(Image via Geniussis)
I can picture the scene. I arrive home from work to be greeted by my young daughter. The end of the summer holidays hasn’t dimmed her enthusiasm; she has been sparked anew – both excited and curious. “Daddy”, she says excitedly, “I’m special: I’m gifted and talented”. Basking in a cozy glow of pride, my work is surely done.
Of course, we cannot all win prizes. What if the scene is played out in reverse?
My daughter returns home – but with her curiosity stamped upon for not being listed as possessing such ‘talents’. I would surely hug her close and reassure her that she has all the potential on the planet; that her efforts will see her write the success story of her life regardless. Perhaps then, I would ask questions about such a programme.
When you begin to ask such questions, many problems and unintended consequences arise that undermine the entire edifice of lists, tracking and planning that comprise most gifted and talented programmes (G&T).
The ‘Gift’ of Intelligence
The search for ‘giftedness’ has a long and potted history. In 1869 Francis Galton tried to get to the root of such ‘Hereditary Genius’. More famously, the Stanford-Binet IQ tests became universally known and popular. Rather sagely, each of these intelligence trailblazers raised questions about their own findings, whilst recognizing the incredibly plastic nature of intelligence. Perhaps they could predict the worst abuses of the search for giftedness: ill-considered G&T badges, endless bureaucratic lists and worse!
More recently, a National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth came and went. A national register of G&T students was initiated and then quickly spurned. Politicians and OFSTED were quick to pay lip service to such programmes, but their efficacy was unproven and they were swiftly ditched. Many school leaders and teachers have grown increasingly skeptical.
The disconnect between the drive for educational equality signaled by the Pupil Premium, and G&T programs that are too often bereft of those very same students, is marked. G&T programs can actually perpetuate a subtle bigotry that solidifies the social inequalities they often purport to challenge. OFSTED, and an opinion-toting Michael Wilshaw, have been quick to criticize non-selective state schools for “failing to nurture scholastic excellence” (‘The Most Able Students’ report, 2013). He hoped to bolster the comprehensive ideal of every student achieving their full potential, but he was grossly wrong in thinking this aim would be met by G&T programs.
It isn’t. It won’t.
Gifted and talented and social disadvantage
The evidence shows that students who receive free school meals, the most common indicator of social disadvantage, don’t make it onto G&T lists. The Sutton Trust, who are stalwarts in aiming to eliminate social inequality, state in their ‘Educating the Highly Able’ report: “Relatively few pupils eligible for free school meals – strongly associated with school outcomes – were identified as gifted and talented.”
Last year, the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMCPC) showed that disadvantaged children who start out as high-attainers are often overtaken by average children from better off families. We should ask: do G&T programmes play a part in worsening social inequality?
In many schools, they are eschewing G&T programs and instead they are intent on creating a culture of excellence for all. Pete Jones, Director of Learning at Les Quennevais School, Jersey, has spurned outdated notions of a G&T programme: “I would much prefer the G&T label stand for something we can all believe in, like graft and tenacity. We could focus our finite resources on teaching all students how to put in the hours of practice to become great at something, with the attendant tenacity to keep going no matter how hard the challenge.”
We should rightly question the impact on the ninety percent of students who are not selected. The message that they have no ‘talent’ is implicit, but it is subtly corrosive for a school culture.
It is a question of expectancy. The ‘Pygmalion effect’ – whereat teachers raise their degree of expectation for a select few students that are deemed as being more able – becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Those students who are selected early on for G&T programs invariably become ever-present. These students get heaped with positive expectations and the results follow. The rest – well, they didn’t make the list: sky-high expectations are seemingly beyond them.
With the potential to do damage, we must question what benefits are gained for the students who make the cut. Beyond some pleased parents, there is little evidence for the validity of such programs. They are often bolt on initiatives, when improved academic attainment is proven time and time and again to result from expert subject-specific teaching in the classroom. We should question the energy and money channeled into G&T programs when there is no evidence of a positive impact on attainment.
Michael Wilshaw, in the aforementioned OFSTED report, cited the answers to high starters achieving their potential: having high expectations; effective transition between KS2 and KS3; a flexible curriculum; groupings that allow stretch and, of course, expert teaching. We should therefore target our money and time on the rocket booster of aspiration that is a great teacher, teaching expertly, in every classroom in every state school.
The bolt-on bureaucratic lists of G&T programmess should be consigned to the past and we should seek to unleash excellence in every classroom. I want my daughter to be in that excellent classroom, blooming with the expectancy that she can do anything. I want her to know that she doesn’t need to make it onto a flawed list to wrest every success in life from her efforts and abilities.
This article was originally published in TES magazine.