Challenging the most able students – Research 2017/18

Last year, Deputy Headteacher Deb Norrish carried out research into how we can further stretch and challenge our most able students. This is her summary of that research.

Research Question.

How can ‘conflict’ improve more-able boy’s performance? Can competition through well-structured debates translate to improved outcomes in students written discussions in their formal written assessments?


  • Implementing a strategy where Post 16 lessons are focussed on ‘oracy’ and the critical development of ideas/ concepts to deepen higher level thinking skills. No notes are taken during lesson time, the expectation is that all reading and preparation is carried out during personal study time.
  • More-Able students (Boys) were identified to lead debates by given differing interpretations to convince, through credible evidence as either the ‘prosecution’ or ‘defence’. Each team were encouraged through ‘competitive incentive’ to research extensively to ‘out flank’ the other team to provide evidence ‘beyond reasonable doubt. Identified students have been encouraged to lead ‘opening speeches’ and closing remarks to improve the quality of introductions and conclusions.
  • Students have had to reflect and use appropriate language to evaluate, convince and argue their key points. Language has been analysed and improved to convey key lines of inquiry. Students have been  given more independence in preparing the sub headings for debate and to work towards modelling high quality essay responses.

Summary of what you did to adapt your practice

  • Increase expectations of home learning by enforcing a ‘no notes’ rule for Post 16 lessons. Active learning and testing used to clarify, consolidate and develop critical thinking, using appropriate vocabulary.
  • Use ‘More Able’ lead learners to increase higher level thinking in debates and to clearly evaluate evidence before reaching a conclusion.

How did you test and review the impact of your research?

  • Observation and prior controlled testing of identified students learning behaviours.
  • Observation by colleague mid-way through research.
  • Data comparison (Review (4) 2017- Review (4) 2018. Personal Study internal moderation and final grades in A Level results.
  • Student feedback and suggestions for improvement.

Summary of impact so far

  • Students independent learning skills have improved significantly along with their ability to complete quality, ‘deep’ home learning tasks based on research and wider reading. Concise notetaking based on key headings and evidence has also sharpened their ability to take effective notes.  The quality of additional evidence researched and debated by the high ability students identified was sharpened by the approach taken.
  • The standard of critical evaluation and quality of evidence required was ‘up skilled’ by the identified, competitive male students involved in the project. Adjustment to alter the dominance of this dynamic had to be made to give other students the leadership experience that they had seen being modelled.
  • The overall value added score of this group has improved from being significantly below expected to ‘in line’. All identified students have achieved an ‘A’ or ‘B’ for their personal study and in line or above their target grade.
  • Increase expectation of post 16 learning by encouraging a ‘no notes’ rule for lessons. The expectation should be to read and learn in personal study periods and clarify and discuss/ debate in lessons.
  • Boys thrive on competition and debate. Carefully structure the headings of the debate to increase focus and model a potential essay structure. Carefully manage this debate so that it does not compromise other’s progress and creativity!
  • Ensure constant modelling and evaluation of student language to encourage sophisticated discussion and debate that is highly critical and persuasive by approach.


Improving the progress of more able students

One of the priority areas we have as a school is ensuring that our most able learners make progress in line with their targets. These are the students that are described as High Ability on entry to secondary school. Currently these students don’t make as much progress as students in the Middle or Lower ability bands. When we look at the number of students that are High Ability, they are increasing in every year group from y11 to Y7.

As a school with a proud list of alumni that have gone onto achieve great careers our key questions was ‘How can we ensure that all students meet their potential’. A closer look at the data highlighted that this action research area crossed over with the others – the most likely High Ability students to underperform are male, pupil premium students.

Again this is not an issue specific to our school and there is a lot of current research into why some High Ability students fail to make the same progress as others. A report by the School Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in 2015 identified a ‘glass floor’ in British society, less able, better off students are 35% more likely to become high earners than bright students from low income families. Again, the key question for us is how can we ensure that all students meet their potential – regardless of their background.

We wanted to make sure that as a school we were providing enough challenge, that we weren’t teaching to the middle and that we hadn’t underestimated what our students could achieve.

The research leads for this area are James Perry (Deputy head of Sixth Form) and Nina Elliott ( head of Languages).

What makes a difference?

  • Language: Increase the use and application of subject specialist language.
  • Questioning: Increase the use of differentiated questioning, higher order thinking and oracy within the classroom.
  • Modelling and Feedback: to ensure all students know what excellence looks like. Provide opportunities to make their work excellent. Students consistently responding to clear and transparent feedback.
  • Challenge: Increase expectation for more able students at all levels. Develop Lead Learners in the classroom. Flipped learning – no note taking in post 16 lessons!
  • Teach to the Top – Use department time to plan and create challenging resources together such as “impossible questions’.
  • Build challenge into day to day routines – support more able students to develop self-regulation and use their talents.
  • Competition and motivation – many high ability students want to beat their rivals.
  • Aspiration – students who know what they need to achieve are more motivated.
  • Language and communication in the classroom – using higher level language consistently encourages students to do the same.
  • Peer challenges – they are often tougher on each other than the teachers!

One of the key – mantras that come out of the action research was ‘Take away the spoon‘.

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