England’s National Curriculum Review: Meeting the Needs of Gifted Learners


In Part One of this post, we looked at the background to England’s National Curriculum Review, how the current National Curriculum supports gifted learners and recent national guidance on effective curricular provision.

Part Two continues with a review of attainment and progression issues that impact on these learners and offers some basic recommendations for how the Review should respond to those, as well as the wider needs of gifted high achievers.

Current Issues with Attainment and Progression

How assessment works

A full treatment of assessment issues impacting on gifted, high-achieving learners is beyond the scope of this piece – and would require an extensive treatment of the assessment system itself, which is incredibly complex.

The essential point is that National Curriculum achievement is defined by a series of levels, which are matched against the four Key Stages. There is an ‘expected’ level of achievement for each Key Stage, and a range of levels which come into play. So

  • At Key Stage 1, pupils are ‘expected’ to achieve a Level 2 but can achieve Levels 1-3
  • At Key Stage 2, pupils are ‘expected to achieve a level 4 but can achieve up to level 5
  • At Key Stage 3, pupils are ‘expected’ to achieve a Level 5/6 (the expected achievement is the borderline between two levels) but can achieve a Level 7 (Level 8 in maths)
  • At Key Stage 4, the ‘expected’ achievement is a GCSE grade C, which equates to a Level 7

For the purposes of measuring progression, GCSE grades are allocated notional levels

GCSE grade A* A B C D E F G
Level 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3

Learners are expected to make at least two levels of progress between KS1 and KS2 (in the four years from age 7 to age 11) and at least three levels of progress between Key Stages 2 and 4 (in the five years between 11 and 16).

So a learner who achieves level 3 in maths at end KS1 should progress to level 5 at end KS2 and Grade B at the end of KS4.

In practice, the process is made more complex because of the introduction of sub-levels for the National Curriculum levels below KS3. Hence a learner with a Level 3C at KS1 who progresses to a level 5A at end KS2 has actually made two-and-two-thirds of a level progress.

Moreover, whereas the key measures at KS1-3 relate to the core subjects individually – now just English and maths – the KS4 measures are multi-subject: originally 5+ GCSEs at Grades A*-C, then that measure including English and maths, and now (in addition) the so-called English Baccalaureate.

Assessment Ceilings

The key issues for high achievers relate to ceilings on assessment at different key stages and insufficiently demanding expectations in relation to progression.

The first of these issues is particularly pertinent to the primary sector, where KS1 learners are typically unable to push beyond Level 3 and KS2 learners beyond Level 5.

Since the National Curriculum was introduced, there have been various methods available to schools to assess learners above these ceilings. Extension tests were provided until they were abandoned as too expensive given the low level of take-up (there was little effort to encourage schools to use them).

Extension tests were replaced by optional teacher assessment. QCA provided exemplar materials for schools, but never quite managed to produce the more extensive banks of assessment tasks that were originally envisaged.

As part of the Making Good Progress pilot, single-level tests were trialled, including level 6 tests in English reading, English writing and maths. It wasn’t clear that KS2 level 6 assessment had survived the end of the pilot, until it was recently confirmed that QCDA was developing optional Level 6 tests in Maths, English reading and writing to be made available in early April 2011 and that it would:

‘work towards making level 6 tests in Mathematics, English, reading and writing to be available [sic], undertaking development work as required (pending the outcome of the Bew review [of KS2 assessment]) for 2012…undertaking a technical pre-test in spring/summer’.

Assuming the Bew review concurs, therefore, the KS2 ceiling will be raised, at least in principle.

However, whether schools make use of such tests in practice will depend on the encouragement they receive – and there will be little gifted and talented education infrastructure to provide such encouragement – and on whether the teachers administering the tests have sufficient secure subject knowledge to prepare their pupils for assessment at this level.

The KS1 ceiling will remain, presumably on the strength of the argument that Level 3A provides sufficient headroom for all but a tiny proportion of learners.

Low expectations for progression

The more significant issue is that 2/3 levels of progression are insufficiently demanding for many gifted high achievers. A widespread opportunity to undertake Level 6 assessment in English and maths would allow many more learners to achieve three levels of progression from KS1-2, but the real issue is at KS2-4.

A learner achieving level 5 (especially level 5A) at end KS2 ought to be capable of much more than a GCSE grade B five years later. A learner achieving Level 6 through the new KS2 tests would reasonably be expected to get beyond a Grade A at GCSE.

This is especially the case given that, in 2010, 22.5% of all GCSEs awarded attracted a grade A* or A, with the percentage of A*/A grades rising above 50-60% in some cases.

This 2009 publication from DFE (in its previous incarnation as DCSF) contains a wealth of information about the limited progresion achieved by pupils. We learn that:

  • Of those pupils achieving level 3+ in KS1 maths in 2006, 25% failed to make 2 levels of progress in their KS2 assessment in 2008. They were significantly less likely to make this amount of progress than those achieving at the upper and middle sublevels of level 2;
  • There is a similar pattern in English with 12% failing to make two levels of progress in writing compared with 1% and 5% at the upper and middle sub-levels of level 2 respectively, and 40% failing in writing compared with 7% and 22% respectively
  • 36% of pupils achieving an average level 3+ at KS1 across English and maths fail to achieve an average level 5+ two years later
  • Of those pupils achieving level 5+ in KS2 maths in 2003, 26% failed to make 3 levels of progress, 57% failed to make 4 levels of progress and 57% failed to achieve a GCSE A*/A grade in the end of KS4 examinations in 2008;
  • Male pupils scored significantly worse than females: 29% failed to make 3 levels of progress, 60% failed to make 4 levels of progress and 60% failed to achieve GCSE grade A*/A
  • 46% of FSM pupils in this category failed to make 3 levels of progress, 76% failed to make 4 levels of progress and 76% failed to secure a GCSE A*/A
  • Of those pupils achieving level 5+ in KS2 English in 2003, 22% failed to make 3 levels of progress, 58% failed to make 4 levels of progress and 58% failed to achieve a GCSE A*/A grade in the 2008 end of KS4 examinations;
  • Once again, male pupils performed significantly worse than females: 26% failed to make 3 levels of progress, 62% failed to make 4 levels of progress and 63% failed to achieve GCSE grade A*/A
  • 41% of FSM pupils failed to make 3 levels of progress, 75% failed to make 4 levels of progress and 76% failed to achieve a GCSE at A*/A
  • Of those pupils achieving an average level 5+ in KS2 English and maths, almost all achieved 5 GCSEs at grades A*-C (97%) and the same measure including English and maths (93%) but only 62% managed 3 or more GCSEs at A*/A;
  • The comparable figures for males only show just 57% managed 3+ GCSEs at grade A*/A
  • And the percentage of pupils (male and female) eligible for free school meals, achieving an average level 5 at KS2 and progressing to 3+ GCSEs at A*/A is just 39%, compared with 63% of non-FSM students
  • The gap between FSM and non-FSM on the 3+ A*/A measure, at 24%, is much higher than the gap for 5+ A*-C (7%) and 5+ A*-C including English and maths (11%) suggesting that the gap between the two is highest at the highest levels of attainment.
  • Over time, the proportion of pupils achieving an average level 5+ at KS2 who go on to achieve 3+ A*/A grades at GCSE has fluctuated, but 2008 marks the best ever percentage.
KS2 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
L5+ 58 61 53 59 51 59 62

In the light of this, it would be reasonable to expect schools to have much higher expectations of their gifted high achievers in terms of progression, and to plan for progression across all four key stages, charting the termly trajectory that will deliver A* outcomes further down the line.

There is clearly a bigger problem with boys and with pupils eligible for free school meals, implying that schools tend to have lower expectations of their male and their disadvantaged pupils (and especially of their disadvantaged male pupils). I haven’t included ethnicity-based data, but one would expect white working class boys to be a particular priority for attention.

The trajectory would need to be flexible to allow for the fact that progression is not linear, but if learners tend to be above trajectory in the earlier Key Stages, they might expect to continue to be above it in the later Key Stages as well.

At the very least, they should secure an A* at age 16, at the end of KS4, but they might also have the opportunity to take GCSE examinations a year or more early provided they were predicted to achieve an A*.

What Should the National Curriculum Review Recommend?

Assuming that the Review accepts the arguments in favour of attainment and progression, what else might it reasonably recommend to ensure appropriate provision for gifted high achievers?

Programmes of study organised by year group?

At first sight, the promised shift to a less-detailed, more flexible approach will be beneficial to high achievers, provided that schools are confident enough about the nature of effective gifted education provision to make good use of the flexibility.

But the reference to the possibility of organising National Curriculum content on a year-by-year basis threatens to compromise that flexibility, potentially making it more difficult for schools to accommodate an accelerative approach that enables learners to progress in line with their ability rather than their age.

So if the National Curriculum is to be tied down by year, there must also be clear and explicit provision for schools to depart from the age-locked process to facilitate appropriate progression for high achievers.

It will not be sufficient simply to offer this permission without modelling the approach, especially if accelerative action in one subject area has implications for progression in others.

Downward differentiation

The curriculum should be designed first and foremost as a ‘gifted curriculum’, ie to specify what the most able learners should know, understand and do, and encourage teachers to deploy their pedagogical skills to encourage as many learners as possible to achieve those outcomes.

If teachers differentiate down in this way, they will be more likely to have the highest possible expectations of their learners than if they differentiate up from a minimum requirement, or across from what the ‘average’ learner is capable of, in line with the ‘expected level’ for his key stage.

This would help to eradicate much ‘deficit model’ thinking, ensuring that teachers have consistently high expectations of all learners. It would reinforce efforts to remove perverse incentives in the school performance tables that invite them to focus disproportionately on pushing as many learners as possible over ‘standard’ benchmarks such as Level 4 in English and maths at KS2 or the requisite number and range of C grades in GCSE at KS4.

A tripartite approach to Differentiation

The revised National Curriculum should continue to include a clear statement that effective top-end differentiation should be built around the tripartite approach discussed above, combining:

  • subject-based acceleration, enabling learners to move through the curriculum at a faster pace, including through compacting the curriculum to remove unnecessary repetition and reinforcement;
  • extension opportunities, allowing gifted learners to study material found in the National Curriculum in greater depth, including through real-life problem-solving activities, and to make cross-curricular connections with other elements of their learning;
  • enrichment activities, providing gifted learners with the opportunity to access subjects and elements of subjects that are not normally encountered in the relevant Key Stage.

It may be desirable for some learners to access all three simultaneously, whereas others will benefit from two or only one. The combination will depend on the needs of the learner at any particular time – and to what extent those needs are not being met.

A coherent holistic programme including appropriate online learning

As the proportion of time taken up by the National Curriculum is reduced, the consequential requirement on the school to co-ordinate all learning into a coherent programme becomes more complicated.

  • At the first level, there must be a clear relationship between the National Curriculum and the wider school curriculum;
  • At the second level there should be a clear relationship between the school curriculum and the range of extended day out-of-school activities provided by the school itself
  • At the third level, the school needs to incorporate into the learning programme the range of other learning activities undertaken by the learner, whether they are out-of-school activities offered by other providers, or online learning undertaken at home.

As online learning opportunities increase – and social media provides the capacity for gifted students to work collaboratively with other gifted learners globally – this dimension of learning will become increasingly important. It will also become more customary to access it within the school, at either the second or the first level outlined above.

It is essential therefore that schools have a clear picture of what is available online, so that they can recommend suitable opportunities to learners, and that there is a record – a ‘learning portfolio’ – which captures what the learner has accessed.

More Real-Life Problem-Solving

The increased curricular flexibility should permit schools to increase the incidence of real-life problem-solving activities, whether undertaken online or face-to-face with other pupils in their own schools

Such provision complements and supports the Government’s emphasis on ‘big society’ activities, ensuring that gifted learners have an opportunity to give something back to the community.

It may also allow them to develop research and employment skills through attachments to universities and companies, perhaps by applying the Post-16 ‘extended project’ concept, which could potentially be introduced at every Key Stage

An Integrated Curriculum Pilot

An Integrated Curriculum, modelled on Singapore’s approach, could certainly be introduced following careful piloting and subject to evaluation to assess the impact relative a control group.

As I observed in my previous post, such a pilot could focus in particular on the benefits of an integrated approach to students from disadvantaged backgrounds with the capacity to secure entry to a competitive university.

As such, it would be a potentially significant contributor to the Government’s new social mobility strategy and eligible for support from the Education Endowment Fund, which will shortly open for business.

I have already signalled my intention to work within a consortium to prepare and submit a bid of this nature – and look forward to hearing from prospective partners who are interested in becoming involved.


April 2011


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