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
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.
Social, leadership and organisation.
Visual, spatial and mechanical.
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
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
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
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 pupilsExtending 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
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.'
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
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
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 provisionvariety, 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
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
Bath and North East Somerset Psychology Service
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