Research School Network: High attaining students – what should our approach be?

High attaining students – what should our approach be?

by Durrington Research School
on the

Stop a student in a corridor and ask them if they are high starting point” and they probably won’t be able to answer you one way or another. Those that can, may not do so with much accuracy. Evidence tells us we poor judges of our own strengths and weakness, even though we generally think we know ourselves brilliantly. Even as teachers judging whether a student should be expected to be high attaining, is fraught with difficulty. Issues such as the vagaries of school data and the problems with putting students into ability silos, as explained by professor Becky Allen, make even the initial identification of higher attaining students problematic.

Even if we don’t tell them directly whether they are in this high attaining cohort, and don’t give them target grades (we don’t at Durrington) teachers will doubtless have this information on their spread sheets and seating plans. Also, it is inescapable as it features heavily in the government’s primary comparison measure, progress 8. Whether labelling students H*, H, M or L will continue is not clear at present, it may well be disappearing, but at present it is a reality we have to deal with.

This is before we’ve decided what we should do with those that are picked from the masses and labelled as those most likely to achieve 110+ in their standardised tests or 7+ in their GCSEs.

However, as with much in education we have to be careful not to let confusion and lack of clarity create inertia. Ultimately we have a moral duty to stretch and challenge students as far as is possible. We also know that intelligence is in some degree heritable, Fran Haynes explained this as part of her blog on Dr Kathryn Asbury’s book. This not to say all intelligence is fixed, but genetics along with many other factors will mean that some of our students will be higher attaining than others and therefore we need to have a plan for them.

Usually at this point we turn to the evidence, but here again we find a disappointing lack of guidance. I say disappointing as I (along with most in education) while accepting this isn’t how it works, yearn desperately for some clarity on what to do. This lack of clarity is well explained by a literature review by Gabriel Heller-Sahlgren titled What works in gifted education? The main conclusion of the review is that the current evidence is not strong enough to make firm conclusions about how to cater for the highest attaining students and actually what is most needed is some robust studies into what works best. As quote from the conclusion that summarises this is as follows:

Overall, the review revealed a rather disappointing picture: there are few studies on the effects of gifted education from which it is possible to draw causal inferences.

Equally the guidance evidence gives us on the traditional methods for supporting the highest ability, namely setting and streaming, is not clear cut in terms of the best approach. Earlier this year the Education Endowment Foundation revised their guidance in this area, and gave the following three point summary:

International evidence summarised in the EEF Toolkit suggests that within-class grouping is beneficial on average (+3 months) while setting or streaming is not (-1 month).
However, the evidence base is limited – we need more high-quality studies to test the impact on attainment of different practices.
Our Toolkit advises schools to think carefully about how to group pupils by attainment and to consider how the approach you choose will benefit pupils with different levels of prior attainment – in particular, low attaining pupils (disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds), who appear to be most at-risk of existing practices having a low or negative impact.
What then do we do?

At Durrington our solution has been to draw together the limited evidence that is there and marry that with the collective wisdom of teachers. We have some departments within the school that have achieved excellent outcomes with high attaining students, and we met as a team of curriculum leaders to draw on that success and discuss the probable best bets when deciding on how to shape our provision.

The list below categorises this discussion and describes the key points we agreed to focus on:


Unpicking the processes associated with the most challenging question types and breaking those down with students. Ensuring H/H* students have seen this done several times before expecting them to complete independent practice.
Explaining to students which questions can be answered simply and quickly and which need developed answers. Develop their ability to monitor and evaluate this.
Develop checklists to allow students to monitor and evaluate their competency and fluency with topics.
Retrieval practice:

Ensure regular testing of content knowledge as this is the bedrock of developed understanding.

Ask H/H* students elaborative questions.
Interrogate H/H* students with several questions in sequence.
Ensure the reward for a correct answer is a harder question.
Subject knowledge:

Teachers using SPDS to deepen subject knowledge.
Teachers actively showing off subject knowledge to ensure students feel secure in the knowledge that the teacher possesses. This can be done through explanation or live modelling.
Teach above specification e.g. A‑level content fed down.
Department culture and structure:

Develop a culture in which H/H* students feel like a distinct cohort and are competitive in their desire to improve.
Expect the best possible outcomes from H/H* students and teach to the top.
Plan 7+ masterclasses.
Ensure teaching staff communicate their passion for the subject.
Use A‑level exam questions to challenge students and deepen understanding (not appropriate if questions take a significantly different format)
Student culture:

H ability students push each other in class and are given opportunities to have discussions with each other and unpick questions collaboratively.
As the blog suggest, these strategies do not all come from a base of robust evidence. However, strategies such as metacognition and retrieval practice do, and therefore incorporating these principles into our collective solutions carries greater weight.

Reflective questions for curriculum leaders:

What is my current plan for improving outcomes for the highest attaining students in my department?
Can my teachers articulate how they adapt their teaching for high attaining students?
Am I actively supporting my staff in improving their subject knowledge?
Reflective questions for classroom teachers:

Do I ask elaborative questions to my high attaining students?
Are my high attaining students equipped to monitor and evaluate their learning?
Is my subject knowledge strong enough to stretch and challenge all students?

More from the Durrington Research School

Show all news

This website collects a number of cookies from its users for improving your overall experience of the site.Read more