Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from Marie Huxtable, Educational Psychologist, Bath and North East Somerset Psychology Service


   A definition must relate to the purpose it is to be put to. In education, a definition of "ability" should contribute to the development of provision for an increasing number of pupils to explore and extend areas of skill and expertise to their own and society's benefit. It should also be kept in mind that we are seeking to equip children not for school but for their adult lives which includes leisure, personal satisfaction and advancement.

   To talk in terms of highly able children is to imply there is a discrete etiological group. However to talk in terms of the range of abilities that children can have and how well they function at any one time can help us design appropriate learning opportunities and provide suitable teaching for them.

   I have therefore been working to a very broad definition of ability.

  `Many pupils are particularly able in one or more areas of ability, endeavour or talent such as:

    —  Academic and intellectual.

    —  Expressive and performing arts.

    —  Sport and physical.

    —  Social, leadership and organisation.

    —  Visual, spatial and mechanical.

    —  Design and technology.

  Identification is most often best done by observing the individual's response to a variety of opportunities for the expression of an ability, skill or talent.'

   Such a broad and functional based definition requires we make a variety of experiences available to as many children as possible rather than an arbitrary subgroup.

   The educational opportunity being offered and the resources available will determine the precise definition and size of the cohort.

   To audit provision then it may be useful to consider how well we provide opportunities for those whose attainments, skills or abilities in an area of endeavour or expertise would place them within the top 20 per cent of the normal distribution curve. If even only half a dozen areas were considered then over 40 per cent of the population would be included.


   Evaluating the success of provision depends on what you were trying to achieve and guides the detail of how you go about reaching the goal. Assessment, intervention and evaluation are interconnected.

  For instance if the aim is to improve the ability of children to pass exams then the number of GCSE passes, the grades and how early in their schooling they sit the exams may be used as success criteria. Children's needs and the provision made to meet them, will be seen in this framework. The focus is likely to be in terms of curriculum based courses, syllabus based teaching and grouping.

  However, if the aim is to extend the child's ability to develop for personal and society's gain long term, evaluating how well schools meet their needs is much more complicated and the aims and range of provision is far more extensive.

   I would evaluate the success of schools in meeting the needs of children with relation to:

    —  How well the children gain the means to achieve.

      For instance they require curriculum and subject specific skills and information, a broad based fund of information and experiences on which to draw and as a context for learning, an understanding of their own personal and learning styles, and learning strategies and techniques, social and collaborative skills.

    —  How they motivate the children in a range of ways such as helping them recognise and enjoy their successes, opportunities to gain peer and community approval, support to feel safe to take (learning) risks.

    —  How far the range of educational and learning opportunities they provide enable the children to gain the means and motivation to succeed, contribute to the ongoing teacher and student goal setting and lead the children towards becoming an independent self-motivating learner.

  The locus of provision made can be viewed broadly as class based, school based and community based.

  How well the schools in either sector meet all the needs of children with ability varies. Examples of good practice abound in the state sector despite the comparatively poorer resourcing.

  Building a network to the level where people know what and how to offer information takes considerable time and energy. To get examples of good practice in the state sector is also not always easy as class teachers can feel reluctant to appear to be blowing their own trumpet. There is also some concern felt by some schools at the moment about having to deal with the accusation of elitism particularly from parents.

  Since having seconded time I have had the opportunity to build more personal contacts and give below a few examples of provision in the maintained sector in B&NES.

Class based examples

  Many teachers demonstrate an imaginative approach to differentiating the curriculum. The approaches recommended for the Literacy Hour are being looked at with the able pupil particularly in mind. A day on `Able pupils—Extending Literacy' with David Wray, the author of Unit 6, has already run twice and there are two more days planned due to popular demand. By November over 270 teachers will have attended.

  Some teachers use specific strategies such as at Castle Primary School in Keynsham where collaborative learning techniques have shown excellent results in, for example, introducing Y4 children to Shakespeare.

Targeted group work examples

  Temple School and I are working with a group of able readers on approaches to extend their understanding of genre, the range of books they are reading and their ability to justify their choice of reading material.

  One of the Governors at Stanton Drew worked with a small group of able pupils to design and produce a school prospectus using a range of skills from statistics to interviewing.

  Widcombe Infant's runs an extension group with a focus on problem solving and maths.

School based examples

  Twerton J School organises a `golden hour' once a week when the children plan and run clubs based on their own interests and expertise during school time.

  Many teachers run clubs after school, such as a Latin Club at St Mark's Secondary School and ICT club at Widcombe Junior School.

Cluster based example

  One cluster of primary schools has worked with their local secondary school to offer a challenging day to selected Y6 Mathematicians. Another cluster is working with a University Scientist to offer a challenging day to targeted Y2 and Y6 pupils.

Community based examples

  Officers of the Local Authority are working with schools and community experts to run a pilot project next academic year to offer a range of workshops targeted at pupils with a variety of abilities. The project outline and guidelines to workshop providers are attached.

  A `Good Reads for Good Readers' project is underway drawing on interests and expertise from Schools across B&NES and various Local Authority personnel. This will be integrated with other Year of Reading initiatives.

  Other examples are given in the news sheet `Up, Up and Away.'[5] This term the ICT club at St Saviours J School is undertaking the production of the news sheet with support from B&NES personnel as an opportunity for able pupils to be involved in a real life project. It is intended that they in turn will be offering their expertise to the next school to take on the production of the news sheet.


  So far attention and resources have been particularly directed to the needs of those with skills and abilities in the bottom 20 per cent.

  Some pupils have specific difficulties and abilities and will fall into both groups.

  Lessons can be learnt from the development of provision to meet special needs as now determined by the Code of Practice and by the limitations of section practised predominately in previous generations. The main concerns stem from an overly prescriptive system and the effects of labelling not only on the individual but also on the implications for provision.

  Unlike the labelling with respect to Special Needs the `able' label can have implications for those who do not qualify as well as those who do. Firstly, how the self is viewed is influenced by how others see us and in turn influences how we learn and respond to experiences. So if a child is not identified as able they can, by implication, see themselves as unable or lacking ability which can have very long term repercussions. Secondly if a pupil is excluded from experiences they have less opportunity to demonstrate or develop abilities, which in turn denies them further opportunities. Or the exceptional scientist who lacks the social skills necessary for effective collaboration.


   As the precursors to successful and fulfilled adulthood are not clearly identifiable it is difficult to make pronouncements which are based on more than supposition. Although it would appear that some are self-evident they are not necessarily born out by looking at the resulting adults.

  For instance, without high level subject training in school it would be supposed that the adult would not go on to success in areas requiring intellectual ability. Those who are `self-taught' are obvious challenges to this assertion. Take as an example a very successful business man who left school at 12 years of age and went on to make significant contributions to areas varying from the design of dental equipment to the care and protection of primates.

   I am not advocating that children should not have appropriate curriculum based teaching but that a narrow view of their needs is not enough and may be an unhelpful restriction on their later aspirations.

   Rather than just looking at the effects of unmet needs it might be useful if we looked at the effect of an imbalance.

  For instance the child who has the ability but not the tool skills will be frustrated; such as the mathematician who can not read well enough to access the work. Or take the pupil whose academic, but not emotional needs are met, is then unable to cope with the stresses of independent, self-directed study and drops out of university.


   If one need appears to have precedence over others it would be the need to learn to be able to frame all experiences as learning opportunities rather than failures or events to be tolerated. From this would stem principles to guide the design of provision—variety, support, and challenge.

   Provision should incorporate:

    —  Approaches which include variety and flexibility and takes account of individual differences and different types of ability.

    —  Attention to all needs as described above and not just focusing on skill extension in a narrow area.

    —  Opportunities to work on occasions with others of similar age interests and abilities and with an expert and at other times to work in heterogeneous groups.

    —  Opportunities that encourage pupils to repeatedly explore their developing abilities at different times.

    —  Experiences and teaching of skills required in adult life to transform ability and attainment into high achievement. For instance an able scientist will need management and communication skills to manage an industrial research team or a University department as a Professor.

   Provision could be improved by:

    —  Promoting and building on the imaginative use of frameworks used for all the children within the classroom such as `collaborative learning', the use of concept mapping, writing frames, questioning skills.

    —  Extending the opportunities to work alongside expert role models on real problems as they arise in school, such as planning and running events, developing and contributing to a pupils' council, designing and producing school publications.

    —  Increasing the variety of local opportunities for them to work with other children and adults such as designing and producing a local news sheet, participating in a venture based on a local resource such as the village museum.

    —  Providing county level co-ordination to, for instance, raise the profile of issues connected with ability, give a forum for information exchange and training, enable a range of enrichment opportunities to be offered engaging the schools and wider community including commerce, universities and colleges as well as Local Authority, and promoting and developing action research.

Bath and North East Somerset Psychology Service

June 1998

5   Not printed. Back

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