resilience: the roles that young people can take in being responsible for their own learning and contributing to their peers’ learning have only recently become apparent to the adults working with them”
In my own school we have been very effective at closing the gap for all groups of pupils including the more able. But in such a high attaining context there are different issues to address and still ways that need to be looked at as ways to help them to progress even further beyond, national averages
It is argued that “education is an important mechanism for enhancing the health and well-being of individuals because it reduces the need for health care, the associated costs of dependence, lost earnings and human suffering. It also helps promote and sustain healthy lifestyles and positive choices, supporting and nurturing human development, human relationships and personal, family and community wellbeing.” (Feinstein, Sabates, Anderson, Sorhaindo & Hammond, 2006, p172-73)
Launching the ECM agenda Tony Blair and Paul Boateng specifically targeted ‘being healthy: enjoying good physical and mental health and living a healthy lifestyle’ (Every Child Matters, 2003). But ironically it seems our education system may be playing a part in doing exactly the opposite.
‘One in ten children and young people aged 5 to 16 has a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder and around one in seven has less severe problems.’ (DfE, Mental health and behaviour in schools, 2016) The level of pressure on pupils and students in education can be incredibly high and this can be particularly true for more able pupils. They are often perfectionists who really don’t like getting things wrong. My own investigations of attitudes amongst some cohorts of pupils suggests that many higher achieving pupils do feel under pressure for a variety of reasons and often don’t seem particularly resilient. They frequently report that they don’t see mistakes as learning opportunities and some don’t persevere with tasks/topics at which they don’t excel immediately. In Gifted and Talented Education – Guidance on preventing underachievement: a focus on exceptionally able pupils DfCSF, 2008, Ref: 00066-2008BKT-EN one child at least expressed the view that ‘sometimes achievement is overemphasised at the expense of other aspects.’It is reported that such high attainers continue to suffer from these kind of issues when reaching university. In an article entitled ‘How Cambridge University almost killed me’ (Guardian, 6 Oct 2014) Morwenna Jones described her obsessive desire to be the best and how having found that inside Cambridge where perfection was the norm she was tormented because she was falling short of her own expectations – she was no longer special. She states that 21% of students at Cambridge have been diagnosed with depression and 25% think they may have depression. The NUS reported similar figures.
A successful economy will increasingly need people who can work effectively in those fields that require complex communication and expert thinking. And we’ll also need the kind of people who can stick with a problem and are resilient. They’ll need to be able to use setbacks and mistakes as positive learning experiences. Indeed if you look at some of the examples in Matthew Syed’s book Black Box Thinking it seems fair to suggest that if you want to get to the top then you need to accept that you’re going to have to fail a lot of time. He uses the example of James Dyson who it seems worked his way through 5,126 failed prototypes before coming up with a design for a device that ultimately transformed household cleaning. Indeed he suggests the iterative process is absolutely fundamental to success at the highest levels and to making the kind of advances that a fast moving high tech economy needs to encourage.
In Educational Excellence Everywhere DfE, Mar 2016 it states that “a 21st century education should prepare children for adult life by instilling the character traits and fundamental British values that will help them succeed: being resilient and knowing how to persevere, how to bounce back if faced with failure, and how to collaborate with others at work and in their private lives. These traits not only open doors to employment and social opportunities but underpin academic success, happiness and wellbeing.”
Any programme that developed these traits would clearly be advantageous for all pupils but it’s increasingly apparent to me that some of our more able pupils would benefit particularly. Instead of focussing so much on the outcome and results we need to get back to celebrating the process if we are to equip pupils and students with the tools they need to continue to close gaps for themselves. Over the last year or so I’ve become drawn more and more towards the growth mindset approach based on the work of Carol Dweck. The whole model seems to offer a lifeline to many pupils. If adults can model the key featutes of a growth mindset approach to learning we’ll be much closer to further developing a system that promotes inquisitiveness and the joy of learning, self-esteem and resilience for all involved. My feeling is that this is not just about the marginal gains that the opening definition of closing the gap seems to promote but rather offers the possibility of a paradigm shift whose potential for increasing social capital is profound.