Dr Rebecca Montacute – author of Potential for Success and Sutton Trust Research Fellow – sets out practical recommendations for teachers to help support high attaining students reach their potential.

Bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds are underachieving their potential. Just 52% of disadvantaged students who were in the top 10% for attainment at KS2 get five or more A* or As at GCSE, compared to 72% of their more advantaged classmates. Or to put it another way, there are currently over 1000 disadvantaged students missing out on the top grades per year.

So what can be done by teachers in the classroom to prevent these students from falling behind?

First, schools need to correctly and fairly identify students who are capable of high attainment, also known as students who are highly able. This process is extremely challenging, as both teachers and tests have the potential to miss some talented students, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Testing is, however, likely to have fewer issues than identification by teachers – as it’s easier to make the process transparent. Tests should be carried out when students are in primary school, and be repeated throughout their education, so that pupils who develop at different rates or who initially missed out can be identified later on. By identifying students early, interventions such as additional tutoring can be put in place to prevent those from disadvantaged backgrounds from falling behind.

There are also ways to make the tests used fairer. All students should be entered and given in-class preparation, to limit the benefits of out of class tutoring. Where possible and subject appropriate, tests should not focus heavily on prior knowledge or specific cultural references, which can unfairly advantage students from better-off backgrounds.

Importantly, test scores of disadvantaged students should be considered within the context of their background, and lower thresholds used when identifying students from this group.

Once students have been identified, what can schools then do to support them? Unfortunately, evidence on this is limited, and we urgently need robust evaluations on interventions for the highly able. However, in the meantime, there are steps that can be taken in schools based on what is currently known.

Structured mentoring and tutoring programmes have been found to be beneficial for students with the potential for high attainment. Such programmes could be run in collaboration with local universities, to allow students to access advice and support. If partnerships are not possible, schools could instead run a mentoring programme between older and younger students within their school.

Setting should be used with caution. The practice can harm the attainment of students in lower sets, and as highly able disadvantaged students are less likely to end up in top sets, setting can damage the attainment of this group too. If setting is used, groups should be fluid, with regular opportunities for students to move between different sets.

The use of differentiation and accelerated learning in the classroom, which can include giving highly able students more challenging tasks while they work alongside students of mixed abilities, is also known to benefit these students. While those from low income backgrounds may not benefit as fully from this approach as their more advantaged peers, the risks to the attainment of these pupils are likely to be lower than the use of setting.

To make sure these interventions are properly put in place in a school, a team of teachers designated as highly able coordinators, with collective responsibility for highly able students, should be put in place. The team can then ensure all staff receive training on how to support bright pupils, and then coordinate the teaching of this group across the school. Coordinators should also ensure that best practice is shared both within and between schools, and draw on research evidence of what works.

Interventions should where possible also engage the families and communities of the students involved. For those from disadvantaged backgrounds particularly, support from their family and wider community can be vital in ensuring their progression and attainment.

Pupil premium funding should be used to support highly able disadvantaged students, to ensure they have access to activities and programmes tailored to their particular needs. Funding should also be used for extra tutoring if they begin to fall behind.

Finally, because it’s so difficult to identify highly able students, it’s important that wherever possible, interventions to benefit them are available to all students. All classes should have built-in stretching activities, and while certain extra-curricular activities may be particularly promoted to highly able students, where possible they should remain open for all students to attend and benefit from.

Read the full findings from Potential for Success.

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