Strategies for stretching your most able students

Hi Laura This is a very helpful article and I would love to try and implement some of these ...

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Senior leader Laura Grainger discusses her project to improve the attainment of high-ability students, including a specific focus on year 11 and encouraging every child to aim for an A grade in at least one GCSE.

Fulham Cross Girls School is in a relatively affluent area but as is the case in west London boroughs, there is a significant divide between rich and poor.

Local schools often have high numbers of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, and we have 85 per cent of students with English as an additional language. But that’s not to say we are struggling; we have been Ofsted outstanding since 2008 and 70 per cent of our students achieve five or more GCSEs at A* to C, including English and maths.

Before Fulham Cross, I was a middle leader who wanted to have more of a whole-school impact, so I applied for the Future Leaders headship development programme and as a result joined Fulham Cross’s senior leadership team in September 2012.

In consultation with the head of school, I began looking at areas for improvement, and spotted that the number of students getting A and A*s had decreased over three consecutive years. Key stage 2 data projections suggested our 2013 GCSE results would include only 13 A/A* grades.

So I set out to reverse this trend, with a target of 30 per cent of grades being either an A or an A* in summer 2013. This would happen by increasing the level of challenge across the curriculum and by developing a programme of enrichment for targeted students.

Making waves

One of the reasons for falling A grades was that our students are really polite, hard-working girls who produce pages of notes but can be quite passive, and don’t always say if they haven’t understood.

There were three layers to my work and I based it on the “waves” model of intervention:

  1. Increasing challenge across the school.

  2. Establishing a Challenge Club to push the top achieving students.

  3. Establishing one-to-one mentoring for students in the Challenge Club.

My work began with a whole-school approach. I raised awareness of the importance of challenge in staff briefings, and developed their skills through toolboxes and INSET days. 

I used data to demonstrate the need for change and appealed to the hearts and minds of staff, emphasising that our girls deserve the highest grades to give them an edge in higher education and the jobs market; that we should have the same level of challenge and rigour as top independent schools to help them compete. They are just as able and deserve the same opportunities.

Staff INSET focused on teaching methods to facilitate this challenge, including De Bono’s six hats (a discussion and thinking tool), using thunks, and the introduction of a “challenge task” on all PowerPoint slides to enable students to take learning further. Departments have personalised this. For example, our geography department now has a “Geographical Genius” task on all slides, while religious studies has a “Philosopher’s Corner”.

The Challenge Club

There was no cohesive gifted and talented register, so I cross-referenced data for every student for every subject and consulted teachers to identify those who had potential but who were underperforming.

The top 15 to 20 students per year group joined our new Challenge Club, an enrichment programme based around small group sessions on critical-thinking, higher order thinking skills, and how to progress to the highest grade.

We also worked with the Brilliant Club, an organisation that gets PhD tutors into schools. Students developed research skills and wrote 2,000-word theses on philosophy or biology. Key stage 4 students also had A/A* sessions one lunchtime per week that focused on getting top grades in each subject. 

In addition, every student had fortnightly 1:1 mentoring sessions with staff volunteers from across the school, from senior leadership team members to office staff. The meetings were designed to be challenging and focus on measurable outcomes. Students also had a Challenge Passport, a booklet that set out their academic targets as well as containing a series of challenges, competitions and extra-curricular activities that would develop thinking skills, as well as expanding social and cultural capital. Activities include researching the work of a philosopher, navigating the UCAS website, and completing extension activities in lessons.

The aim was to be holistic by challenging not just their academic performance but also their view of themselves and their exposure to aspects of life that others take for granted. It might seem surprising, but there are some students who have never used the Tube or even gone into Central London. The aim of the mentoring was to encourage students to seek out opportunities beyond their comfort zones, from reading and writing a review of a little known Shakespeare play, to visiting the Spanish Institute, or going to the opera.

Raising aspirations

But the Challenge Club was not self-contained; the aim was to make it something that other students wanted to join and to show that challenge and work is something to aspire to, not avoid. 

This involved making club members quite visible by giving them a special badge and a pink “Challenge Me” card. They would hold this up during lessons, making classroom differentiation more effective and clearly encouraging students to seek challenge. 

Initially a few students used them less than constructively, but this was an opportunity to speak to those students about the responsibility that comes with being in the club, and emphasising that other students want to be a part of it and that they are role-models.

Many other students are desperate to join the Challenge Club and I often urge them to get certain grades and I will consider it. It has proved a motivating factor for all students at Fulham Cross.

The results?

Results day last summer saw great outcomes; 75 per cent of students in year 11 got at least one A grade, 31 per cent of the total grades were A or A*s, and 29 per cent of students got five or more As. 

As is always the case, this all required hard work from staff across the school, and not everything worked perfectly. I’ve developed ways to improve and expand this academic year, including targeting those year 7 and 10s who aren’t making enough progress. 

We also run an intervention in partnership with an organisation called Spire Hub for those year 10s in the layer below Challenge Club, who entered with Level 5s but who are not currently on target to achieve five or more A/A* grades. This involves academic tutoring and aspiration work with university mentors and retired teachers. We are also doing further work with staff around levels of challenge in lessons and in the curriculum.

As ever, the work’s impact on our students’ lives is best told anecdotally. One student in year 8 was severely disaffected and difficult to engage with, but despite her behavioural needs had high prior attainment. I began mentoring her, and it was clear that she was essentially in need of challenge and focus. As her mentor, I made it clear that the school had high expectations for her and that her behaviour mattered in the school community. It took time, but she rose to this challenge and has gone through real personal change. 

Reflecting on my work on the Challenge Club, I can see that it has challenged me immensely – and that I am developing my own leadership skills as I work with colleagues and students. I am looking forward to this year, and seeing how my practice continues to be challenged and refined.

  • Laura Grainger is a member of the senior leadership team at Fulham Cross Girls School, a comprehensive in west London.

Future Leaders
The Future Leaders programme is a leadership development programme for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools. It offers a residency year in a challenging school, leadership development, personalised coaching and peer-support through a network of more than 300 Future Leaders. You can apply now for 2014’s intake or you can nominate a colleague who you think would make an inspiring headteacher. Visit

Hi Laura

This is a very helpful article and I would love to try and implement some of these great strategies at my school. I have recently been appointed as a lead teacher and will be part of the wider SLT team. One of my jobs is raising aspirations and also stretching the higher ability students. Would you mind sharing the resources that you put together for the challenge passport and the tasks used for the challenge club? Thanks again for sharing the good practice.

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