“Too many non-selective schools are failing to nurture scholastic excellence. While the best of these schools provide excellent opportunities, many of our most able students receive mediocre provision. Put simply, 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. Yet some of the schools visited for this survey did not even know who their most able students were. This is completely unacceptable.”
So spake Sir Michael Wilshaw this morning on the release of the Ofsted report into the treatment of the most able students in secondary schools.
Sir Michael isn’t the most popular man in the world; Chief Inspector of Schools in England, head of Ofsted, seen as many (particularly teachers) as a bully with a hard-line style and an unforgiving approach to standards, accused of instigating a period in which teachers feel alienated and in which morale is at an all time low.
But. When someone says something that makes sense, one should always acknowledge its wisdom. And by Jove that quote up there makes a lot of sense. I’ve argued for years that gifted children are every bit in need of special needs provision as are children with learning difficulties. Gifted children come with a whole host of issues: they can be relatively mild (short attention span, very little patience, poor empathy, problem with authority, quick to boredom, constant bloody questioning) or really quite serious (dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism, aspergers, acute and debilitating sensitivity to noise or bright lights). And because of these issues it’s not always obvious that they’re gifted. There’s even a term for it: ‘dual exceptionality’, where a child is gifted but also has some form of special need. What happens is that the disability shines so brightly that it blocks out the light of the child’s other abilities, and either the disability is all and the child is incorrectly identified as needing SEN support, or the child’s other abilities compensate for the disability such that they appear entirely average and receive no support at all. That of course makes it difficult for schools to identify them, but it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t try.
Some teachers have responded by saying that the problem isn’t in fact non- or mis-identification of the most able pupils, it’s that teachers simply don’t have the time or the resources to deal with them (this blog by @Bigchris_BRFC gives you a pretty good feel for the sort of environment some teachers are operating in). Class sizes are too large, abilities too mixed and disruption is rife, either because of bad behaviour or because of the need to deal with often quite serious special needs within mainstream schools. If we want teachers to spend more time nurturing the most able pupils, they say, then give us the time, the space and the resources with which to do it.
That’s not an entirely unreasonable response, but neither is it the whole story. Non- and mis-identification remains an issue. The current method of identification is simply to look at the pupils who scored in the top 5% of the Key Stage 2 SATS, but that misses those with any form of dual exceptionality, and frankly therefore misses most gifted children.
My daughter, as wonderful as she is, is intensely frustrating sometimes. Because I know her abilities, because I know full well what she’s capable of, it annoys me to distraction whenever she decides not to bother showing anyone else. Even her current school, which is the first in a long line to even get close to providing good support for her, doesn’t really know what she can do. An example: my wife spoke to La Child’s class teacher the other day to ask roughly what level she was at (we’re going to be home schooling her from September, so we need to know roughly where to start her). ‘Oh,’ replied the teacher, ‘she at about a level [x] for literacy and similar for reading.’ Wife thanks teacher, teacher wonders off, La Child suddenly looks around furtively and then says in a whisper: ‘Actually, I’m probably a fair bit higher than that. I don’t really try very hard at school.’
How do you deal with that? How do schools deal with that? I can tell you how they won’t, and that’s by fiddling around with the curriculum, insisting on ‘rigour’ and assuming that the gifted kids will be the ones performing the best. They won’t be.
In truth we need to take a long hard look at what we want our education system to do and decide how best to help teachers do it. As long as we carry on tinkering here and adjusting there and constantly blaming the teachers for, well, everything all we’ll ever achieve is to alienate an entire generation of teachers and waste several generations of potential. Now that is completely unacceptable.