What to expect from school if you have a more able child

Boy writing maths on blackboard
Highly able children sometimes struggle to get the support they need from school. We explain what to expect and who to turn to for help.
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Does your child ask questions constantly, learn quickly, or get bored easily or switch off at school? It may be that they are a ‘gifted and talented’ learner – also known as more/most able, highly able, working above age-related expectations, or having high learning potential.

Children with high learning potential often display certain key characteristics. The charity Potential Plus UK has a helpful questionnaire that can help you reflect on these traits.

‘If you’ve identified some of the characteristics of high learning potential in your child, you may want to discuss them with school so they can help provide the support and challenge they need,’ says Julie Taplin, Chief Executive of Potential Plus UK.

Highly able children: who to talk to

If you believe your child has high learning potential and want to raise the subject with their school, the first port of call should be their class teacher.

‘They should be able to give their professional opinion of your child’s ability based on their observations of them in the classroom, and also share the results of any tests they have carried out,’ Julie explains.

You can also ask for other members of staff to be involved in any meetings to discuss your child’s ability and potential.

In some schools, the special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) or inclusion coordinator (INCO) has a responsibility for overseeing the needs of the most able children. In others, the responsibility belongs to the subject lead: so, for example, if your child has a particular talent for numeracy, you could involve the lead teacher for maths.

Bear in mind, though, that teachers may not always spot the same signs of high potential as you.

‘It’s not unusual to see your child doing something at home that their teacher may not have seen in the classroom,’ Julie says.

The labels used to refer to high achievers vary from school to school. Ofsted uses the term ‘most able,’ but you might also hear the terms ‘more able,’ ‘gifted and talented,’ or ‘highly able’ being used.

‘It’s worthwhile finding out what term your child’s school uses, so you can use the same wording,’ says Julie.

What to expect from your child’s school

In the past, the top 5-10% of primary school children were labelled as gifted and talented, with finances allocated specifically to supporting their needs.

In 2010, however, the gifted and talented scheme was dropped, and there are no longer any formal guidelines about how best to provide for these children. This means provision varies from school to school: there’s no checklist of what your child’s school has to do to support them.

According to Ofsted’s Education Inspection Framework, which applies to schools in England, schools should focus on the quality of education provided to each child, and this means that the most able children should be given the opportunity to excel. But with no official guidance on how schools should cater for gifted children, it can be difficult, as a parent, to know what to ask for and what to expect.

Julie suggests looking at your child’s school’s website to find its Curriculum Intent and Curriculum Progression.

‘This should help you to understand what it is like for your child to be a pupil at this school,’ she explains.

‘You could use this as the basis for a discussion with your child’s class teacher about how they will ensure your child experiences depth of learning and has opportunities to learn how to learn, and to build their resilience.’

This could happen in a number of ways, for example:

  • Being given open-ended projects that allow them to extend their learning and knowledge
  • Being given extension tasks in the classroom or as part of their homework, such as additional/more challenging spellings, access to more advanced reading books, or opportunities to use a maths strategy in a different way
  • Working in a small group with other highly able children within the class, or in a higher set or stream
  • Explaining what they’ve been doing to other pupils, which can benefit both the able child and the children they’re working with

Potential Plus UK advocates for ensuring that there is challenge for the most able child in the classroom - this is also known as 'teaching to the top,' i.e. devising teaching content that caters for the needs of the highest achievers.

‘Some schools might use a format such as an Individual Education Plan or Challenge Plan to highlight to both parents and teachers a child’s areas of strength that need to be challenged, and how appropriate provision can be put in place,’ explains Julie. ‘At the same time, it can address any weaker areas and how they can be supported.’

It’s important that your child’s school also looks after their emotional and social needs. Some highly able children struggle with friendships, become easily frustrated, or have a tendency towards perfectionism and put undue pressure on themselves.

Schools should be alert to any difficulties your child is showing in these areas, and support them in managing them and building confidence.

Should your child move up a year?

There are occasions when the school and parents working together might identify that acceleration is a viable option. This is when the child works at a level beyond their chronological age.

‘Acceleration can be effectively carried out in several ways depending on the personality of the child and the school’s resources, but it could include early entry into a new phase of education, year skipping, or joining older students for one or more subjects, to name just a few examples,’ says Julie.

‘Many high potential learners benefit greatly from this, but there are implications for the child and for the school. Whatever is done, it must be handled sensitively, with the child’s needs at the forefront of everyone’s minds.’

For example, a child may be academically capable of moving up a year, but lack maturity, leading to problems with friendships.

Pupil premium for highly able children

If your child qualifies for pupil premium (a sum of money paid to the school for children who are entitled to free school meals, usually on the grounds of low family income) that money should be used specifically to benefit your child.

This could be in the form of enrichment activities designed to provide stretch and challenge, such as music lessons, after-school clubs, and classroom support to help them work in greater depth.

You don't have a say in how your child's pupil premium is spent, but some schools will involve parents, so it's worth talking to the teacher or headteacher about how your child will benefit from their funding.

What to do if your child isn’t being challenged

Schools sometimes struggle to provide the necessary challenge for the most able children, which can lead to them becoming bored, disengaged, and even disruptive.

This is particularly true now that there are no allocated funds for gifted children, especially as many schools are having to make do without teaching assistants, who often worked with these pupils.

Although there are no specific guidelines on providing for highly able children, Ofsted is clear that every pupil should be given a quality of education that meets their needs, which means schools should provide stretch and challenge to pupils with high learning potential.

‘If you feel your child’s needs are not being met, you should first speak with your child’s class teacher,’ Julie advises. ‘Other staff members might also form part of a discussion, such as the person with responsibility for inclusion or progress, or the headteacher or deputy head.’

Ofsted encourages all parents to complete their Parent View survey; although this doesn’t guarantee your child will be given the right support, it will flag any shortcomings to Ofsted so they can be taken into account during inspections.

You could also contact Potential Plus UK for support with ensuring your child’s needs are met, for example by booking a telephone advice appointment to discuss how to work with their school and develop good relationships with their teachers.