“Too clever for your own good”? Working with the Most Able

It’s no surprise that there is heightened scrutiny at present on how schools work with its most able children, and how we prepare them for happy and successful lives.  Only yesterday in the budget, it was again reinforced that the nation’s ‘production line’ of mathematicians and computer scientists, and teachers of these disciplines, is seizing up and needs its wheels well-and-truly greasing.

There is plenty of research around what makes our most able children succeed, and what barriers they face.  In a recent workshop for school leaders, I shared with them this slide which typifies some of the tensions faced when working with children who are, by definition, exceptional:


The most able child will often think about our curriculum content differently.  They will see things that others do not.  Our challenge is to embrace this divergence and extension, see it as a vital component in their development – and their engagement – and a hugely valuable asset for their peers.

I suggested that there are three key facets to work with the most able:

Culture – A culture whereby challenge is not viewed as dissent, where divergent thinking is not rebellion, individuality is not eccentricity, and one of high expectations where we “don’t wish that it was easier, but wish that we were better.”

Curriculum – A curriculum offer that ‘works back from the end’: what do our most able need to be successful beyond school?  Subjects of high currency, opportunities for challenge with their peers regionally and nationally through enrichment, developmental provision to bolster resilience, growth mindsets, communication and leadership skills.

Classroom – Specialist teachers who can ‘keep up with them’ where they can, and can ‘let them loose’ when they can’t, with activities and resources that stimulate amazing accomplishment that is supported and appreciated by their peers.

It’s that easy.  And that hard!  But for individual students, and our schools, and our country we have to make sure that we get the best from our most able, or at least give them our all in trying.

Thanks for reading.



Autonomy v Standardisation: is it that simple?

Shortly before October half term I was invited to attend and deliver a workshop at the West Midlands Regional School Commissioner’s Conference, hosted by Shirelands Collegiate Academy in Smethwick.  It was, as I anticipated, a thought-provoking day from which I took many new ideas and made several new contacts with colleagues from across the region.  Thinking time and headspace is a valuable and rare commodity for those of us working in schools, and the half term break provided a great opportunity for me to reflect on some of the main strands of learning I took from the day.  I’d like to share one such strand with you here.


In the slide, you can see the spectrum of independence and compliance that all of us working in and developing MATs need to consider, and it is something that from our earliest origins in the summer of 2014, John Taylor Multi-Academy Trust has continually monitored.

With autonomy comes innovation, even liberation, and the opportunity to forge a character and culture that is unique and adaptable over time.  With standardisation, there is no risk that schools become left behind, that equality of opportunity and provision is denied, and that compliance is at risk.

Within our MAT, I would like to think that the ‘balance’ isn’t necessarily in the middle, where one intuitively would consider it to be on a spectrum – but balance lies when the organisation places different facets of its functions at differing points on the scale.  With finance, for example, we are highly standardised: we all use the same finance package, and operate systems and structures in very similar ways. To us, this makes sense.  Where compliance is important, and regulation is clear, externally-defined and stringent, there is in my opinion little place, or value, from innovation and autonomy. However, when we look at our teaching and learning, our assessment and our curricula – areas of core purpose, where context matters, and where there is no ‘one best way’, we would nail our colours much closer to the ‘autonomy’ pole of the spectrum.  This is especially true in a context of ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools.

But here is where the joy of working in a MAT comes through:  autonomy gravitates towards alignment as schools collaborate.  This is organic, and school- or even individual-driven.  Practitioners from our schools, as they work alongside each other, can see areas of their own work that could be improved – and they do so.  In my experience such changes, enacted by and owned by those who need to initiate them, are much more likely to ‘stick’ and have the desired impact. All that is required to make this work is (a) colleagues with open minds – prepared to reflect on their own practice and learn new things and (b) colleagues with open doors – prepared to let others in to learn from and work with.  In John Taylor Multi-Academy Trust and beyond, I’m fortunate to work with so many colleagues with open minds and open doors.  I’d like to think that I’m one of them too.

Thanks for reading.