Deputy headteachers Paul Ainsworth and Josephine Smith consider how school leaders can reinvigorate their G&T programmes so they are an integral part of their school’s success
The Gifted and Talented Strategy has been in existence since the 2000/01 pilot of the G&T strand within the Excellence in Cities programme. Nevertheless, it continues to be one of the politically most contentious topics in secondary comprehensive education in this country – recent research from the DCSF indicated that one in 10 secondary schools and 65% of primary schools have still not identified their most able students. To try and tackle this issue, the government has appointed John Stannard as the national champion for the young, gifted and talented. Furthermore, Lord Adonis has controversially announced that the number of identified G&T pupils in each school will be published in league tables based on test data from pupils sitting tests in 2008. In schools where a G&T register does exist, many teaching staff still have mixed feelings about the effectiveness of the initiative. This was very apparent recently when we delivered a national conference workshop on G&T children and communication with their parents. There were many delegates in the room who wanted to air opinions on the validity of a G&T programme in a school, rather than considering the practical focus of the session.
A critical role
There is no doubt that an effective G&T programme is crucial to a school’s success. In those areas of the country where there is considerable competition between local schools for pupils, well organised G&T provision can be critical in attracting high attaining pupils to the school. From an individual pupil perspective, the provision provided by a school for its most able students can be the biggest driver in raising these pupils’ self-esteem. It can help them believe that they can compete with pupils from either the independent sector or state selective schools when applying to the top universities.
When the government raised the expectation of schools’ G&T provision at the beginning of the decade, many schools immediately used available ring-fenced funding to appoint a G&T coordinator. The experience and qualifications of this member staff varied greatly, ranging from a career progression opportunity for a newly qualified teacher to inclusion in the job description of a member of the senior leadership team. Increasingly, the role in many schools has been submerged in a raft of other initiatives and may have been passed from colleague to colleague. Often used by teachers to extend their whole-school experience, many well-informed coordinators move on to promoted posts. Where a responsibility point was once rewarded with more pay, the introduction of the TLR pay reforms may also have contributed to the demise of this as a discrete role. As funding available ostensibly for G&T provision has been subsumed in the personalisation budget in schools, even honorariums for this role are harder for a headteacher to resource.
Creating the right staffing structure
The first task in reinvigorating your school’s G&T provision is to consider how the responsibility for enabling the most able pupils is staffed. Is the current coordinator simply overseeing the organisation of an extra-curricular programme or maintaining a register that a member of your admin staff team could adopt? Could this be an opportunity to make this appointment a discrete entity again within either a salary determined within the TLR structure for your school or with an honorarium attached to the role for a fixed period of time?
If you are using a member of the teaching staff to oversee the role, surely you are expecting them to deliver challenging and stretching activities in the classroom that impact on able pupils six times a day rather than simply once a week after school? Should the role be subsumed within another job description? Should it fall within the remit of the head of inclusion, the extended schools coordinator, a member of the senior leadership team or your director of personalised learning? Identifying leadership is essential if the profile of G&T is to be raised beyond the now rather antiquated notion that G&T provision simply means extra-curricular opportunities for pupils. Is there already a colleague in the role that could benefit from some additional, focused training and professional development? This does not necessarily mean sending them on a course – instead CPD could be built around a project which the G&T coordinator develops. For example prospective deputies and headteachers might choose to base their NPQH school improvement project around G&T provision. Encouraging the role holder to consider this option could greatly aid their studies, while making clear your commitment to G&T as a whole-school initiative. Likewise a middle manager acting as G&T coordinator may develop provision through either Leadership Pathways or Leading from the Middle. The advantage of all of these routes is that the colleague will benefit from sharing ideas with their own colleagues and also from receiving the opinions of their peers and assessors from outside the school. One other angle that could be considered is the Teaching and Learning Academy where colleagues can research their practice at four different levels. The first two levels would provide an ideal vehicle for a relatively inexperienced teacher to develop their ideas with the support of a senior leader at the school.
The beginning of this academic year saw the introduction of the leading teacher role – the government ‘rebranding’, if you like, of the G&T coordinator. As the name suggests, the focus has shifted from coordinating school efforts, to taking a leading role, leading other staff to provide a high-quality G&T programme for a school.
The Primary and Secondary National Strategies have recently finalised the training programme for leading teachers. Local authorities have some flexibility over delivery but the default model involves two half-day face-to-face sessions, a gap task and a sequence of core and optional e-learning modules. Leading teachers will be guided to select a pathway through the modules that best suits their experience and the priorities for improvement in their schools. Having identified your leading teacher, you would be right to expect that they oversee the development of whole-school self-evaluation and improvement planning for the provision and outcomes for G&T pupils and promote the development of effective classroom practice for G&T pupils in the school you lead. It is certain that the leading teacher role is a challenging one. We suggest you need a colleague who is able to demonstrate classroom practice that effectively challenges, supports and develops the learning of G&T children and who is in a position to work with and support the school leadership team in using the Institutional Quality Standards (IQS). If you are not immediately able to identify someone who has all the experience and expertise required, it will be important to nominate a teacher who has credibility among the staff, self-motivation and management potential and who has the enthusiasm to grow into the demands of the role. Lastly do not forget the support of your governing body. Most schools now link their governors to sections of the school such as subject areas, special needs or even the school council. To raise the profile of G&T within the full governing body and within sub-committees you could consider making one of your governors the G&T link. This provides a champion for the provision at this level of the organisation, which could be helpful if you are considering staffing changes, reforms to the provision or a change in budgets.
Where to start?
G&T provision is generally placed in two categories. Inside-out is where the school focuses on work within the classroom, while outside-in suggests an emphasis on activities outside the classroom. Neither is mutually exclusive and the strategic decisions made by your senior leadership team could decide which of these two categories is the current development priority in your school. If your analysis suggests that the element requiring most attention fits within the inside-out definition then your team has to consider how this is made a priority for the staff within your school. Energy and commitment by the leadership team are required if changes in classroom working practices are to be made. How can this senior team commitment and interest be demonstrated to all classroom teachers? The most cohesive way is through initiating a dialogue between observer and teacher and observer and pupils as a result of lesson observations or ‘learning walks’. Formally this may include a written record on a lesson observation form. Informally, it might be a discussion about an individual able pupil and how they responded to the teaching styles and tasks in the observed lesson. Advice from the assessors of the NACE Challenge Award – the accreditation given to approximately 100 schools who have demonstrated a clear commitment to challenging more able pupils – is that schools should include a specific section on lesson plans and observation feedback forms on how a lesson has been differentiated for the most able. In turn these comments may feed into your school’s department review process. A collection of observations across a larger department may well reveal good practice in stretching able youngsters that other departments can benefit from. Conversely, they may give you concrete evidence to highlight an area for development that will allow you to discuss ways for those ever elusive A/A* grades or higher level performances in the SATs to be raised with the head of subject. Most schools now require heads of subject to contribute a department or ‘mini’ SEF and again a discrete G&T section is well worth introducing. Your G& T coordinator can also be asked to compile an annual/termly report on developments in G&T provision enabling you to complete the whole-school SEF on this area in an informed and time efficient way. Working alongside your school’s leading teacher, heads of subject can then be encouraged to consider what specific teaching is necessary within their subject to challenge already successful but perhaps slightly complacent pupils, or indeed their teachers!
An analysis of CVA for groups and individuals may provide further evidence of the need to focus on the most able. Training heads of subject to interpret this data will again make their department development plans more informed and give teachers within the department a real focus for peer observation, training and department meeting discussion. If you are able to create these opportunities for staff, department meeting time will inevitably become more productive. A well-respected senior team will provide various ideas for discussion and training on the subject of G&T pupils. Whole-staff training, led by experts, your leading teacher or cascaded by other staff as a lead-in to faculty time on the same subject, will provide staff with the opportunity to really get to the nub of some key issues. While senior team or line manager observations will provide key judgements on pace and challenge inside the classroom, here is also a genuine opportunity for the student voice to be heard. Pupil focus groups are an excellent source of evidence and as long as the questions asked are well considered and the answers interpreted with insight, you have some invaluable feedback on the outcomes of classroom teaching. Helpful questions might consider pupil workload, opportunities for independent learning, effectiveness of target setting or higher-level questioning techniques employed by teachers. Work scrutiny (another technique employed by the NACE Challenge Award assessors and easy to incorporate into department reviews) or questions on pupil questionnaires, perhaps as part of the self-assessment part of their annual report, might yield similar information. Again, excellent data to provide as part of your SEF. We have yet to meet pupils who do not value the chance to be involved in focus group discussions. A way to allow pupils to feel recognition of their higher skills might be to find ways for early accreditation. One way to do this is to enter able Year 9 English and maths students for the Edexel ALAN tests. This might work well in the fallow period after the SATs in May. A Level 2 pass has the points equivalence of half a GCSE and takes relatively little preparation time for able pupils. The tests are prepared for and sat online and so can even be delivered with support staff supervision rather than specialist teaching. Feedback is instant and personalised and the certificate much valued by Year 9 pupils about to embark on their GCSE studies. However your school chooses to personalise the classroom experience for pupils, G&T provision will surely be a key consideration for any refinements you make.
If you lead a school where the development of teaching and learning is already continually on your agenda you may decide that the inside-out route is the not the priority. If this is the case, then a well-structured outside-in approach could be the best way forward for you school. Outside-in entails looking at the provision outside of the classroom. The mistake that many schools make in this situation is to ignore what the school already offers and instead begin to implement a series of ‘masterclasses’. Before your G&T coordinator enthusiastically leaps in and establishes a new programme of after-school activities, encourage them firstly to ask departments what extra-curricular activities they already offer through out the year. It is advisable not to put the emphasis on G&T at this stage to avoid middle leaders thinking they are being asked about discrete masterclasses purely for pupils listed on the G&T register. You will quickly find that your school already hosts a wide variety of opportunities which will range from outside competitions (the Maths Challenge) to working with businesses (journalism workshops) to study sessions for able pupils (get your history A*) to all the sporting and arts events. It is also interesting at this stage for the G&T coordinator to undertake an audit of which these activities G&T children participate in already. The key task for the G&T coordinator next is to ‘brand’ these activities. There may be no need for teachers to offer more activities – it may be just a question of communicating the wide range of provision already offered. Perhaps your school could produce a leaflet for open evening or to go in the prospectus. This could also be sent out to specific groups of pupils who are already in the school and whose parents might be considering their child sitting entrance exams for other schools. A page could be created on the school website or virtual learning environment marketing the opportunities to the G&T pupils. The G&T coordinator could encourage the colleague responsible for a particular event to invite children from the G&T register to participate. If there is a feeling that there are gaps in the provision, perhaps funding could be made available to support the process and allocated to departments, years or houses who could bid to bring an outside agency into school to deliver a specific event. Even better if the event adds to the G&T programme and is a sustainable activity.
A vehicle for improvement
A G&T programme can be an excellent vehicle to build specific improvement. It can be equally effective in developing teaching and learning in the classroom and also in creating a sustainable extra-curricular provision. The position of G&T coordinator is a challenging one if it truly becomes a leadership role and it is an excellent career development opportunity to consider for a teacher who may otherwise leave the organisation. Most importantly, however, the activities and lessons within a good G&T programme could be those that pupils will always remember when they look back at their school days. For this reason alone, it is vital that we cherish this provision and not let it disappear under a raft of other well-intentioned initiatives.
Paul Ainsworth is the deputy head at Belvoir High School and Josephine Smith is the deputy head at Long Fields High School, an 11-14 school. Both schools are part of an area reorganisation, at the end of which they each will be deemed 11-18 schools