All current research on student achievement challenges the traditionally held mythology that the bright will always do well in whatever circumstances and that ‘borderline’ pupils fare better at the top of secondary modern schools rather than ‘struggling’ in grammar schools – a view entrenched in the attitudes of able students at The Thomas Aveling, a high school.

Recognising cage door is shut
The Thomas Aveling, one of the country’s most improved schools, is oversubscribed and good value for money. All data shows that most pupils exceed expectations academically and have an enriched, rewarding school experience. With one exception. The most able underachieve in line with the national data published by the DfES. All current best practice and reform — every child matters, personalised learning, the gifted and talented (G&T) programme and inclusion — demands that work must be done to raise achievement of the most able.

School context The Thomas Aveling School is an oversubscribed (by at least two places to one) non-selective school with 1,085 pupils on roll, including a growing sixth form of more than 200. Situated in an area of dense council housing in Rochester, the school has technology college status plus Arts Mark Gold and Sports Mark. While the A*–C GCSE pass rate is 55% there has been a steady increase in the last four years and the school is listed as one of the most improved. A total of 15% of students receive free school meals and 26% are on the special needs register, of whom 30 are School Action Plus. We have strong links with other local schools and the local community, with a community library on site.

A key to school improvement is to clarify what needs to be improved. Pivotal to the work supporting the most able at the Thomas Aveling School is confronting the problem. So a continuing professional development (CPD) slot was given over to deconstruct Jesson-inspired work (2001) with data to identify where value was added to the last GCSE cohort of students of all abilities, crucially, department by department. At the end of only a morning all staff had hard data evidence of where they had best, and least supported pupils. Almost unanimously, the data showed that the students who had underachieved in relation to their prior attainment were the most able.

There is a sense that achievement is still possible, but not the achievement that grammar schools demand. A consensual, collective identity has emerged. The students view themselves as lucky to be going at the alleged slower pace, rather than being ready to challenge the assumptions the test has made about them. Their lack of aspiration is not part of a pattern consequential to their academic ability but a construct determined by context and experience (Willis, 1997). A simple case study analysing responses to questionnaires filled in during a personal health and social education (PHSE) lesson to track the most able of a Year 7 cohort, based on cognitive ability test scores (CATs), revealed that the most able at Thomas Aveling were initially receiving less recognition for achievement, from a simple reward ‘merit’ system, than their ‘average’ (for the cohort) peers, suggesting a lack of motivation and achievement. The most able were 13% more likely to feel positively about the differences in the curriculum between primary and secondary school, yet 27% less likely to feel positive about the transition. From their first term at secondary school the most able in this cohort were failing to be rewarded by teachers in comparison to their peers — a crude measure but a worrying finding.


In the everchanging world of education, one constant is the teacher and the relationship between learning and learners constructed in the classroom through discourse: words, verbal and non-verbal, that construct meaning for all pupils of whatever ability. The stories, explanations, analogies, metaphors and illustrations the teacher uses within a lesson create a reality that should motivate and inspire learning. In tandem, the pupil interaction with the teacher and each other should extend and expand understanding.

I needed to find out what worlds are created in the classroom that allow the most able in a cohort to underachieve, while their academic peers at grammar school or comprehensive school do better and their less able friends forge ahead in the very same classroom.

In a series of lesson observations, I found that the most able were not only silent but had less interaction with teachers than students of less cognitive ability.

To identify why the most able were not being rewarded and felt less positive about school, I began by focusing on the most able in Year 7 with pupil pursuits (specific lesson observations) of pupils with CATs of between 117 and 124, making parallel notes regarding the differences in interaction between the teacher and less able pupils.

My observation focus was on the discourse the student was presented with:

  • verbally and through non-verbal communication from the teacher and peers
  • through visual aids in the classroom
  • through worksheets/textbooks
  • through assessment for learning, verbally and via comments in exercise books.

The lesson observation also focused on:

  • timelines of talk and interaction, both verbal and non-verbal
  • the range of vocabulary
  • pace
  • verbalised expectations
  • rationalised outcomes.

The focus was on the perceptions of pupils and teacher regarding the difference, if any, in the way teaching is directed to pupils of differing abilities within the same classroom. I also talked to the pupils (and more importantly let them talk) to assess how they perceived the classroom discourse and what meaning they had created from the lesson. I found that the most able students were, across a range of lessons — maths, modern foreign languages (MFL), art, English and science — and setting arrangements, consistently less vocal and less likely to be addressed by the teacher than their peers of all abilities.

The teachers were aware that the most able were being observed and were very positive about the project. Lessons were at least satisfactory, usually good and there were no serious behaviour issues. The most able students enjoyed the lesson and worked hard, but in almost total silence, with some positive interaction but very little in comparison to their less able peers.

There is a far greater demand on the teacher’s time from some pupils with less time for whole-class address or equal interaction with all students. Pupils with the higher cognitive ability have significantly less interaction with the teacher than their peers who have, for the cohort, an average CATs score of 105 and a below average score of 86. The interaction in this case was almost all purposeful and the lesson moved with pace and good humour, yet some pupils dominated teacher time and the most able cognitively were less likely to be given verbal attention. The pattern of interaction was repeated across the lesson observations. In some cases there was no interaction between the teacher and the most able at all, although excellent relationships with the whole class had been established.

Prising the cage door open
Identifying there is a need is the first step. Previously, subject leaders had collated the names of G&T pupils in a particular subject area. But other than making the names known, little had been cohesively planned and the audit was not cross-referenced with data and prior attainment. Nor were those pupils specifically tracked. However, a G&T coordinator had been appointed and a working party established. A number of extra-curricular activities went ahead, each time targeting pupils on teacher recommendation with some student involved in more than one activity.

However, the next phase is to be more structured. The aim is to establish enrichment programmes for our G&T pupils by providing an out-of-hours club comprised of pupils from KS3 and 4 who appear on a number of subject-specific G&T audits, cross-referenced against cognitive ability. The club is to encompass all subject areas in a six-term carousel. Parents will be made aware of the activities and the aims of the project and outside speakers, workshops and visits will be an ongoing part of the programme. The academic progress of the pupils will be closely monitored and all staff will be aware of who is involved.

Active intervention
It is essential that supporting the most able is not just an ‘add on’, however enriching, inspirational and motivating the extra-curricular activities. Strategies to support the most able must be embedded in learning and teaching.

Robustly identifying that able students were under-rewarded by teachers and less communicative than their peers in lessons is time consuming. At relevant points, the findings were formally shared with staff and increasingly staff were made aware of who were the most able in a cohort. The rationale behind the pupil pursuits was outlined to staff and, eventually, the students themselves. The school has moved to parent/tutor days to supplement traditional parents’ evenings and, again, the interpretation of data is crucial in an ongoing dialogue regarding individual, personalised pupil progress. Establishing the tutor system as primarily a learning rather than pastoral support is another key factor in aiming high for all students.

A timeline was put in place to promote a two-year intervention programme for raising the achievement of the most able.

Subject leaders compiled a list of strategies to support the most able in any subject area. Ongoing pupil pursuits and monitoring have to take place to establish that the strategies are making a difference to attitude, aspiration and achievement. End-of-key-stage results must be scrutinised against personalised learning targets rather than only against above Level 5/five or more A*–C pass rate league tables.

This is hard work. The underachievement of able students in high schools is a national problem and to make a difference within a school is a challenging and aspirational target. Teachers have many other considerations in high schools. Non-selective schools are perpetually seeking to circumvent the personal discontent and its manifestations that are the result of a process that deems a high proportion of participants to be ‘failures’ as defined by the dominant success culture (Gallagher and Smith, 2000; Shagen and Shagen, 2002).

There are ongoing obstacles to overcome to even begin to unlock the cage door. Often other issues seem the priority. High schools are trying to achieve a series of goals simultaneously (Shuttleworth and Daly, 2000), including:

1. inclusive practice 2. keeping exclusions down 3. supporting English as a foreign language (EFL) students 4. monitoring looked after pupils 5. managing personal support plans (PSPs) and statements of special need 6. hosting crisis conferences and multi-agency meetings

7. catch-up sessions.

Conversely, the grammar schools focus primarily on academic achievement (Gallagher and Smith, 2000). Selection — an archaic bipartite system — creates distinct and mutually exclusive status groups that, literally in the league tables and figuratively in the consciousness of parents, are arranged hierarchically. Mere attendance at a high school tells the world that you have failed (McKibbin, 2002).

What characterises the most able in high schools is their self-contained, quietly confident manner. At The Thomas Aveling School, the students who were the focus of the observation are hard working, cheerful, popular and undemanding of teacher time in every context. They present no emotional or learning difficulties and few behavioural problems, yet in a variety of ways can be disaffected by the whole process of selection and its ongoing consequences. Students who do not always conform in classroom situations but are able are even less likely to be rewarded than their quietly self-contained peers. To make these pupils the focus of positive intervention amidst the clamour of demands from other pupils more obviously needy means listening very hard. The cage door is stiff and heavy. We need to make a real effort to open it to allow the most able at high schools to fly.

Extra-curricular activities that have taken place to support G&T pupils 1. Chatham Dockyard — science/design and technology (DT) challenge ( KS3 pupils) 2. Greenwich University — Science Enrichment Day for Year 9 (35 students) 3. Druidstone Park art trip (KS3) 4. Medway Council — summer schools in history, ICT/robotics, PE and maths (eight students) 5. Out of hours (OOH) — art/science, art/English students on school murals 6. Intensive extra science and maths GCSE revision classes at an independent college with their tutors

7. Masterclasses targeting Level 7s in English, maths and science pre-SATs

Two-year intervention programme for raising achievement of the most able

Year One

  • September — whole-staff presentation on the national lack of motivation of the most able students in high schools (or poorly performing comprehensive schools). Named students who took but failed the 11 plus/who gained Level 5 at Key Stage 2 are distributed.
  • October — CAT scores of the most able 20 students in Year 7 distributed.
  • November — audit of Year 7 responses to transition in relation to CATs and merits (facilitated by tutors).
  • December — targeted pupil pursuits and background presented to subject leaders.
  • Spring term — series of lesson observations targeting the most able in Year 7. Interviews with staff and students (can be combined with routine performance management observations).
  • Summer term — dissemination and discussion of findings.

Year Two

  • September onwards — subject leaders to make motivating the most able with a Key Stage 3 focus an ongoing agenda item. Copies of action points/minutes to go to gift and talented coordinator/teacher leading programme throughout the year.
  • October post-CATs — CAT scores of the top 20 Year 7 students distributed.
  • November — audit of Year 7 students to determine difference between motivation levels last year and this.
  • January — further comparative pupil pursuits; has there been a difference?
  • After Easter — head of Year 8 pupil pursuits; chart the experience of previously identified students.
  • May — senior/subject leader staff meeting. Significant agenda item. Subject leaders to exemplify and quantify work with most able in Key Stage 3 this academic year.

Action points for curriculum managers 1. Have data available and accessible. 2. Build in time for teachers to access, handle and understand how to use data. 3. Have a designated teacher to lead and coordinate the G&T programme. 4. Routinely organise pupil pursuits carried out by a head of year/SENCO/ G&T coordinator to provide pictures of student experience and identify learning barriers in your school. 5. Use work scrutiny to investigate how assessment for learning is being used to motivate students. 6. Check there is equity in any reward and merit system. Are the most able being rewarded? 7. Put motivating the most able and supporting the gifted and talented on to agendas and monitor action. 8. Have a G&T audit/register.

9. Proactively provide enrichment activities for the identified group as well as monitoring provision for the most able within schemes of work.

Action points for subject teachers 1. Know the data. Have SATs results/CATs scores/target grades/reading ages/SEN data in the register that teachers look at. Heads of department should check this as part of the quality assurance process. 2. Assess the most able differently — both verbally and in writing. Focus on assessment for learning and make comments and targets meaningful to the student and their attainment. 3. Do not let the class-seating plan rely on the most able as behaviour management ‘tools’ in all lessons. 4. Reward students for academic achievement rather than only focusing on effort and improved behaviour. 5. Plan groupings for collaborative work strategically. Ensure that the most able are given opportunities to work together with aspirational tasks. 6. Departmentally plan ‘action’ groups/ ‘carousels’ that target the most able at some points in the term. 7. Use open-ended questioning formally. Do not only rely on voluntary contributions. Either the starter or the plenary (or both) should involve all students. 8. Set work that is relevant and stimulating. Extension activities should never be ‘add ons’ but integral to the prime work incorporating it into tackling more complex areas of the same topic .

9. Circulate. Ensure you speak to all the students individually every lesson to encourage specifically and pertinently.

Myths and misconceptions about school types While little current research exists that specifically analyses the impact of grammar school selection on (the comparatively) able, what has been carried out suggests that the brightest students at the secondary moderns, euphemistically now our high schools, do not simply fall into line on an academic hierarchy of measured intelligence. Instead, DfES data suggests that students who just fail to scrape into grammar schools are less likely to succeed academically than their peers who score as little as a point more on the selection test (Shagen and Shagen, 2002) and have the benefit of ‘the grammar school effect’ (Shuttleworth and Daly, 2000). It also reveals that the very able (unrepresentative of the high school cohort) achieve slightly better results at comprehensives than at grammar schools, and pupils of comparative average to above average (those with Level 4–5 at the end of Key Stage 2) ability achieve less well at high schools than at either grammar or comprehensive schools. While many teachers themselves attended comprehensive schools and are oblivious to the demotivating effect of selection on students, families and staff, more than 15% of our student population still attends secondary moderns from 11–19 (or so) — almost all in Kent, Medway, Lincolnshire and Buckinghamshire, the counties with almost uniform selection and statistically the worst, and best, league table figures. Although in total 34 LEAs still maintain selection and have a number of grammar schools — 164 between them — resulting in at least three times the number of secondary modern schools. Students in a LEA that does not operate selection is likely to have 2.2% higher GCSE points score than a student in a LEA that maintains selection at 11 — unless the student is at a grammar school (Jesson, 2001). This begs the question how selective LEAs are to support students who narrowly fail to gain grammar school places.


i) Gallagher, T. and Smith A. (2000) The effects of the selective system of secondary education in Northern Ireland, Research Briefing, DES ii) Jesson, D. (2001) Selective systems of education — blueprint for lower standards?, York University for Performance Evaluation iii) McKibbin, R. (2002) Nothing more divisive, London Review of Books iv) Schagen, I. and Schagen, S. (2002) Analysis of national value-added datasets to assess the impact of selection on pupil performance, British Educational Research Journal, Volume 29 v) Shuttleworth, I. and Daly. P. (2000) The pattern of performance at GCSE, Research Paper SEL 3.1, Department of Education for Ireland vi) Willis, P. (1997) Learning to labour —

how working class kids get working class jobs, Ashgate


Gay Nyangon, Assistant Headteacher, Thomas Aveling School, Rochester, Kent. Gay is currently carrying out EdD research as part of her education degree at the University of Greenwich into the underachievement of the most able in high schools.