Why Can’t We Have National Consensus on Educating High Attainers?



This post proposes a statement of core principles to provoke debate and ultimately build consensus about the education of high attaining learners.

focus-blur--long-way-to-the-top-2_2955981It incorporates an Aunt Sally – admittedly imperfect, provocative and prolix – to illustrate the concept and stimulate initial thinking about what such a statement might contain.

The principles are designed to underpin effective provision. They are intended to apply at every level of the education system (whether national, regional or local) and to every learning setting and age group, from entry to Reception to admission to higher education (or equivalent) and all points in between.

Alongside the draft core principles – which should have more or less global application – I offer a complementary set of ‘reform principles’ which are specific to the English context and describe how our national education reform programme might be harnessed and applied more consistently to support high attainers.

This is expressed in system-wide terms, but could be translated fairly straightforwardly into something more meaningful for schools and colleges.



As education reforms continue to be developed and implemented at a rapid pace, it is essential that they fit together coherently. The various reforms must operate together smoothly, like interlocking cogs in a well-oiled machine, such that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Coherence must be achieved across three dimensions:

  • Horizontally, across the span of education policy.
  • Vertically across the age range, taking in the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors.
  • Laterally for each and every learning setting to which it applies.

There is a risk that such co-ordination becomes more approximate as capacity is stretched by the sheer weight of reform, especially if the central resource traditionally devoted to this task is contracting simultaneously.

In an increasingly bottom-up system, some of the responsibility for ensuring the ‘fit’ across the span of education reforms can be devolved from the centre, initially to a range of intermediary bodies and ultimately to learning settings themselves.

Regardless of where the responsibility lies, there can be a tendency to cut corners, by making these judgements with reference to some notional average learner. But this ignores the needs and circumstances of atypical constituencies including high attainers.

High attainers may even find themselves at the bottom of the pecking order amongst these atypical constituencies, typically as a consequence of the misguided view that they are more or less self-sufficient educationally speaking.

A framework of sorts is necessary to support this process, to protect against the risk that high attainers may otherwise be short-changed and also to ensure flexibility of provision within broad but common parameters.

The Government has recently set a precedent by publishing a set of Assessment Principles ‘to underpin effective assessment systems within schools’.

This post applies that precedent to support the education of high attainers, providing a flexible framework, capable of adoption (with adaptation where necessary) by all the different bodies and settings engaged in this process.


The English policy context

I have sought to incorporate in the second set of ‘reform’ principles the full range of areas explored by this blog, which began life at roughly the same time as the present Government began its education reform programme.

They are designed to capture the reform agenda now, as we draw to the close of the 2013/14 academic year. They highlight aspects of reform that are likely to be dominant over the next three academic years, subject of course to any adjustments to the reform programme in the light of the 2015 General Election.

These include:

  • Introduction of a new national curriculum incorporating both greater challenge and greater flexibility, together with full exemption for academies.
  • Introduction of new assessment arrangements, including internal assessment in schools following the withdrawal of national curriculum levels and external assessment arrangements, particularly at the end of KS2.
  • Introduction of revised GCSE and A level qualifications, including a new recalibrated grading system for GCSE.
  • Radical changes to the accountability system, including the reporting of learners’ achievement and the inspection of provision in different learning settings. 
  • Ensuring that the Pupil Premium drives accelerated progress in closing attainment gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged learners.
  • Ensuring accelerated progress against updated social mobility indicators, including improvements in fair access to selective universities.
  • Strengthening system-wide collaboration, ensuring that new types of institution play a significant role in this process, developing subject-specific support networks (especially in STEM) and building the capacity and reach of teaching school alliances.



The Aunt Sally might be used as a starting point by a small group charged with generating a viable draft set of principles, either stand-alone or supported by any additional scaffolding deemed necessary.

The preparation of the draft core principles would itself be a consensus-establishing exercise, helping to distinguish areas of agreement and critical sticking points requiring negotiation to resolve.

This draft might be issued for consultation for a fixed period. Responses would be sought directly from a range of key national organisations, all of which would subsequently be invited to endorse formally the final version, revised in the light of consultation.

This stage might entail some further extended negotiation, but the process itself would help to raise the profile of the issue.

Out in the wider system, educators might be encouraged to interact with the final version of the principles, to discuss and record how they might be adjusted or qualified to fit their own particular settings.

There might be an online repository and forum (using a free online platform) enabling educators to discuss their response to the principles, suggest localised adjustments and variants to fit their unique contexts, provide exemplification and share supporting resources, materials and links.

Some of the key national organisations might be encouraged to develop programmes and resources within their own purlieux which would link explicitly with the core principles.

Costs would be limited to the human resource necessary to co-ordinate the initial task and subsequently curate the online repository.



The focus on high attainment (as a subset of high achievement) has been selected in preference to any categorisation of high ability, talent or giftedness because there are fewer definitional difficulties, the terminology is less problematic and there should be a correspondingly stronger chance of reaching consensus.

I have not at this stage included a definition of high attainers. Potentially one could adopt the definition used in the Primary and Secondary Performance Tables, or an alternative derived from Ofsted’s ‘most able’ concept.

The PISA high achievement benchmarks could be incorporated, so permitting England to compare its progress with other countries.

But, since we are working towards new attainment measures at the end of KS2 and KS4 alike, it may be more appropriate to develop a working definition based on what we know of those measures, adapting the definition as necessary once the measures are themselves more fully defined.

In the two sections following I have set out the two parts of my Aunt Sally

  • A set of ten core principles, designed to embody a shared philosophy underpinning the education of high attainers and
  • A parallel set of ten reform principles, designed to show how England’s education reform agenda might be adapted and applied to support the education of high attainers.

As noted above, I have cast the latter in system-wide terms, hopefully as a precursor to developing a version that will apply (with some customisation) to every learning setting. I have chosen deliberately to set out the big picture from which these smaller versions might be derived.

My Aunt Sally is imbued with a personal belief in the middle way between a bottom-up, school-driven and market-based system on one hand and a rigid, top-down and centrally prescribed system on the other. The disadvantages of the latter still live in the memory, while those of the former are writ large in the current crisis.

Some of this flavour will be obvious below, especially in the last two reform principles, which embody what I call ‘flexible framework thinking’. You will need to make some allowances if you are of a different persuasion.

I have also been deliberately a little contentious in places, so as to stimulate reaction in readers. The final version will need to be more felicitously worded, but it should still be sharp enough to have real meaning and impact.

For there is no point in generating an anodyne ‘motherhood and apple pie’ statement that has no prospect of shifting opinion and behaviour in the direction required.

Finally, the current text is too long-winded, but I judged it necessary to include some broader context and signposting for those coming to this afresh. I am hopeful that, when this is shorn away, the slimmed-down version will be closer to its fighting weight.


Ten Core Principles

This section sets out ten essential principles that all parts of the education system should follow in providing for high achievers.


  1. Raising achievement – within the education system as a whole and for each and every learner – is one of the principal aims of education. It does not conflict with other aims, or with our duty to promote learners’ personal and social development, or their health, welfare and well-being.


  1. Securing high achievement – increasing the proportion of high achievers and raising the achievement of existing high-achievers – is integral to this aim.


  1. Both existing and potential high achievers have a right, equal to that of all other learners, to the blend of challenge and support they need to improve further – to become the best that they can be. No learner should be discriminated against educationally on the basis of their prior achievement, whether high or low or somewhere in between.


  1. We must pursue simultaneously the twin priorities of raising standards and closing gaps. We must give higher priority to all disadvantaged learners, regardless of their prior achievement. Standards should continue to rise amongst all high achievers, but they should rise faster amongst disadvantaged high achievers. This makes a valuable contribution to social mobility.


  1. Securing high attainment is integral to securing high achievement. The route to high attainment may involve any or all of greater breadth, increased depth and a faster pace of learning. These elements should be prioritised and combined appropriately to meet each learner’s needs; a one-size-fits-all solution should not be imposed, nor should any of these elements be ruled out automatically.


  1. There must be no artificial ceilings or boundaries restricting high attainment, whether imposed by chronological age or by the expertise available in the principal learning setting; equally, there must be no ‘hot-housing’, resulting from an imbalance between challenge and support and an associated failure to respond with sensitivity to the learner’s wider needs.


  1. High attainers are an extremely diverse and disparate population. Some are much higher attainers than others. Some may be ‘all-rounders’ while others have particular strengths and areas for development. All need the right blend of challenge and support to improve alike in areas of strength and any areas of comparative weakness.


  1. Amongst the high-attaining population there is significant over-representation of some learner characteristics. But there is also significant diversity, resulting from the interaction between gender, special needs, ethnic and socio-economic background (and several other characteristics besides). This diversity can and should increase as excellence gaps are closed.


  1. Educators must guard against the false assumption that high attainment is a corollary of advantage. Equally, they must accept that, while effective education can make a significant difference, external factors beyond their control will also impact upon high attainment. The debate about the relative strength of genetic and environmental influences is irrelevant, except insofar as it obstructs universally high expectations and instilling a positive ‘growth mindset’ in all learners.


  1. High attainers cannot meet their own educational needs without the support of educators. Nor is it true that they have no such needs by virtue of their prior attainment. Your investment in their continued improvement is valuable to them as individuals, but also to the country as a whole, economically, socially and culturally.


Ten Reform Principles

This section describes how different elements of educational reform might be harnessed to ensure a coherent, consistent and mutually supportive strategy for increasing high attainment

The elements below are described in national system-wide terms, as they apply to the primary and secondary school sectors, but each should be capable of adjustment so it is directly relevant at any level of the system and to every learning setting.


  1. Revised national curriculum arrangements offer greater flexibility to design school curricula to meet high attainers’ needs. ‘Top down’ curriculum design, embodying the highest expectations of all learners, is preferable to a ‘deficit model’ approach derived from lowest common denominator thresholds. Exemplary models should be developed and disseminated to support schools in developing their own.


  1. The assessment system must enable high attainers to show what they know, understand and can do. Their needs should not be overlooked in the pursuit of universally applicable assessment processes. Formative assessment must provide accurate, constructive feedback and sustain high expectations, regardless of the starting point. Internal and external assessment alike must be free of undesirable ceiling effects.


  1. Regardless of their school, all high attainers should have access to opportunities to demonstrate excellence through national assessments and public examinations, including Level 6 assessment (while it exists) and early entry (where it is in their best interests). Progression across transition points – eg primary to secondary – should not require unnecessary repetition and reinforcement. It, should be pre-planned, monitored and kept under review.


  1. High attainment measures should feature prominently when results are reported, especially in national School and College Performance Tables, but also on school websites and in the national data portal. Reporting should reveal clearly the extent of excellence gaps between the performance of advantaged and disadvantaged high attainers respectively.


  1. Ofsted’s inspection framework now focuses on the attainment and progress of ‘the most able’ in every school. Inspectors should adopt a consistent approach to judging all settings’ provision for high attainers, including explicit focus on disadvantaged high attainers. Inspectors and settings alike would benefit from succinct guidance on effective practice.


  1. The impact of the Pupil Premium on closing excellence gaps should be monitored closely. Effective practice should be captured and shared. The Education Endowment Foundation should ensure that impact on excellence gaps is mainstreamed within all its funded programmes and should also stimulate and support programmes dedicated to closing excellence gaps.


  1. The closing of excellence gaps should improve progression for disadvantaged high attainers, including to selective secondary, tertiary and higher education. Destination indicators should enable comparison of institutional success in this regard. Disadvantaged high attainers need access to tailored IAG to support fair access at every level. Targeted outreach to support effective transition is also essential at each transition point (typically 11, 16 and 18). Universities should be involved from KS2 onwards. The relevant social mobility measures should align with Pupil Premium ‘eligibility’. Concerted corrective action is required to improve progress whenever and wherever it stalls.


  1. System-wide collaboration is required to drive improvement. It must include all geographical areas, educational sectors and institutional types, including independent and selective schools.  All silos – whether associated with localities, academy chains, teaching school alliances, subject specialism or any other subset of provision – must be broken down. This requires joint action by educational settings, voluntary sector organisations and private sector providers alike. Organisations active in the field must stop protecting their fiefdoms and work together for the common good.


  1. To minimise fragmentation and patchiness of provision, high attaining learners should have guaranteed access to a menu of opportunities organised within a coherent but flexible framework. Their schools, as lead providers, should facilitate and co-ordinate on their behalves. A similar approach is required to support educators with relevant school improvement, initial training, professional development and research. To support this parallel framework, both theoretical and practical knowledge of the ‘pedagogy of high attainment’ should be collected, organised and shared.


  1. All providers should be invited to position their services within these frameworks, using intelligence about the balance between demand and supply to inform the development of new products and services. Responsibility for overseeing the frameworks and for monitoring and reporting progress should be allocated to an independent entity within this national community. As far as possible this should be a self-funding and self-sustaining system.


Next Steps

I have already had some welcome interest in developing a set of core principles to support the education of high attaining learners.

This may be a vehicle to stimulate a series of useful partnerships, but it would be premature to publicise these preliminary discussions for fear that they do not reach fruition.

This post is intended to stimulate others to consider the potential benefits of such an approach – and I am at your service should you wish to discuss the idea further.

But if I have only caused you to reflect more deeply about your personal contribution to the education of high attainers, even then this effort has been worthwhile.


May 2014