Educating the More Able Student: what works and why

Over the past two decades UK governments have sought to address the needs of more able pupils through a range of national programmes that have cost tens of millions of pounds. However, these efforts have not been systematic or far reaching enough and, as a consequence, more able pupils are still being sold short in schools.

Former independent school head Martin Stephen and gifted and talented specialist Ian Warwick are potentially well placed to address this crisis, and their book aims to showcase good practice around the world. Although it is aimed at a very wide audience – including academics and policymakers – its primary audience appears to be teachers.

There are four main sections. Following three chapters setting out the big picture and their methodology (the authors essentially have included a range of case studies as examples of best practice), the bulk of the book is made up of a further 13 chapters of case studies under the headings of “Techniques” and “Countries”, though these end up as a rather confusing mix of the two. Nevertheless, there are numerous interesting and illuminating examples for readers at every level, with many important lessons for UK educators. The book ends with three synoptic chapters organised under the umbrella of “Future directions”.

The presentation style falls half-way between a guide for teachers and an academic review. However, there is little in the way of down-to-earth advice for teachers in the form of checklists, do’s and don’ts, tables and other tools to help make step changes in classroom practice. Instead,
any teachers reading the case studies are largely left to interpret the findings for themselves, something that most simply do not have time to do.

On the other hand, the lack of consistent referencing in the text for the authors’ assertions is frustrating and likely to prove especially taxing for academics. One is often left to wonder whether a statement is backed up by a piece of published research, or if it is simply the personal view of the authors. The bibliography doesn’t help much either, as it is rather selective and omits several of the major works in gifted and talented education.

Teachers are likely to be surprised that the authors refuse to deal with the troublesome issues of identification and terminology. It is impossible to break down concerns that provision for more able pupils is elitist without some debate about which pupils fall into the target group, and the language that needs to be used when discussing them.

Further, the authors are in danger of devaluing the validity of their book if they select case studies for inclusion without first ensuring that some form of standardisation has taken place (ie, the “more able pupils” in the Hungarian case study may not be equivalent to those studied elsewhere).

Many teachers will surely also be frustrated that the authors focus exclusively on what they call “academic intelligence” (they never define this). Schools have made great progress with inclusion in recent years, and any programme that overlooks high ability right across the formal curriculum and beyond it, is likely to be seen by many parents as a step backwards.

In the concluding chapters, Stephen and Warwick offer their often radical proposals to address the plight of the most able. Unfortunately, these are not particularly realistic and are unlikely to be adopted by many. In places, the tone when referring to more able pupils from non-traditional backgrounds borders on the patronising, something that could easily alienate readers.

Overall, this is an ambitious and thought-provoking book with a well-intentioned remit. However, because it contains so little school-level interpretation of the research presented to help teachers better meet the needs of more able pupils, we are not sure that it will bring about the change that the authors rightly wish for.