Are Leonardo Schools a Good Model of Gifted Education?

I have been monitoring the development of gifted and talented education in the Netherlands for several years now. The Dutch have invested significantly in developing their provision – their ideas and practice deserve to be more widely appreciated.

I will soon renew my acquaintance with the bigger picture for one of a series of articles I am writing for G&T Update taking ‘A Global Perspective on G&T Education’ [subscription required].

But I wanted to focus this post specifically on Leonardo schools, partly because they are attracting much attention – occasionally sparking controversy – within Holland’s gifted education community. Also because the way Leonardo has developed is interesting in itself, and because these Dutch disagreements are a microcosm of those that exist within global research and practice.

The emerging network of Leonardo schools is active on Twitter and, courtesy of my Tweetdeck translation tool, I like to retweet some of their messages under the #gifted hashtag, so feeding information about the Dutch experience into the wider network.

Online translation tools have improved significantly in the past few years, but they are not infallible, providing clues to meaning rather than the full sense. So I apologise if some of my interpretation during background research proves to be not quite correct – and I look to the excellent English language skills of my Dutch readers to help correct the record!

The Origins of Leonardo and Progress to Date

The originator of the Leonardo model is one Jan Hendrikx, a former teacher and primary school principal who spent some 12 years of his career working with gifted children in mainstream settings.

He became convinced that teachers faced great difficulty in meeting the needs of their gifted learners in a mixed ability environment. Despite their best efforts to provide enrichment and faster pacing, many gifted pupils were insufficiently challenged and motivated.

The Dutch education inspectorate estimates that almost one-third of their students with an IQ of 130 or above are underachieving relative to their potential. This rises to six in ten for those with an IQ of 145 and above. Hendrikx points out the tremendous waste of human potential that this represents, and the loss to the Netherlands in terms of wasted human capital.

Hendrickx began to shape the Leonardo project in 2005, launching the first Leonardo classes in 2007 with 31 pupils in a primary school in the town of Venlo in Limburg.

The first secondary Leonardo College followed in August 2008, located in Zwijndrecht in South Holland.

According to the Leonardo Foundation website, there are currently 54 Leonardo primary schools (ages 4-12) fully operational, three just opening and three more in development. Sixteen are in South Holland, but there is now at least one school in each of the 12 Dutch provinces.

There are also seven fully operational secondary sector Leonardo Colleges and three more in the exploratory phase. These are located in five of the 12 provinces.

The Foundation has articulated different targets for expansion, but it aims to have a mature national network in place by 2012 (within five years of the launch of the first school) providing a continuum of provision for children and young people aged 4-18. Some suggest this might comprise up to 120 primary schools and 60-80 secondary colleges.

An Overview of the Leonardo Model

At its most basic, the Leonardo model is very simply stated: a separate mixed-age class for gifted learners within a normal school.

The gifted pupils enrol through the host school. Although they are taught separately in smaller classes of about 16 pupils, they mingle with the rest of their school during breaks, and sometimes for sports, musical and dramatic performances. They are in essence a school-within-a-school, making use of the host’s facilities and run by its management but otherwise leading a largely separate existence

This ‘pull out’ provision originates in Hendrikx’s conviction that ‘within class’ education is not in the best interests of gifted learners or their teachers. The arguments are familiar: the standard educational experience in Dutch schools is not sufficiently differentiated to meet the needs of gifted learners. They are typically several years ahead of their peers, but they also tend to think and learn differently.

The Leonardo Foundation calls this ‘top-down learning’, which I interpret to mean a synthesising approach, beginning with the wider concept and then breaking this down into its components. It argues that Dutch education is typically engaged in a ‘bottom-up’ process through which learners explore separately the different elements of a concept before finally knitting them together.

The example given is the treatment of the metric system in mathematics. The standard Dutch curriculum is said to take four years to address all aspects of the topic, gradually building up understanding by drawing together building blocks of knowledge and understanding. Conversely, the Leonardo approach is to explore first the nature and purpose of the metric system and then to move on rapidly to cover the constituent measures.

The Foundation also argues that most Dutch teachers are ill-equipped to meet the needs of gifted learners, referencing a national survey of 2,700 primary school teachers conducted in 2008, which concluded that five of every six were insecure in their ability to identify gifted pupils or to effectively meet their needs.

This, it is suggested, reinforces the underachievement of gifted learners, causing deviant behaviour in some and, at the extreme, causing psychiatric disorders and suicidal tendencies.

The Foundation cites research undertaken at the Centrer for the Study of Giftedness (CBO) and the Institute for Applied Sociology (ITS) at the University of Nijmegen, (Hoogeveen, in Hell, Mooij, Verhoeven: Education Adaptations for gifted students, meta-analysis and overview of international research, 2004) which is said to conclude that the most effective educational adjustments for gifted learners involve pull-out provision for at least part of the time .

Having read the document in translation this does seem, at best, a partial interpretation of its findings, which are much less clear-cut than the statement above would lead one to believe.

These arguments are all too familiar, as are the counter-arguments in favour of integrated provision for gifted learners. One yearns for a ‘third way’ that secures the best of both worlds, but it remains to be seen whether this will evolve in the Netherlands, or whether the two constituencies are too firmly entrenched in their views.

Further Dimensions of the Leonardo Model

The core principles of educating gifted learners in separate mixed-age groups through ‘top-down learning’ lie at the heart of the Leonardo approach, but other dimensions include:

  • Curriculum compacting, enabling gifted learners to move beyond their age peers and potentially engaging with parts of the secondary curriculum while still in primary school. This does not extend to traditional acceleration or ‘grade-skipping’ which is rarer within Leonardo classes;
  • Departures from the standard curriculum which, in primary schools, entails greater emphasis on modern foreign languages (English and Spanish), philosophy, metacognition, entrepreneurial skills, science, communication and ‘dealing with giftedness’. There is a deliberate emphasis on the development of competences rather than knowledge, on stimulating creative thinking, including through problem-solving, and on arts, culture and sports;
  • Regenerating gifted pupils’ motivation for learning, which may have been undermined by their past experience as underachievers in mainstream classrooms; and an emphasis on ‘co-creation and sharing of knowledge’, supported through enrichment projects and online learning.
  • Partnership and collaboration with local businesses which provide guest lecturers, host workshops and company visits and provide internships, as well as offering financial support. (The Leonardo Foundation has agreements with the Rabobank Foundation, Apple, Steinberg and Yamaha Technologies). This is now being extended through collaboration with colleges and universities.

These principles have recently been drawn together in the Leonardo Primary Curriculum, which is being rolled out through a training programme for teachers.

We know that the curriculum is built around three-year cycles, each consisting of 15 interdisciplinary themes, all embracing science, humanities, arts and culture. The first theme is entitled ‘professions’. Further detail is hard to find online. I suspect it is being kept behind a password given the potential income that might be generated from training and wider application beyond the Leonardo network.

Eligibility and Admission

There are standard criteria for admission to Leonardo classes. Admission is through the host school and typically requires an IQ test and a personality assessment by a psychologist or approved expert in giftedness. Other than in exceptional circumstances, candidates must demonstrate an IQ of 130 or above. The admissions board also receives a report from the prospective pupil’s current school and there is a parental interview

The IQ cut-off means that some 2-3% of the Dutch pupil population is potentially eligible, which equates to 30,000-50,000 pupils from a national pupil population of about 1.5 million.

Although the criteria permit other children to be admitted in exceptional circumstances, the heavy emphasis on IQ does not fill well with the view that identification of gifted learners is most appropriately a ‘best fit’ process utilising quantitative and qualitative evidence from a variety of sources and making use of ‘identification through provision’ where appropriate.

I can find no data to support the supposition but I can confidently predict that the Leonardo criteria tend to ensure that their intake is drawn predominantly from those with relatively privileged backgrounds. If this is the case, it is a major problem for the initiative and reveals the likely source of some of the tension with the advocates in Government of a more inclusive approach.

This situation is likely to be compounded by the funding arrangements for Leonardo classes. The low pupil-teacher ratio and use of trained specialists mean that the unit cost of educating pupils in Leonardo classes is significantly higher than the comparable cost of educating their peers.

It is also significantly higher than the per pupil subsidy paid by the Dutch Government, which is around Euros 5,000 per annum. The annual cost of a pupil in a Leonardo class is around Euros 7,000, meaning that the balance of Euros 2,000 has to be found by the parents, or through sponsorship and charitable donations.

The online evidence suggests this is an average figure: whereas some schools need to ask parents for only Euros 1,000, others – presumably those with higher costs and negligible sponsorship – are having to ask for Euros 3,000.

A parental contribution at this level – averaging 40% of the annual per pupil subsidy from Government – will surely discourage applications from poorer families. The cost may be reduced for those facing particular hardship but only if wealthier parents take the financial hit.

It is not clear from the evidence I have seen whether such hardship funds exist, but the overall sense is of a programme without Government funding struggling for private contributions.

The Foundation is lobbying the Government to provide an extra subsidy for pupils in Leonardo classes arguing that the children should be recognised as having a special need, but the Government does not accept this.

Although it is making available Euros 30 million to support a national action plan for gifted education, expected by 1 March, it is sticking to the line that that this funding should be used to support gifted learners in mainstream education.

Questions have been asked of the Minister of Education who has recently confirmed this position, stating that Leonardo schools are free to utilise less expensive mainstreamed provision. The answers provide no hint of compromise on the Government’s part, suggesting that the action plan will exclude Leonardo classes entirely.

What is the Future for Leonardo?

If the Government position is as entrenched as the Minister’s answers appear to suggest, the Leonardo Foundation faces an uphill struggle in the years ahead.

To maintain its success to date, the Leonardo schools will need to produce incontrovertible evidence of their effectiveness relative to other forms of support for gifted learners available in the Netherlands.

I can find reference to several research studies under way at the Universities of Utrecht, Groningen, Nijmegen and Twente , but I have been unable to track down the specifications for these evaluations or any interim results.

The Leonardo Foundation will need to ensure it is armed with hard proof that the additional expenditure secures commensurate benefits for the gifted learners and no significant disbenefits for their non-gifted peers. Hopefully the studies are methodologically robust and include comparable control groups. Unfortunately, such studies are inevitably longitudinal and take some time to give reliable results.

The hard line taken by the Minister is perhaps unfortunate, for the most productive way forward surely lies in arrangements for cross-fertilisation between Leonardo provision and other approaches, potentially allowing hybrid models to develop.

There are signs that the Foundation would not be averse to this – its website acknowledges the potential for Leonardo approaches to benefit a wider range of learners who are educated in different settings – although its first priority is to secure financial sustainability for the purist Leonardo methodology.

If the Dutch Government could be persuaded to negotiate a role for the Leonardo Foundation in supporting integrated gifted education, that might generate sufficient income for separate Leonardo classes to continue alongside.

But if the Government has evidence that such separate classes are to the detriment of other pupils they will not wish to proceed along these lines.

The future is no doubt tied up with the position of the various Dutch political parties which I do not pretend to understand. It may be that Leonardo’s star will be in the ascendant if the balance of power swings in a different direction.

I shall continue to follow the development of Leonardo classes with interest. Such an approach would not be out of kilter with current developments in England and, who knows, we may see a Leonardo class established in a new free school before too long.

Maybe I shall approach the Foundation to request the UK franchise!


February 2011