Building a Federation of UK G&T interests – Learning from New Zealand

The History

In Autumn 2009 I invited England’s Gifted and Talented Stakeholder Group to consider a short paper I had prepared about the potential benefits of closer collaboration between the interests they represented.

I argued that this would be necessary to ensure the survival of a national programme for G&T education given the:

  • imminent end of the contract with CfBT to run the Young Gifted and Talented (YG&T) programme;
  • limited transfer of responsibility from CfBT to the National Strategies;
  • limited scope of National Strategies activity in their final year, culminating in their termination in March 2011 and
  • impending cuts to public expenditure

The ensuing discussion was predictably disappointing. Many of the stakeholders had become accustomed to – perhaps even dependent on – a ‘top-down’ programme and couldn’t easily visualise the picture of the future that I was painting.

I suppose I had anticipated that it would be too soon for the Group to engage seriously with the issues, but it seemed to me important to plant the seeds of subsequent discussion.

Unknown to me, that discussion began very shortly afterwards during the last few months of 2009.

Recent developments

I first became aware that talks were under way when invited to get involved in April 2010, following my retirement.

I argued for rapid action to establish a national federation or network. This was slightly before a General Election that the Conservatives were expected to win.

Their policy agenda was built around a ‘big society’ concept which involves delegating responsibilities away from Government to the voluntary and third sectors. At least part of the purpose – if undeclared – was to help them to manage the swingeing public expenditure cuts that they were also committed to securing.

I produced a first draft plan for the network – designed to secure initial consensus about its aims and purposes.

I offered to undertake the related development and secretariat work necessary to secure its establishment on a firm footing…only to be asked to stop because some factions were reportedly suspicious of my proximity to the Government. This on the verge of an Election that was about to introduce an entirely new one!

It was cowardly of those factions not to discuss their concerns with me face to face.  But the situation was also intensely frustrating as I was convinced that having a network in place as soon as the new Government assumed power could pay major dividends.

It would have allowed us to ‘get in on the ground floor’ in terms of the new Government’s policy agenda for education and ‘the big society’ and to make vital policy connections with other interests while their plans were at the earliest stage of development. It might even have secured a fleeting reference in the forthcoming Schools White Paper.

In May I wrote an article for G&T Update (subscription required) setting out the case for an inclusive ‘G&T coalition’ and outlining some important links to the Coalition Government’s policy agenda.

I ended the article by urging that an entity must be in place by September at the latest, with an agreed 5-year strategy and an outline business plan. That timetable will not now be met and the potential benefits I identified are much less likely to be realised.

The draft proposal

The article was published in July. Meanwhile, an initial open meeting had taken place in June 2010 to discuss the prospects for a network. Progress felt painfully slow. There was lots of talking around the issue but the only practical outcomes have been a draft outline proposal and a commitment to meet again in September.

The draft proposal says:

‘There was broad agreement at the meeting that the establishment of a national group to enhance and promote the profile of GT education is imperative.

GT education is unlikely to be a Government priority in the foreseeable future and impending funding cuts will impact significantly on this policy area. It is only as a unified group of GT education supporters that we will be able to provide a degree of clarity to those seeking support and serve as a pressure group for change at local, national and international levels, by:

  • advocating for equitable educational opportunities for those with high learning potential, including GT students;
  • working pro-actively to raise the profile of the needs of GT learners with a range of stakeholders;
  • working collaboratively to develop policy and delivery models that take account of wider educational change, and helping to secure funding where appropriate;
  • developing a professional community to network, support and learn from each other;
  • encouraging the pursuit and sharing of best practice in GT education;
  • helping ensure that GT education can make a significant contribution to social mobility;
  • engaging in practical research that sets out to demonstrate the value of focusing on GT provision.

As far as possible, the group will undertake these activities without compromising the autonomy, influence and income-generating capacity of its members.’

The international dimension

I was responsible for the introduction of the word ‘international’, not least because such a network could have an important role in supporting Hungary’s plans for an EU initiative – a welcome development that I have covered in a previous post.

I also suggested the final sentence.

Incidentally, I should mention in passing that discussion at the meeting was confined largely to England. An important future consideration is whether we can and should create a UK-wide network taking full account of the interests of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Maybe Eire would also like to be affiliated.

We can learn much from giftEDnz a similar coalition of interests established in New Zealand.

GiftedEDnz is impressive in many ways. It successfully attracted start-up and development funding from the Todd Foundation ($NZ 15,900 and $NZ 47,130 respectively). It has an established constitution, a website and newsletter.

It is piloting special interest groups (using the second tranche of Todd Foundation funding). It has already hosted a mini-conferences and is working towards its first majorevent in 2011.

But the New Zealand organisation has one major weakness – it is not fully inclusive. By confining itself to professional interests and not including the New Zealand Association for Gifted Children (NZAGC) it is potentially missing a trick.

I am clear from discussion with the chair of giftEDnz that this is all perfectly amicable and that her organisation enjoys a close relationship with NZAGC.

But I can see no reason for the UK to follow the same path.

A professional network or an inclusive network?

As I write, the draft proposal is circulating with the following proposed title and strapline:

G&T – One Voice

the national professional community
for the support and nurture
of gifted and talented young people,
and their families and educators

One doesn’t need a Nobel Prize to spot the contradiction in this statement, emphasised as it is by italicising the word ‘professional’

I for one shall be arguing strongly against such an exclusive approach when we meet again in September.

One fundamental purpose of the network is to bring all parties to the table in an inclusive fashion. No-one’s interests are served by excluding parents, carers and learners from proceedings.

It means that key topics such as parental engagement and student voice will be addressed from a narrow professional perspective. It runs directly counter to the Government’s direction of travel in encouraging groups of parents to establish their own free schools.

Were I a betting man, I would lay a wager that this emphasis originates with…

…Well perhaps I won’t name them, for the time being at least. Discretion is the better part of valour – and I want to give them an opportunity to prove me wrong.

For now  I will confine myself to making three cautious observations of a general nature:

  • Firstly, there are players in UK  G&T education that have considerable pride in their professional credentials. In some cases there are widely divergent views as to whether such pride is justified by the quality of output and the capacity to improve provision. When some of the most positive statements emanate from the entity itself, that tends to indicate a degree of insecurity rather than full and complete confidence in one’s own performance;
  • Secondly, anyone bringing a ‘not invented here’ mentality to future discussions will sabotage our best efforts to secure a full and effective partnership between G&T interests in this country. That would not be in the best interests of our gifted and talented learners, even if some believe that it would better serve the needs of their educators;
  • Thirdly, by the same token, anyone susceptible to that mentality will need to be thoroughly confident of their capacity to ‘go it alone’, potentially in head-to-head competition with a coalition of all the other interests in the field. They may be wise to adopt a ‘wait and see’ stance, reserving their position until they can judge more accurately whether or not the network is likely to be successful.

Let’s wait and see what happens.

For the avoidance of doubt, these are my personal views and not those of any organisation with which I am associated.

GP

July 2010

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