Going Beyond Gifted and Talented

In Debates and Polemics, Evidence in Education by Alex Quigley4 Comments

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(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.

Comments

  1. In a normal distribution there will be children whose comprehension is beyond the range of usual classroom learning, and whereas I agree a great teacher can compensate for this to a certain degree, like a top flight athlete, don’t these pupils deserve at least least some specialist ‘coaching’?

    1. Author

      In class? In school? Outside of school? Do we have a reliable identification of that bell curve? Is the bell curve different for each subject, strands of a subject?

      I think the number of exceptional children in the normal distribution is quite small and that sticking them on a G&T list and sending them to an event once a year is deficient. I don’t deny exceptional students exist, but our model of identification, support etc. hasn’t been working by pretty much anybody’s measure.

  2. I can picture the scene.

    Here that picture was more unexpurgated Grimm than your Disney.

    I suppose there will be some, but over the years I’ve talked to quite a few parents in my shoes and they don’t seem stupid or gullible. I expect most would confirm that their local state primary/comp school’s G&T is token box-ticking rubbish and everyone would welcome more genuine ‘excellence’ inside the regular classroom, but I doubt they’d be optimistic about that fixing their typical issues i.e. the academic boredom and isolation/alienation that is a permanent feature for such a long and formative part of their child’s life. A clever child can be a very mixed blessing, although parents with children in some kind of selective seem happy enough.

    This is a sensitive area for me and perhaps I’ve got the wrong impression, but I think you’ve thrown a curious collection of inconsistent mud at this and it feels like you’re trying to talk away a child like mine. Yes, ill-conceived empty G&T programs can go and take all those empty slogans, policies and mission statements with them, but I don’t want these children and the fundamental problem to disappear off the radar i.e. the age-not-stage comprehensive system is made for the large majority in the middle and doesn’t work well for either ability extreme.

    This or that very shiny comp might pull off enough in-class excellence to significantly reduce the real gaps between an exceptional child and a similar one in some super-selective, but I can’t imagine the majority of the comp system ever managing that. Can you? Theresa May obviously can’t, but perhaps you’ll recall that in addition to the tsunami of ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ and ‘full potential’ messages, Gove and Cummings also wanted to make Kolmogrov schools.

    1. Author

      Ok, so you proffer various criticisms and perhaps that is valid if my piece is inconsistent as you describe. Of course, I was working within a word limit for that article, so omission is a necessity. Not to mention my flaws as a writer! I cannot account for your specific situation, but I will attempt to address some of your points.

      First, I think G&T programme lists are flawed and biased in lots of ways. The too often lack nuance, subject distinctions, accurate assessments and more. Many extra such students receive can prove tokenistic and mask the need for systematic challenge in the classroom.

      I recognise that parents are happy with some form of selection, but it misses the truth. The reality is that the differences between schools, say a selective grammar school and a less than shiny comp, is less important than within school differences. You child may be in a notional ‘top set’, perhaps even in a grammar school. The degree of challenge and excellence is largely dependent upon the teacher and the quality of that teacher: the depth of their subject knowledge aligned with their subject pedagogical knowledge (e.g. can they ask really challenging questions that provoke hard thinking). To a degree, this mimics the notion that parents are happy their child is on the G&T list, but being on it may not bring anything near the challenge of a great teacher probing, testing, challenging them on a daily, weekly basis.

      Your statement that our school system is designed for the majority and not either ability extremes is likely true. To have such specialist expertise at such extremes requires really superb training, retention of teaching expertise and no little funding. These things are not in abundant supply as you can imagine. I cannot account for the experience of your child, but we have some student at ability extremes in my comprehensive. One supremely good mathematician we have is in main school, but we ensure that they joins some A level lessons and we have been very flexible with their qualifications and what extras they can do. Ultimately, they want to be with their peers and so the challenge is to ensure that such challenge is present in every class. As we note commonly, most students at this extreme of high attainment have the excellence in specific subject domains, but not all, so that is another factor to manage. Streaming, and to some extent setting, often miss these nuances. In short, we have to do our best job of training, retaining great teachers whose challenge and skill matches the complex needs of our students. These exist in bog standard comprehensives, super selective schools and the like.

      The final point on Kolmogrov schools isn’t really what my piece was on about. I suspect Cummings is more the professed architect of such a notion, but the Kolmogrov Free School agreed by Gove was a 16 to 19 schools. Such selection and increased challenge is of course enshrined in sixth form/college and further education. The likely development trajectory of the student is rather stable by this point, whereas listed a child as F&T aged 7 then can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, enshrining a difference that was not predestined nor necessary. Also, given I think there is an integral place for Special schools to cater for the extremes of ability that you describe, I would welcome the debate around a very small number of schools providing such provision for exceptional students – of which there are few.

      I don’t think that students who have exhibit exceptional performance in one field or another should be ignored – I think they should very much be on the radar. That is one of the reasons that I think that our current approach to G&T needs a major revamp to make it fit for purpose.

      Apologies if I have smeared yet more inconsistent mud – in truth, I’m really tired! Thanks for reading my blog.

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