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Support for highly able children

It is generally accepted that highly able pupils tend to fit into one of three categories:

  • “all-rounders” who perform well across all or most areas of the curriculum
  • those who display aptitude in a small group of related subjects
  • those whose talents lie in one single area

Estimates range between 10% - 20% of the school population being considered highly able at any one time.  The Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004, amended 2009, includes highly able pupils as a category within the spectrum of additional support needs.  

The principles and design of A Curriculum for Excellence give teachers the professional autonomy to offer an appropriate, engaging curriculum to challenge this group of pupils, enabling them to develop the four capacities to their full potential.

Main characteristics

Below are a few examples of characteristics, some of which may be displayed by highly able learners:

  • learns easily and readily
  • avid curiosity
  • superior powers of reasoning, abstraction, synthesis, questioning and comprehension
  • wide range of interests or a great interest in a narrow field
  • broad attention span and perseverance
  • superior vocabulary
  • early and/or rapid reader
  • an interest in philosophical issues


Smith in ‘Teaching Gifted and Talented Pupils in the Primary School’ (2005) suggests we should focus more on the opportunities we are providing for pupils rather than “seeking to identify  who  is  able  to  do  what  and  to  what   degree.”  (p16).

The Sports approach to identification (Freeman, 1998)   suggests that pupils are regularly and consistently given the opportunity to demonstrate skills and abilities that can then be identified and challenged.

Many approaches currently advocated as good learning and teaching can be used to meet the needs of highly able learners.  This allows self-identification to occur naturally without the need for more formal methods.  Effective learning opportunities will also meet the needs of pupils who are underachievers or who have a double exceptionality (for example dyslexia, autistic spectrum disorder).

The needs of highly able pupils

  • The opportunity to take risks in an organised way with the facility to fail without threat
  • Contact with like-minded people
  • A fair proportion of teacher time – deployed differently
  • Only as much instruction as is needed
  • Opportunities to develop work further
  • A balance of working with urgency and pace as well as time to reflect
  • Work set in a way in which creativity and imagination are involved extensively
  • Schemes of work that recognise appropriate starting points and subsequent steps 


Intervention may include:

  • enrichment – which offers breadth perhaps through a broader range of context, tasks and resources. Enrichment should reduce the pressure for pupils to progress to new levels too quickly.
  • extension – increasing depth of learning through the complexity of the task
  • acceleration – the speed at which the pace of learning occurs
  • specialist groups, classes or schools, for example through video conferencing
  • mentoring programmes - can be peers, older pupils or adults

Multiple intelligences

There can be a tendency to target support only to pupils who display ability in traditional academic  subjects. However, it is important to look wider than this.

… we are nearly ‘brain-washed’ to restrict the notion of intelligence to the capacities used in solving logical and linguistic problems”

Gardner, 1994 in Banks & Mayes; page 134

Gardner rejected the notion of intelligence being a single dimension, giving a more pluralistic view.  He maintained that each individual will have unique combinations.

The intelligences identified are:

  • verbal/linguistic
  • logical/mathematical
  • visual spatial
  • bodily kinaesthetic
  • musical
  • interpersonal
  • intrapersonal
  • naturalistic (existential/spiritual/moral)

The principles for curriculum design within Curriculum for Excellence reflect the needs of highly able learners.  By providing learning experiences which offer personalisation and choice, breadth, depth, challenge and clear progression the needs of able learners are met.


These suggestions challenge all learners but are particularly appropriate for highly able pupils. Ultimately, it is about providing learning opportunities where there is no ceiling. Additional information on the strategies below as well as additional examples are included in a practical guide produced by East Ayrshire Support Team.

Sharing the ‘big’ picture

Highly able pupils appreciate knowing how their learning fits into the ‘big’ picture of a unit or theme.

Bloom’s taxonomy

This hierarchy of skills ranges from lower order skills (for example knowledge and comprehension) to higher order skills (for example synthesis and evaluation). More able pupils should have frequent opportunities to develop their higher order skills. In 2001 Anderson & Krathwohol developed a revised taxonomy

Collaborative learning

Working collaboratively benefits pupils of all abilities. ‘Time spent on discussion of learning, explaining it to others, applying what has been learned in different contexts, spending time to probe and research a particular issue adds depth to learning.’  (BC3, page 32)

It is not challenging if the activity:

  • provides more practice of the same concept
  • is unrewarded, additional work
  • is unplanned and very open
  • contains undemanding experiences such as worksheets, copying, wordsearches or repeated low level activities


Our East Ayrshire Support Team (EAST) offers a range of support.  Examples include:

  • Highly Able Pupils: A Practical Support Guide (primary) 
  • CPD twilight sessions
  • A reference bank of books and resources
  • A selection of resources which can be borrowed on short-term loan
  • Alternatives to spelling
  • Visits can be arranged to offer practical support and advice including strategies and resources

The Scottish Network for Able Pupils (SNAP) is based at University of Glasgow and provides practical support to schools.


A range of related literature is available to borrow from EAST.  A list of these titles is detailed in 'Highly Able Pupils: A Practical Support Guide (Primary)’.

A recent national publication entitled ‘guidance for addressing the needs of highly able pupils’ provides suggestions and practical support.

Useful links

Contact Information

East Ayrshire Support Team (EAST)
Crosshouse Campus
Playingfield Road
01563 554974

Catherine Rodger, EAST Manager