There is much debate about what to call this group of learners.  They are often referred to as: 

  • Able learners
  • More able learners
  • The very able
  • Exceptionally able
  • Gifted
  • Talented
  • Gifted and talented
  • Those with exceptional talent
  • Pupils with marked aptitude
  • High learning potential
  • High achievers

Each of these terms is problematic.  Comparative terms such as ‘more able’ are not helpful.  If one learner can be ‘more able’ then presumably another can be less able.  At what are they “more able” and “more able” than whom? While it is recognised that no one term is ideal, we have used the term “highly able”.  When developing this material, we have assumed that “highly able learners” refers to learners who are working or who have the potential to be working significantly ahead of their age peers.  We have also assumed that the term includes learners who are “highly able” across the curriculum as well as those who are “highly able” in one or more particular areas.  Underpinning the activities and suggestions is the idea that high ability is just one factor in school success.  Appropriate opportunities and appropriate support from home and school, along with hard work, practice and effort also contribute to school success. Whatever terms we use to describe these learners, it is important to recognise that they do not “get on in spite of us” and that we need to think about and plan for supporting them.

Highly Able

Working, or has the potential to work, ahead of other children and young people their own age. A child may be working at this level across the whole curriculum or in one or more particular areas (

There are multiple categories in which a learner can be considered to be highly able:

  • General intellectual ability across subject domains
  • Linguistic ability
  • Specific academic ability
  • Spatial ability
  • Visual and performing artistic ability
  • Mechanical ingenuity
  • Physical, kinaesthetic, sporting ability
  • Advanced leadership, organisational, and interpersonal skills

High ability may exist around a range of areas and learners considered to be highly able may display this ability in a single or limited number of areas. Therefore, learners with high ability may develop unevenly across all areas of ability. Learners’ abilities manifest themselves in different ways, at different times and in different contexts. It may be the case that a learner might be highly able in one subject and yet struggle desperately in another. You do not need to be highly able across all subject areas to be considered highly able.

It is also vital to understand that learners who require additional support for learning due to, for example, communication difficulties, difficulty in controlling behaviour, having a physical disability etc, may also be highly able. These learners are often referred to as twice exceptional (2E) or multiple exceptional. The self-reflection questions in the National Framework for Inclusion may be helpful as staff explore their personal beliefs about ability


Who are these learners and how do we identify and provide for them?

Staff Meeting Activities

Aim – to reach a tentative agreement on what we mean by the term highly able learner.

Activities - hold a staff development session to discuss key issues.

Activity 1: Who are we talking about?

  • Have staff sit at tables with people they don’t normally work with ie., different stage partners, department, etc.
  • Give 5 minutes for table discussions related to the question, ‘Who are the highly able learners in our school?’ Get staff to think about what these learners look like and sound. Have each table come up with a list of agreed-upon characteristics based on those guiding questions.

Spend about 5-10 minutes having each table share a few characteristics. 

  • Are there stereotypical views emerging? (related to socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, personality, disability, TV character portrayals etc)
  • The idea behind this activity is that you cannot tell by just looking or listening to a learner whether or not they are highly able. Conversely, you may hear something or observe a behaviour that indicates a particular high ability that you don’t normally witness, and this is worth investigating.
  • Is there a mechanism in place for all teachers AND support staff to identify and plan for these learners? PE, music, and art teachers may have insight that classroom teachers do not. During break times, classroom assistants may see young people in different circumstances.
  • Is the system in place transparent?
  • Is the system in place based on one person or one criterion?
  • How is the information gathered communicated to families?
  • How is learning tracked and monitored?

Activity 2: Academic Support Inventory: 

What are we already doing to support identified highly able learners in our school and in our classroom?

All staff write down their ideas on different coloured post-its ie., green: schoolwide; yellow: classrooms; red: outside of school. (one idea per post-it)

Display Post-its on three different posters to highlight any differences/similarities.

This information can then be used to map provision across your school.

It is important to note that there really is no wrong answer here, but the point is to take each child’s ability into account when planning how to support them.

Schools will often be providing challenging learning experiences for all pupils.  However, highly able pupils often require additional or qualitatively different challenge to those of their age peers. The needs of these pupils are enshrined in the Additional Support for Learning legislation therefore, we must be clear what additionality is required when meeting their needs.  A good starting point for schools who are considering how they meet the needs of the highly able is to undertake an audit of existing activities. 

School Audit Material

School Audit Material

Gathering this information into a coherent framework will help schools to be clear about where challenge is offered and where challenge needs to be enhanced and the Post-It notes activity provides a starting point.

A “Basic Audit” should establish whether:

  • all curriculum policies, and particularly additional support for learning policies, contain statements concerning provision for highly able learners
  • there are systems for recognising the wide range of abilities all learners and of highly able learners and for monitoring their progress;
  • there are procedures in place for involving parents in discussions and planning for learners who are identified as being highly able;
  • as with all learners, the work of highly able learners and their progress is discussed regularly at staff/department/Faculty meetings;
  • the school handbook includes a statement on the school’s approach to highly able learners;
  • there have been opportunities for staff to develop their understanding and skills in relation to teaching highly able learners;
  • there are shared understandings across the school as to who the highly able might be.

 A series of log frames will help you to think through the auditing process. 

How Good Is our School 4 aims to support the growth of a culture of self-improvement across Scottish education and is an excellent starting point for schools as they think about their provision for highly able learners. Each section of the document sets out questions for reflection. Thinking about these in relation to highly able learners will allow schools to gain an overview of provision and to grow a deeper understanding of how their school supports highly able learners.

As an example of how this might be done, questions from Section 2.2 The Curriculum have been adapted to take account of the specific needs of highly able learners.  The following grids allow schools to analyse more fully the provision on offer for highly able pupils and can be adapted to include questions from any section of the document.

Audit of Provision

When thinking about support a school can offer, it can be helpful to think of it in layers. There is much that can be done at the foundational level of the classroom but equally it is good to look beyond the classroom and school levels in order to access appropriate support.


Layers of support



A positive ethos built on good relationships

High expectations for all

Choice and variety of activities

A range of levels and challenge within community activities

Enhancement and enrichment of the curriculum

Curriculum compaction and substitute activities

Individual Education Programmes

A range and variety of within class grouping



Within stage or cross stage grouping

Gifted and Talented coordinator/pupil support services

Special, short term, pull-out programmes

Visits/guest speakers

Specialist provision

Out of school enrichment activities

Decisions about acceleration for individuals

Local Authority

Cross school groupings

Online links between schools and individuals


Computer links

Specialist support

Out of school enrichment activities and courses

Co-ordinated support plans


Policy and legislation

National advisory body


Online courses for individuals and groups




(Smith, 2005:19)

Questions for discussion

Questions for discussion (Wallace, 2000)

  • How can we help young people to openly acknowledge and accept the individual differences in the classroom?
  • What are some of the characteristics of the young people we would recognise as “late starters”?
  • What are the general expectations of staff with regard to highly able learners?
  • Is ability the result of ‘nature’, ‘nurture’, or both?
  • How can we support the learners who are coasting along?
  • Can we cite examples of the following:

The class clown who was very able but not motivated?

The child who responded unexpectedly when a challenge was presented?

The disruptive learner who showed hidden depths in a particular class?

  • Looking honestly at the performance of our highly able learners, is their achievement as good, better, or worse than in other classes or subject areas or for groups of similar learners in other schools?
  • Could we be holding back some of our “high achievers” and “high attainers” because they are “doing well enough”?
  • Do we seek and respect the views of our highly able learners and their families?

Providing social and emotional support for highly able learners

Social-Emotional Support

Receiving the right help and the right time from the right people is crucial. The Well Being Indicators from Getting It Right For Every Child  are a good place to start when thinking about the social and emotional support you offer highly able learners.

Here are some things that are useful to know about some highly able learners. 

  • Highly Able learners are often characterised emotionally as perfectionists, highly sensitive, deeply perceptive, and subject to overexcitability (Mueller, 2009; Nevitt, 2001). For some, this is true. As teachers this means we need to think about how we support such learners in our schools and classes. These traits should not always be seen as negative but where there is heightened sensitivity and awareness, we do need to offer support.
  • Many of these learners have a lack of communication skills (Ozbay and Palanci, 2011), which can lead to social isolation as can highly developed communication skills which can leave peers confused and alienated. Some highly able learners have an advanced vocabulary and are interested in very specific, and sometimes unusual, topics. Offering opportunities for them to talk with an intellectual peer can be helpful, as can helping them to develop strategies for talking and interacting with their age peers.  
  • Socialisation helps learners understand teamwork, build empathy, learn humanistic perception, and have respect for differences, all of which are important traits for lifelong skills, including leadership skills (Kitano, 1986; Sisk, 2009). It cannot be assumed that highly able learners will automatically be good at working together in groups or be able to “lead”. It is important that these skills are systematically developed.
  • Studies have suggested that an increase in loneliness in highly able learners, leads to an increased vulnerability and higher risk of psychological problems, primarily in adolescence and adulthood (Neihart and Olenchak, 2002).
  • The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC, 2010) published guidelines on effective learning environments for highly able learners. The best environment for social-emotional development includes: