In England the top performers are according to PISA and the Sutton Trust almost exclusively in independent and grammar schools. Since those pupils perform far above those in the general run of schools and so few in this country attain PISA Levels 5 and 6 in maths and reading, it is likely that hardly any pupils in non-selective schools reach these levels.
And if this wasn’t disturbing enough various reports lifts their gaze to the world horizon before soberly commenting that other countries seem to be able to get many more students to the highest levels of attainment. Much is then made, for example, of the relative success of Finland, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Having worked closely in three of those territories in terms of their more able education provision, my immediate response would be to comment that they are systems that have taken on board new initiatives from around the world and continue to do so. They are open to ideas and continue to innovate. They also road test these approaches thoroughly before implementing them, and are not foolish enough to believe that because some strategy seems to work in one system, it should automatically be scalable and transferable to their own. It is sometimes argued that Asian countries are so different from us that it is not possible to transpose the approaches that bring them great success but some of our European neighbours also do very much better.
In Switzerland and Flemish Belgium more than four times as many reached the top level in maths in PISA , and in Germany it was over two and half times as many. What is it about the organisation of their education systems that enables them to achieve these heights?
So is that it? That all it takes is to ‘transplant’ the best of European practice and our provision for more able education will be sorted on the world stage. I have my doubts. That is resolutely NOT to say that I don’t believe our educational system as it impacts on our most able is beyond reproach. We are seriously under challenging our ablest through designing an examination ‘long jump pit’ that many can clear at half pace. A great deal of time and money has been wasted on spurious and now defunct websites. And perhaps most worryingly, a great deal of interesting and groundbreaking practice that I see happening in classrooms across the country is not being celebrated. There is incoherence at government level, and at local authority level there have been catastrophic cuts. It’s probably not surprising therefore that the most able, never a major priority, have been left stranded.
All of the focus on C/D and level 4 borderlines (and the living death strategies employed to ensure them) has left many able learners in a strange position. In many high performing and independent schools the A*/A and level 5/6 border has often been the priority. Which means that some students are in educational environments where they know what real challenge actually looks like. They can see top performance, even mastery, being modelled on a day to day basis. Yet far too many other highly able students are drifting in the doldrums of low expectations. Being the very best in many schools will result in above average grades, but significant underachievement, and no sense of having missed out on what could have been an academic career of the highest order.
There are some really interesting practices with proven records of success happening on the world stage that are worthy of serious scrutiny such as the SHIP (Students with High Intellectual Potential) Programme in Adelaide, the Day a Week system in NZ and the Hungarian Genius Project that can offer teachers examples on a very practical classroom level. These models are interesting as they demonstrate that some national systems are not embarrassed by the presence of highly able students, and that provision for these learners needs to be implemented in a coherent way. They offer no ‘monopoly of virtue’ and are no panacea for all of our more able ills. There simply is no silver bullet. Exceptional practice tends to be local/national solutions to local/national needs, as the approaches adopted by the systems above will hopefully demonstrate.