Which Way Now for UK Gifted Education: Retracing Recent History


The first part of this post reviewed the terminology, definition and purposes of gifted and talented education, so opening a debate about how the new GT Voice network might position itself.

Part Two reviews the recent history of English gifted education, extracting lessons from the past that we can apply to our current situation.

This is a precursor to analysis of the impact on gifted education of the Coalition Government’s wider education policies as it begins a second full academic year in power.

A Brief History

The decade 1999-2009 was a period of significant growth and much improvement in English G&T education.

But we began from a very low base, the improvement was by no means uniform or continuous and hard evidence of a significant positive impact on national performance has proved typically elusive.

The records of the Government’s specialist G&T education contractors – the University of Warwick for the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY) (2002-07) and CfBT for Young Gifted and Talented (YG&T) (2007-2010) – always loom large in any treatment of this period. But it is all too easy to overestimate their significance.

We have already had occasion to review the independent evaluation of NAGTY, encapsulated in its telling use of the phrase ‘a curate’s egg’.

There is no published YG&T evaluation, but the oral evidence given to the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee in February 2010 conveys the tenor of contemporary professional opinion:

‘Mr Chaytor: The Young Gifted and Talented Learner Academy closes its doors on 12 February, and the website is already being wound down. Does anyone regret its passing? Has it served any useful purpose?

Sue Mordecai: No.

Chairman: No one else regret it? No. Thank you very much.’ (Q48)

It suffered an early setback when proposals for a credits-based approach, based on the precedent of e-learning credits,proved incompatible with the Government’s commitment to removing funding ring-fences.

There was an opportunity to develop YG&T aggressively as an e-university, building a comprehensive international catalogue of free-to-access online resources and linking them together in tailored learning pathways and mediated learning packages, for use at home and school alike.

That would have provided a foundation for the development of a blended learning offer – an affordable means to stimulate the supply side of the market in face-to-face learning opportunities. It probably gave the best chance of achieving scale with limited resources, the Achilles heel of YG&T, as of NAGTY before it.

The NAGTY evaluation notes that the Government was consistently pursuing a deliberate policy of distributed responsibility, seeking to build capacity through partnership and collaboration:

‘At the national level it is clear that the Department wanted a dispersed model rather than a single centre of expertise – its interest was more in building capacity regionally and locally than in establishing a more centralised model based on NAGTY.’

This continued after 2007, manifested partly in the distribution of responsibility between YG&T and the National Strategies, managed by Capita, the latter focused on in-school improvement, the former on out-of-school support.

There was scope for confusion over exactly how the two services fitted together, but the resolution of overlaps ensured a close working relationship. The arrangement also helped to keep in check those centripetal forces most injurious to a distributed model.

But the advances made during this period were attributable to successful partnership working across organisations, even where the lead was held nominally by a single body. External expertise was harnessed wherever possible.

We English tend to deride our own achievements. While none of the elements below is perfect, they collectively embody a framework that would be the envy of gifted education advocates almost anywhere else in the world:

  • A national cadre of leading teachers for G&T for every primary and secondary school, supported by a handbook and a substantial training package;
  • A school census question about identified G&T learners, providing a basis for analysing the composition of G&T populations, their characteristics and achievement;
  • Regional partnerships and excellence hubs co-ordinating G&T education support for learners and educators alike across local authorities and universities;
  • The National Challenge G&T project enabling schools subject to national intervention to introduce and become expert in the delivery of ‘excellence for all’ school improvement strategies; and
  • The SSAT G&T school network – the foundation for a national partnership of schools with the capacity to provide system-wide leadership in G&T education.

They constitute a substantial legacy that GT Voice can and should protect – and upon which it can build in future.

The 2009 Schools White Paper

By 2009, the Government’s increasing impatience with ‘field forces’ – the various intermediary bodies enabling it to effect change on the ground – had become a dominant theme.

Field forces are costly and funding would be in increasingly short supply in future. Giving schools more freedom to drive their own improvement is far cheaper – especially if they are expected to use their existing budgets – and can arguably help drive up standards by freeing schools from the shackles of central prescription and empowering them to develop the solutions right for them, rather than forcing them to apply a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

The new path is mapped out in ‘Your Child, Your Schools, Our Future, Labour’s Schools White Paper published in June 2009:

‘Under this model, the DCSF will, in general, cease to provide, or fund the provision of, school improvement support. Rather, DCSF will ensure that there is sufficient supply of quality-assured improvement support, across the country, to meet schools’ demands…

…as far as possible we will move to our new model of support for improvement…with centrally-funded programmes continuing only where there is a national need which is unlikely to be met in a devolved system.’ (pp 58-59)

The White Paper does not outline a process, or specify objective criteria to assess national need and the probability of continued support under devolution. But it outlines how schools and school leaders will offer school-to-school improvement and also proposes:

‘…creating a series of improvement support frameworks, to identify quality-assured providers of support on important aspects of schools’ responsibilities across all five Every Child Matters outcomes. Existing and new providers could apply to be included. Acceptance would not in itself provide funding or a guarantee of business – it would be for individual schools to choose (and pay for) the right providers…with the frameworks providing an assurance of quality…

…We will ensure that there is a smooth transition to the new arrangements, and that the legacy of high-quality programmes and guidance that the National Strategies have developed over the last 12 years continues to be accessible to schools and local authorities.’

The White Paper itself confirmed the final termination of the National Strategies in March 2011 and CfBT was informed that its YG&T contract would end as planned in March 2010.

The White Paper does not spell out which aspects of schools’ responsibilities would be deemed sufficiently important, but there could be some hope – if not expectation – that a new raft of procurement frameworks might support an emerging market of G&T education suppliers, so filling the void created by the termination of these contracts.

And, further, there could be reasonable confidence that National Strategies’ support would be perpetuated by some means yet to be determined, such as licensing new providers to use, adapt and mediate their resources.

But the only explicit reference in the White Paper to G&T education is within the accountability arrangements developed to support newly-autonomous schools.

It is not to be found in the four declared pillars of the accountability system – a new school report card, self-evaluation, school inspection and the role of the School Improvement Partner – but in the entirely separate Pupil and Parents’ Guarantees.

These specified that every identified learner and their parents should have:

‘written confirmation by their school of the extra challenge and support they will receive’

and the parents should also be given:

‘a clear understanding of what they should do to help them’.

For the very first time all schools would be required to specify how they would support G&T learners, and to engage directly with parents about their role in that process.

It was the next best thing to a national entitlement, providing a foundation for guidance and sharing of effective practice, as well as giving parents a clear basis to challenge schools that neglected their responsibilities – and vice-versa of course.

But even as the policy was developed, the Government knew that its future depended on a Labour election victory in May 2010.

The Guarantees were opposed by the Opposition as an anti-autonomy measure, citing bureaucracy, centralisation and micro-management. It was feared that they would promote excessive litigation, empowering middle class parents but providing little support to the relatively disadvantaged.

By April the chances looked slim. The Tories refused to support a range of measures in the Children Schools and Families Bill and the Guarantees were lost in the frantic horse-trading that preceded the Dissolution of Parliament. They could only be rescued by a Labour victory the following month.

Transition – Labour

We are getting ahead of ourselves chronologically and need to return to the February 2010 Select Committee oral evidence session.

The DCSF’s Statement to the Committee is broadly consistent with the White Paper:

‘We now want to build on the achievements of the last twelve years and move into the next phase of the programme by widening provision yet further to support every able child in every school. We believe that the next phase of support for Gifted and Talented pupils should be school-led….

We believe that schools themselves should support the progression of all their Gifted and Talented learners and build their capacity to do this. This will build upon schools’ expertise in knowing how best to support the young people that they serve, and enable the support to be tailored to young people’s individual needs.

We also want to support more disadvantaged pupils who may be more likely to need extra support to help them to fulfil their potential. We are also providing £250 per pupil aged 14-19 years, registered as Gifted and Talented and from a disadvantaged background.’

Three months earlier, the Executive Summary of OFSTED’s thematic report ‘Gifted and Talented Pupils in Schools’ (December 2009) had given a slightly different perspective:

‘[DCSF] has recently reviewed its national programme for gifted and talented pupils and concluded that it was not having sufficient impact on schools. As a result, provision is being scaled back to align it more closely with wider developments in personalising learning. Schools will be expected to do more themselves for these pupils.’

At one level there are grounds for optimism that a framework comprising:

  • a national support programme for gifted, disadvantaged 14-19 year-olds developed out of City GATES;
  • a new procurement framework supporting third-party suppliers of gifted education services to schools; and
  • the Pupil and Parents’ Guarantees, now with added meat on the White Paper bones

would provide the basis for a further phase of strong development embracing every school – especially if the Government heeded arguments for a fourth element, advanced to the Select Committee by John Stannard, then National Champion for G&T Education:

‘If it’s [G&T education] going to be mainstreamed in schools, we’ve got to see it much more in the centre of schools’ attention. That means it needs more accountability around it; it needs Ofsted to be stronger; it needs a clearer framework of requirements from the Department to come straight down to schools, so they are not in any doubt about it; and it needs some more guidance on the funding and how that should be allocated in schools. At the moment, that remains to be done.’ (Q135).

He was drawing directly on evidence from the December 2009 OFSTED Report:

‘Most of the schools said they needed further support to identify the most appropriate regional and national resources and training to meet their particular needs better…All the schools visited felt they needed more support and guidance about how to judge what gifted and talented pupils at different ages should be achieving and how well they were making progress towards attaining their challenging targets across key stages’.

But in reality the future was much more uncertain.

We have seen already that the Guarantees were unravelling well before the Election.

Plans for procurement frameworks and a National Strategies legacy were not very far advanced – and probably placed deliberately on the backburner pending the Election outcome.

The support programme for gifted disadvantaged 14-19 year-olds was developed out of City GATES, a YG&T programme supporting disadvantaged gifted learners in the City Challenges to progress to competitive universities.

While delivery of City GATES was sometimes inconsistent, the original vision had been pioneering, providing a basis for unifying the Government’s overlapping G&T and fair access strategies.

The planned national expansion would have pared back the original framework, creating a more intuitive online planning tool and encouraging schools to draw on internal resources alongside a directory of external provision to create a tailored support programme for each eligible learner.

But a funding stream could not be guaranteed on the other side of the Election, especially beyond the spending review cycle ending in March 2011.

Moreover, there was no obvious co-ordinating body, there being no appetite for DCSF to assume the task, or for the National Strategies to caretake the role pending post-Election clarity.

Transition – Coalition

Michael Gove, the incoming Conservative Secretary of State, had declared an intention to improve G&T education prior to assuming power, in February 2009:

‘There should be better provision for gifted and talented students – nearly a fifth identified as such don’t go on to get five good GCSEs’

‘I think the national Gifted and Talented programme simply isn’t taken seriously, either by the Government or by some of the schools. The Government isn’t serious enough about providing stretch and challenge to children who have academic ability

Andrew Adonis was serious about it but it’s gone backwards now that he’s disappeared from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. I know other [Labour] cabinet ministers are concerned about failure in this area’.

But any plans hit the Tory’s cutting room floor prior to the conclusion of the Coalition agreement.

By the time of the Draft Schools Manifesto in January 2010, the only vestige that remains is a commitment to reform school performance tables so they reflect the performance of the most and least able.

That commitment also made its way into the Coalition Agreement, albeit with a slightly different emphasis:

‘We will reform league tables so that schools are able to focus on, and demonstrate the progress of children of all abilities’.

Ministers allowed planned G&T education work to continue until the end of the funding cycle rather than seeking relatively small savings from immediate termination.

This gave NAGC and the nine Regional Partnerships some breathing space to work out whether and how to continue without central government funding. The National Strategies were also allowed to complete planned work during the final year of their contract, notably National Challenge Pilot materials and the Progress Tool.

The Partnerships benefited from a substantial £4m budget in 2010-11 for City GATES and its national roll-out but, without any supporting infrastructure, this could only be a one-off payment. I can trace no national arrangements for integration with new funding streams such as the Pupil Premium or the National Scholarship Scheme.

This PQ reply confirms that, including £2.3m in the PE and School Sports Strategy (PESSCL), a total of £8.952m was spent on G&T education in FY2010-11, and this sum excludes that part of the National Strategies’ contract attributable to G&T education.

Were the same question to be asked in respect of 2011-12, only Teach First’s funding for its HEAPS programme would feature, though I can find no explicit reference to the sum, which is presumably swallowed up in the much bigger DfE core grant.

Now the Strategies are closed down, Labour’s plans for a National Strategies legacy and procurement frameworks seem to have been sidelined. The National Strategies website is consigned to the National Archives. DFE’s own page for G&T education has also been removed.

The Coalition does not have a declared policy for gifted education. The nearest we have come to a statement is in the Lords Committee Debate on an amendment to the 2011 Education Bill advanced by Lord Blackwell:

‘After Clause 35, insert the following new Clause-

“Duty to provide for the needs of high-ability pupils

In determining the nature of their educational provision, all maintained schools, Academies and free schools must have regard to meeting the special learning requirements of children within their admissions group who have or subsequently demonstrate high ability or aptitude for learning.”‘ (Col GC424)

In her response, Baroness Garden of Frognall says:

‘My Lords, education is about helping every child to make progress and reach their full potential, and that includes those pupils who have a high ability or aptitude for learning. There are many ways in which schools can support and challenge those pupils with the highest ability….Schools already have the necessary freedom to work together to ensure that all the pupils in their care get an education that stretches and develops them. That is backed up by accountability through Ofsted inspections. More performance information on the progress that schools make with the highest achieving pupils will be part of that.’

We shall analyse the impact of these wider policies in Part Three of this post.

Labour in opposition

Early Labour attacks on Government education policy did not offer any alternative because the party had decided to establish policy reviews to conduct a root-and-branch analysis of previous failings and outline new directions.

The education reviews are led by Andy Burnham, the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, but there is also a cross-cutting review, led by Ivan Lewis, the Shadow Culture Secretary. Sometimes this is described as examining talent development and social mobility; sometimes it is defined much more narrowly as a ‘Creative Industries Policy Review’.

To date, these seem to have been conducted behind closed doors, by a small cadre of selected experts. One of the appointees to the education reviews is John Stannard, the former National Champion for G&T. He is the probable influence behind positive statements in a recent Burnham speech setting out the initial direction of his reviews:

‘As Secretary of State for Education, I would look to build a school system in England based on three clear principles:

    • First, where hard work is properly rewarded and all young people have something to aim for beyond school.
    • Second, where we reach every single child, by judging schools on the difference they make for every individual student – including how far schools stretch the brightest.
    • Third, where learning is made relevant to life today, building the character and qualities young people will need to succeed in 21st century’.

He introduces the possibility that the Pupil and Parent Guarantees might be revived:

‘…is there a case for setting out a minimum entitlement for all children – a binding statement of rights in a world where the education system is more fragmented and some schools narrow their focus? It could build on our pupil and parent guarantees, scrapped by this Government.’

And he specifically proposes increased collaborative work between schools in support of gifted learners:

‘A refocused 14-19 curriculum might also mean at 14 that we spend more time bringing the very brightest children together from schools a cross a local authority area, so they can learn from each other and we can give them a clearer idea of what is required on the Russell Group or Oxbridge path’.

So far, so promising. It will be important for GT Voice to make contact with Burnham and Lewis at the earliest possible stage, to begin a dialogue to inform the further development of Labour policy.

What Lessons Can We Learn?

The key messages for GT Voice I take from this review of recent history are that:

  • there is currently a leadership, infrastructure and policy vacuum in G&T education. It is open to GT Voice to inhabit this space and to do so now would position it well to influence future developments, including the emerging policy of the next (Labour?) Government;
  • we must ensure that what has happened in the past informs new thinking about the nature and purpose of G&T education. GT Voice members are best placed to make these connections and to undertake the thinking;
  • there is an important G&T education legacy which GT Voice can and should protect or it will rapidly disappear; there is much within this legacy that could and should be updated and applied in the new context, as well as some commercial possibilities to exploit.

The third part of this post will examine the impact of the Coalition Government’s education policies on contemporary gifted education and how this might influence GT Voice’s agenda in 2011/2012.

GP

August 2011

Which Way Now for UK Gifted Education?

This is the first in a short series of posts about the future direction of gifted education in the United Kingdom. It tackles fundamental questions about the nature and purpose of G&T education at this critical point in the development of the oeuvre.

I’ve timed this first post to coincide with the 19th Biennial Conference of the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children.

That’s partly because it has a universal significance, even though it purports to be about the UK.

And partly because it might have formed part of my presentation had I elected to attend.

But the series as a whole is scheduled alongside the formal establishment of GT Voice, the new support network for UK gifted and talented education.

I want to set out an agenda for debate amongst current and prospective GT Voice members which begins with these first order issues before moving on to examine:

  • the current state of our gifted education policy and infrastructure, particularly in England – and how we reached this position;
  • the impact to date of the Government’s wider education policies and the first tentative statements from the Opposition; and
  • how all of this might influence GT Voice’s direction of travel and initial work programme.

By the way, if you’re not yet a member of GT Voice then you should be! You don’t have to be resident in the UK. Indeed international members are much appreciated. Just sign up here.

The Formation of GT Voice

Following a far too lengthy gestation period, GT Voice, the new UK-based network of stakeholders with an interest and involvement in gifted and talented (G&T education) is on the verge of establishing itself on a proper footing.

Elections are taking place to a steering committee that will replace the current unelected working group and, provided the money can be found, a decent online platform will be available to support the network’s activities before too much more time has elapsed.

The key challenges for the incoming steering committee will include:

  • setting the tone by embracing an inclusive, democratic approach to developing the network and determining its initial activities;
  • building and sustaining the membership by providing the services and support that they want and need within the limited resources available;
  • securing GT Voice as an active and influential network, capable of providing system-wide leadership where there is currently a vacuum; and
  • securing longer-term sustainability through partnership with other bodies and – potentially – an income generation model that doesn’t undermine its members’ commercial interests but does support them in competing directly for business with non-members.

Meanwhile, the Centre for Education and Employment Research (CEER) at the University of Buckingham should be putting the finishing touches to a report on Educating the Especially Able commissioned from them by the Sutton Trust.

The report is scheduled for publication in September 2011, just as the new GT Voice Steering Group is established. It is expected to assess the state of current practice, so will be a useful supplement to recent contributions by OFSTED (England, December 2009) and Estyn (Wales, July 2011).

GT Voice will be able to take account of this evidence – alongside the outcomes of the January 2011 School Census and its own survey and data analysis, drawn together under the ‘state of the nation’ workstrand to which it is already committed, in determining its priorities.

But further groundwork is required to lay the foundations for the subsequent development of GT Voice. For we are at a watershed in the definition and understanding of G&T education.

The GT Voice network is ideally placed to host and mediate the debate that will be necessary to reach a new, broad consensus on the way forward. Indeed, this is the perfect opportunity to raise its profile and announce its arrival on the UK educational stage.

Up to now, the embryonic network has stated its objectives in general terms by means of the Charter which all members are asked to support.

This will do as an interim statement of intent, but the wording of the Charter begs many questions: GT Voice will need to establish a clearer, shared understanding before it can move much further.

This post sets out my personal perspective on the purpose of G&T education and the core issues that GT Voice will need to address. I am publishing it now because I want to stimulate and inform debate amongst members and prospective members about these issues.

My involvement with the Working Group has repeatedly reinforced the critical importance of momentum. It would be absolutely disastrous if the Election is followed by a lengthy period of inactivity instead of being put to good use. So let’s get the ball rolling…

Terminology: The First Vexed Question

It will not escape your notice that, by deciding to call itself GT Voice, the embryonic network is aligning itself – deliberately or otherwise – with those who are relatively comfortable with the terms ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ or, at the very least, prepared to accept them pragmatically as a ‘port in a storm’.

I number myself amongst the latter, because I worry that terminological disputes are a cul de sac, diverting us from the urgent need to bring about real change on the ground.

But, although I frequently succumb to the convenient shorthand term ‘G&T learners’ (and will no doubt do so in this series of posts), I prefer to apply the G&T label to education rather than to individuals.

This in recognition of the problematic nature of identification and associated labelling, the issue that most divides opinion in this field.

That puts me personally at odds with the GT Voice strapline, as well as its Charter.

The problem is that we don’t have consensus on an alternative formulation – and the never-ending search for one will lead us further up the cul de sac until we achieve collective paralysis.

Every single suggestion is open to criticism on the grounds that it is too euphemistic (deployed for the sake of political correctness rather than with any desire for accuracy and precision), too narrow (omitting some of those learners we wish to support), or both.

For example, UK NAGC currently favours ‘high learning potential':

‘NAGC is a not-for-profit organisation that supports the social, emotional and learning needs of children with high learning potential of all ages and backgrounds’.

But what exactly does ‘high…potential’ mean in this context? Could it include all children, or does it imply a tiny percentage, or something in-between? Or is that for the user to determine on a subjective basis? And does ‘learning potential’ embrace those with sporting talent or leadership skills, for example?

One can already feel the cul-de-sac closing in…

I can navigate to the point of recognising that GT Voice members are engaged with the interactions between sets of paired terms: potential and ability; achievement and performance; excellence and equity; challenge and support.

These may be supplemented by qualifiers like ‘high’ or ‘exceptional’, but such terms reintroduce difficulties over the setting of definitional hurdles so are perhaps best avoided. More on this later.

But I find it hard to push further – the spectre of diminishing returns looms large ahead. Maybe I should return to my ‘port in a storm’.

For it is hard to escape the conclusion that the terminology is relatively unimportant, provided of course that GT Voice can define succinctly the scope of its interest and communicate that effectively to others.

Definition: The Second Vexed Question

So what exactly is the territory that GT Voice should be occupying?

A necessary preliminary question is whether that territory should be small and tightly drawn, protected by a metaphoric circle of wagons, or larger and overlapping with the land inhabited by other interested parties.

As I’ve pointed out all too often on this Blog, what I shall continue to call G&T education is a very broad church indeed.

It includes those with a very narrow, somewhat old-fashioned conceptualisation of the field who would prefer to keep the wagons drawn about them, but there are also many – probably now the majority – who (to pile up the mixed metaphors) are more comfortable with a broader canvas.

These differences are evident in the positions we adopt on the nature and breadth of ability (which do not need to be rehearsed again here). Thankfully, in the UK, we have mostly succeeded in advocating a liberal perspective, even though resources have always been focussed disproportionately in practice.

The differences are reinforced still more markedly when we come to consider the boundaries that distinguish learners in scope from those out of it. I believe that is best approached by focussing on G&T education rather than G&T learners.

It does not seem important that some learners will have higher ability than others, except to recognise that such differences exist, so personalised provision within G&T education is critical.

I am more concerned with the undeniable fact that all learners develop at different rates and at different times. Many will need extra challenge and support for the time being; a few will need such provision throughout their education. Some would argue that only the latter cross the boundary into G&T education, but I willingly include the former too.

So the bright, the precocious and the late developers are all grist to the G&T mill as far as I’m concerned, even though their ‘G&T-ness’ may be a temporary state which they move into and out of at different stages of their education.

My personal line is drawn ahead of the point where we must acknowledge that all learners are potentially G&T. I respect the right of others to hold that view, but I find the evidence unconvincing.

I can distinguish between having high expectations of each and every learner – to be the best they can be – and recognising that, in reality, even with the best possible environment and decades of practice and effort (not to mention unremitting praise), some are destined never to escape mediocrity when compared with their peers.

But I defend the right of GT Voice members to hold that all children are gifted, just as I defend the right to believe that virtually none are gifted. By adopting narrow parameters we exclude many potential stakeholders from involvement.

Yes, the network will be much tighter, with less scope for disagreement and dissent and few unhelpful border disputes. But our scope for influence, involvement and fruitful partnership will be very much reduced.

We must avoid the temptation to circle the wagons. The size and reach of the network will be more important in determining its influence than the degree of unanimity within it. The silo mentality has hindered the development of G&T education here and worldwide, and it is high time we put it firmly behind us.

There can be strength in diversity provided that the whole community can identify tangible benefits from working collaboratively for a shared outcome.

But that requires a broad framework to define the core purposes of contemporary G&T education. It is not necessary for all members to ‘sign up’ to all areas of that framework, as long as they can find a critical mass of elements that they can support.

Preparation of such a framework is part of the process of defining consensus and getting as close to it as possible. But we need to start somewhere.

So here is my current best effort, full of flaws no doubt, but offered as a starting point for debate rather than as a finished product. How much of this can you support? Where are the personal sticking points and how would you revise the framework to take account of them?

Reconceptualising the Purpose of Gifted Education

The best way I can find to come at this question is by considering the desired outcomes of G&T education at three complementary levels:

  • the individual: the priority is to meet personal learning needs by consistently providing the right level of challenge and support to maximise performance and minimise underachievement, so securing well-being and personal fulfilment.
  • the setting (typically a school): the priority is to support – maybe even to drive – the achievement of universally high standards and continuous (school) improvement by maintaining a judicious balance between excellence (meritocracy) and equity (narrowing achievement gaps). This in turn supports competition and/or collaboration, depending on the drivers in the wider educational system
  • the educational system, the wider economy and society: the priorities are to:
  • maximise educational outcomes, continuously improving on past performance and achieving the best possible performance in international benchmarking studies; and
  • derive maximum economic benefit from the efficient development of human capital and maximise social benefits, including stronger social mobility.

Each of these requires further elaboration.

The Individual

The GT Voice Charter devotes three of its five stated ‘shared beliefs’ to the individual learner:

‘The potential of G&T learners must be positively encouraged

All learners – including all G&T learners – have an equal right to inspiration, challenge and support to maximise their potential

All learners – including all G&T learners – have an equal right to be confident, happy and fulfilled in who they are and to feel good about letting others see what they are capable of achieving’

This formulation is deliberately brief but deploys some of the essential ‘trigger words’ one would expect to see.

For me, the purpose of G&T education at the individual level is to:

  • establish when each learner needs additional opportunities, challenge and support to achieve and sustain performance which is both better than their previous ‘personal best’ and sufficiently beyond the norms expected for their peers that they cannot be otherwise provided for;
  • make available appropriate opportunities, challenge and support; continue to provide them for as long as they are needed; and ensure that provision to excel in areas of strength is complemented by provision to improve in areas of weakness;
  • by this means, seek to eliminate underachievement; low aspirations, motivation and self-esteem, as well as deficits in skills, social and cultural capital, so equipping each learner to maximise the personal returns attributable to their education;
  • ensure that each learner maintains a judicious balance between high performance and self-fulfilment, personal well-being and enjoyment.

The Setting

The GT Voice Charter has nothing to say about this second level. I would want to address several aspects of the purpose of aggregated G&T education within any learning setting:

  • to contribute the upper end of a continuum of personalised provision which is available to all who can benefit from it (rather than a separate G&T programme confined to an exclusive group);
  • to secure and sustain a rich programme of opportunities, challenge and support which is planned and personalised for each learner, drawing together provision from all sources internal and external to the normal setting (typically a school);
  • to drive universal high expectations, pulling all learners towards excellent outcomes, encouraging them to be the best they can be, rather than pushing them to achieve standard national benchmarks and allowing them to coast if and when they achieve them;
  • to narrow achievement and progression gaps between learners from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more advantaged peers by weighting opportunities, challenge and support towards the former without depressing the performance of the latter;
  • to ensure that the individuals who benefit – and those with the potential to do so – are not denied the opportunities, challenge and support they need in favour of those performing below national benchmarks for their age; and to counteract any perverse incentives that militate against this;
  • to drive excellence-driven improvement strategies which enable settings to demonstrate continuous improvement towards outstanding practice and beyond; and, by this means, contribute to the benefits of competition and/or collaboration; and
  • to contribute significantly to the educational, social and cultural benefits the setting confers on its locality.

The system

The charter mentions that effective provision:

‘is essential for securing educational excellence, narrowing achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged learners, and supporting social mobility; and…will make a valuable contribution to the overall quality of our education system, our economy and our international competitiveness.’

I would unpack this a little more as follows:

  • to increase the supply of disadvantaged high achievers and improve their progression to selective universities and subsequent employment, so strengthening social mobility;
  • to maximise the proportion of learners achieving at the highest levels on international educational benchmarking studies;
  • to improve national economic competitiveness by: increasing the quantum of qualified high performers, so feeding the pipelines for high skilled workers necessary to a globalised economy; providing the brainpower to drive innovation and research; and eliminating achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged learners at high performance levels;
  • to help maximise the economic, social and cultural benefits of high performance in sporting, artistic and cultural settings.

Finally…

In taking this position I am drawing on the economic justification for G&T education previously advanced on this Blog as well as the case for achieving system-wide high performance made in the recent publication ‘Room at the Top’.

I am also reflecting the tradition of G&T education as an instrument for inclusive whole school improvement which embodies the ‘rising tide lifts all ships’ philosophy that underpins the development of Renzulli’s Schoolwide Enrichment Modeland, more recently, the National Challenge G&T Pilot here in England.

And I am offering a flexible approach to our understanding of what constitutes a G&T learner that can potentially accommodate a whole range of different positions, if not the most extreme.

By going through this process as an individual I believe I have clarified my own thinking. But I hope that I can also stimulate a debate that is essential for GT Voice to undertake. For otherwise there is no prospect of meaningful partnership and advocacy – and we have no foundations on which to build more specific policy and position statements.

In the next post in this series we will begin to examine the current state of UK gifted education, how we got to where we are today and how current education policy is affecting the situation.

GP

August 2011