Eight types of ambiguity


This short post outlines problems with ‘most able education’ – and what needs to change to bring about national improvement.

The broad premiss is that, following a period in which comparatively prescriptive, centralised, top-down programmes were de rigeur, the English education sector has become wedded to a market-driven philosophy and ‘school-led system-wide improvement’.

But this is failing to deliver in respect of ‘most able education’. There is insufficient capacity in the system, no proper infrastructure to network local practitioners, build their expertise and share effective practice. There is no co-ordinating entity.

We lack broad national consensus on the direction of travel. Several of the basic building blocks are missing. Everywhere there is fragmentation and dissonance. Profound ideological differences are an obstacle even to limited progress.

Unless we can shift from this position there is no realistic prospect of improvement. The quality of ‘most able education’ will remain a lottery, with small islands of effective practice marooned amid vast oceans of mediocrity.

Historical context

Of course the shorthand description above is overly simplistic – and perhaps a little melodramatic.

For one thing, the ‘gifted and talented’ paradigm of the late Nineties and Noughties was radically different to the ‘most able’ paradigm today. They are only distantly related though, in places, they continue to co-exist.

Both policies are embodiments of excellence. Each has played its part in efforts to maintain excellence and equity in equilibrium within wider education policy.

Equilibrium is threatened when excellence is overplayed. Prime Minister May’s push to expand between-school selection is a case in point. The government is underplaying equity considerations, so pushing opponents into a contrarian position that over-emphasises equity. Conflict ensues.

But what we really need is a judicious blend of excellence and equity to maintain equilibrium.   

Despite the choice of terminology, ‘most able’ is predominantly focused on high attainers, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Conversely ‘gifted and talented’ was primarily focused on ability, at a time when that concept was disputed, but far less controversial than it has become today.

These days ‘ability’ normally enters the debate only when it is confused with attainment (for more on the distinction see this recent post), or in the highly-charged context of grammar school selection, of which more below.

For another, the gifted and talented policy might have been top-down, but there was huge effort to engage, consult and involve a diverse group of organisations and experts in the development of that thinking. We strove for consensus where possible.

There was some prescription in the early stages, when Fullan’s ‘ready, fire, aim’ was the order of the day, but this shifted fairly rapidly to a ‘flexible framework’ approach, giving schools and practitioners substantial discretion to design and implement solutions consistent with their needs and circumstances.

The wider shift to school-led improvement predated the 2010 General Election while the market-thinking followed it. At first it seemed that the former would be ‘supported school-led improvement’, but much was set aside in the run-up to the Election and in the policy bonfire that followed.

Efforts were made to prepare partner organisations for an uncertain future, to urge them to collaborate and self-manage, so counteracting some of the negative impact. This culminated in failure to establish the umbrella GT Voice network.


The position today

Seven years on, we face a phalanx of eight inter-related problems – I have called them ambiguities because each is connected with some lack of clarity about how best to proceed.

  • Terminological and definitional confusion: We use ‘most able’ when we mean high attainers. ‘Most able’ is Ofsted’s term of art, but is currently defined according to KS2 national curriculum levels, so is already outmoded. Ofsted applies the term only to the secondary sector and it is out of sync with the ‘high prior attainer’ distinction used in the School Performance Tables (both primary and secondary) and the new ‘high scaled score’ measure. Meanwhile the School Adjudicator continues to apply a false distinction between ‘ability’ and ‘aptitude’, which also found its way into the selection green paper. The School Admissions Code needs amending accordingly (see once more this recent post for further detail). It is hardly surprising that many practitioners are bewildered. 
  • No common core principles: Schools are not supported to work through the logic of the present government’s ‘excellence for all approach’, more recently encapsulated in commitments to:

‘…give every young person in this country the chance to make the most of their talents no matter where they are or what their background.’

This demands system-wide clarity about the relative priority attached to high attainers, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and how their needs should be addressed, both between and within schools. I have offered different versions of a set of draft core principles as a starting point for further discussion, most recently this edition, which concentrates on disadvantaged high attainers. 

  • No agreement on the essential elements of effective whole school practice: Under the ‘gifted and talented’ paradigm, one of the most valuable building blocks was a consensus-driven national quality standard for effective whole school practice. It was designed to provide a straightforward universal framework, applying to all settings regardless of sector. It set out the different components of effective practice, showing how they could support each other, so that the whole became greater than the sum of the parts. There was built-in progression, so schools could plan their journeys towards exemplary practice, but it was designed to give them flexibility to respond to their very different needs and circumstances. This quality standard should be revised, updated and repurposed to fit the ‘most able’ paradigm – and fully incorporated into Ofsted inspection guidance. 
  • Lack of system-wide coherence: The points above account for much of the confusion at school level, but it is compounded by limited coherence across the system as a whole. To ensure consistently high standards it is essential to secure this three-dimensionally:

Horizontally, across the full span of education policy, ensuring that support infiltrates every corner of the policy landscape, so avoiding the damage caused by mixed messages. That will involve wrestling some sacred cows, maths mastery for example. 

Vertically, across primary, secondary and post-16 settings, ensuring that learners benefit from broad consistency throughout their educational experience, especially on transition from KS2 to KS4 and KS4 to KS5. 

Laterally, so each and every learning setting is pursuing the same broad agenda, though differentiated to reflect its own priorities and circumstances.

Capacity has to be built throughout the system, pushing well beyond a handful of isolated SLEs with a most able specialism. Infrastructure should be set in place to support cross-system collaboration. Responsibility for establishing and maintaining coherence may be distributed, rather than vested in a single entity, but it would help to allocate somewhere real power to intervene where there is evidence of poor performance.

  • Fragmentation in the market for learner support: There is a fundamental disconnect between school-driven support for the most able and HE-driven support to improve fair access to selective universities. The post-16 sector sits uneasily between them, under-served on both counts. But these twin imperatives have much in common, indeed they overlap to a large degree. Better cross-sectoral collaboration would remove duplication and increase efficiency. However, in both cases (most able and fair access) there is fragmentation on both the demand and supply sides of the market. On the demand side few schools and colleges are properly facilitating the learning of their high attainers, ensuring a high-quality in-house experience and blending it with carefully selected external opportunities for learning and support. On the supply side, the market is populated by a plethora of small-scale providers, whether independent schools, HEIs, businesses, public sector, third sector or commercial operators, each with their ‘niche’ offerings. Schools and colleges need help to blend these services into a coherent tailored programme for each high attainer on their books. I have shown how a funded National Entitlement might deliver this for disadvantaged high attainers aged 11-19 wherever they are in the country, a highly efficient alternative to increasing the number of selective places.   
  • Fragmentation in the lobby: Several different organisations have a role in promoting the education of the most able learners, amongst them NACE, Potential Plus UK and the Sutton Trust. These and other organisations are notoriously poor at working together, especially when relationships extend beyond the bilateral. Each is keen to defend its own special interests and unwilling to put policy differences aside. Most lead a hand-to-mouth existence and have to concentrate on income generation in order to survive. They would be so much more influential if they would only work together – and in a properly inclusive fashion, welcoming all other players into the process. The abject failure of GT Voice showed that they cannot organise this themselves, so an independent third party is needed to hold the ring. 
  • Limited follow through on policy commitments: The March 2016 schools white paper was intended to fulfil the Conservative’s manifesto commitment to ‘… make sure that all students are pushed to achieve their potential and create more opportunities to stretch the most able.’ (p. 35). The white paper accepted that the most academically able pupils had been ‘neglected by the previous curriculum and accountability system’ and set out three firm commitments:

Action to ‘ensure that the pupil premium is used effectively in all schools, for all children – including the most able.’ (p. 118).

Inclusion in the new core ITT framework of ‘a specific focus on stretching the most academically able pupils and cutting edge evidence on how these pupils can be challenged and stimulated to achieve the very highest standards.’ (p. 99) and

An undertaking to ‘investigate, fund and evaluate approaches to help the brightest students in state schools to fulfil their potential.’

In response to the first commitment the Teaching Schools Council included a descriptive paragraph about ‘disadvantaged more able pupils’ in its guide to Effective Pupil Premium Reviews (May 2016) but stopped short of any meaningful practical guidance. The second resulted in a single sentence within the ITT core content framework (July 2016):

‘Providers should equip trainees to be able to inspire and provide extra challenge for the most able pupils.’

These adjustments are half-hearted at best and need revisiting. The third commitment has generated nothing tangible to date, although a recent PQ reply (January 2017) confirms that work is taking place alongside plans for increased selection:

‘Departmental officials are assessing the best ways to support the most academically able pupils across the full range of state schools, particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. We will announce our plans in due course.’

Unfortunately the DfE’s Chief Analyst could not say which part of the Department was undertaking the work. This suggests that the outcomes are unlikely to feature in the forthcoming selection white paper, even though it would be eminently sensible to connect the two strands – and to confirm a budget and timeline for the longer-standing commitment.



  • Pursuing policy without a substantive evidence base: There is a very real risk that the plan to increase selective places is perceived, in Number 10 at least, as the natural successor to the commitments in the 2016 white paper. There is no need to reprise here the extensive evidence against this policy, which unhelpfully ties support for disadvantaged high attainers with strategies for increasing the supply of school places. Even if selection is part of the solution to the policy problem, it should be considered in the round – encompassing the full spectrum of within-school and within-class selection options – rather than focused on creation of a handful of politically totemic grammar schools. To date I have found no convincing argument for featuring increased between-school selection within the most able policy menu.



Moving forward

I have proposed a 10-point plan that would address most of these issues, without increasing the number of selective places.

Taken together, this post and that provide a stimulus for discussion between interested parties, to agree the parameters of the problem, thrash out a common position and identify shared priorities for improvement. That should be followed in short order by a properly costed draft work programme.

Unless experts, organisations and practitioners can work harmoniously together to pursue common ends, the prevailing confusion will persist and ultimately learners will suffer. The solution may be school-led, but must also be inclusive of other sources of advice and expertise. It needs support at the highest levels – and requires only limited funding in a tight spending environment.



We have to move beyond an unhelpful and outdated polarity between top-down and market-driven solutions. There is a sustainable middle way in which the market is gently regulated to secure universally high standards regardless of learners’ location or educational setting.

Otherwise excellence gaps will grow and social mobility stagnate. The highly-skilled human capital we shall need to thrive in an uncertain post-Brexit scenario will continue in short supply.

But which independent third party can be trusted to facilitate the discussion and drive the reform agenda forward, relentlessly, in the teeth of ideological resistance from those who continue to believe, quite wrongly, that the ‘long tail’ is our only problem, that the most able are a low priority and that they will always make do without additional support?

Some potential candidates have already blotted their copybooks, or carry unhelpful baggage that would compromise their independence. We desperately need a suitable volunteer to step forward.



This post sets out the arguments that I won’t be able to do justice to in a forthcoming meeting!


March 2017

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