Excellence by definition: what’s in a name?
What terms does your school use to describe your ‘pupils who are better than others’? ‘Gifted and talented’? The term was once quite widely used but is falling out of favour, it seems. ‘More able’? ‘High starters’? ‘High Current Attainers (HCAs)’? In the first chapter of my new book From Able to Remarkable: Help Your Students Become Expert Learners (Crown House Publishing, 2019) I set out some of the pros and cons of such descriptors. I want to touch on a few points which may be relevant to the choices your institution makes.
Labels matter because they tell your learning community about the values and ethos running through it, values best known and understood within that local context and within those boundary conditions. What underpins your curriculum and aspirations are ideas best understood by you, on the understanding that both external and internal evidence has been weighed and discussed.
Thus, Ofsted’s preferred ‘more able’ or ‘highly able’ are considered brief, adequate definitions by many – but are criticised by others as lacking a defensible grounding in attainment. ‘High, middle and low current attainers’ are considered cumbersome labels in some cases but carry an explicit recognition of the rollercoaster nature of many pupils’ learning journeys. Asif’s current ‘HCA’ ranking in Maths may be matched as Yolanda moves up a set and puts into practice at the start of Year 10 the learning approaches she has been quietly fostering during Year 9.
Whatever terminology is adopted, an attainment-based, evidence-based approach is surely preferable to one rooted in a sense of genetic advantage and effortless talent in Games or Performing or Creative Arts. Likewise, most centres will wish to acknowledge in their labelling the idea that nothing is immutable in education and that outcomes, like share prices, can fall as well as rise. In my school, ‘scholar’ is the preferred term, but what makes the operation of the programme viable is the care with which colleagues monitor data and commitment so that pupils can and do join it (and, occasionally leave it) with their wellbeing to the forefront of our concerns.
Labels last and jargon jars: what we call things in classrooms matters. Excellent descriptors for excellence in your academy or MAT need to be discussed, debated, agreed and shared with as much care as possible if they are to be coherent and credible. None may tell you what is best for your context, but that leaves you the responsibility of finding the appropriate balance of aspiration and achievement to fulfil your criteria of excellence. Teaching to the top won’t work unless and until your learning community knows what the summit looks like and how to get there. Your high attainers, as I label them in my book, such as Asif and Yolanda, deserve a role in sharing that vision with you.