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

26 thoughts on “Are Leonardo Schools a Good Model of Gifted Education?

  1. The article gives a good overview, but is not entirely correct in all aspects. To give some more detail:

    Further Dimensions of the Leonardo Model
    “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.”
    The Leonardo Foundation finds it extremely important that schools do not just start with some copied curriculum. As major reason they indicate the importance of proper teacher training before starting with lessons. The curriculae are developed with help of many professionals, studies and investigation. There is more to it than only a piece of paper, so I can see their point.

    Funding per child is around 4000 per child per year. Cost for Leonardo are calculated to 6500 per year when complying with the full curriculum. Then the gap is 2500.

    Parental contribution: Leonardo is explicitly meant for all children, independant of parent income. That’s why sponsorship and charitable donations are sought. Some schools however do not have their bussiness in order, and try to lay that on the parents that had to leave the school their child came from. Had to leave, due to real life big problems with the provided education for their child.
    Only by being independant of parent income, Leonardo can provide in the right for developing to the fullest of capabilities (convention of child rights, articles 28 and 29). The problems most of these children have had in normal school programs are proof that this is not yet fully arranged.

    What is the Future for Leonardo?
    Yes, it is an uphill struggle. With a growing group of parents that is prepared to take up that battle. At this point we are organising nationally. But in order to keep that battle going, we need to survive the coming years. So studies into effects can be finished, and hard evidence of positive effects can be displayed.
    However, for now survival costs money and effort – so anyone who’s got a penny to spare or wants to give us mental support, please visit (national website isn’t ready yet), and drop us a note.

  2. Thanks Floris for taking the trouble to correct my errors. I wish you success in your efforts and hope that you can reconcile the differences with the Ministry of Education, so providing a more secure funding environment for Leonardo in the future. I look forward to monitoring your continued progress and, if you ever wish to export your model across the Channel, you know where to find me!

  3. I’d like to add to this otherwise excellent overview that a glaring gap in the Minister’s stance is the fact that facilities to accomodate gifted children in the range between ‘mainstream’ and ‘Leonardo target audience’ (NB: this range does not necessarily map nicely on an IQ scale) are only sporadically available.

    Seen from abroad, distances within the Netherlands may seem puny, but the availability of a suitable primary school within 15 minutes drive of one’s home is considered A Big Deal(tm). Hence, parents are loath to change schools once they find out they have gifted offspring.

    This leads to situations where the choice (in real life) in terms of educational offerings is between ‘nothing’ and ‘Leonardo’. This puts many a student in a Leonardo classroom who could be served educationally just as well by other ‘inclusive’ means. The Minister is grabbing on to that fact, (one can readily assume–I refuse to presuppose stupidity–willfully) ignoring the lack of other options actually available.

    A very positive side effect of Leonardo appearing within an area is that schools that have noticed their (one way or another) rather special students ‘defecting’ (so to speak) to another school are facing up to the challenges of providing in exactly those facilities the Minister assumes to be already universally present.

  4. Thanks Peter. The Dutch Government has reportedly invested considerable funding in improving mainstream gifted education in the Netherlands over the last several years. How does that square with support being only sporadically available? Is it your view that the money has been wasted, or that it was not enough?

  5. Hi GP, and thanks for your reply.

    It is not so much errors that you made, but gaps in information. Unfortunately, there appear to be many misunderstandings (even in NL) about what’s going on around Leonardo. I am involved in 1 of the three parties that are busy with Leonardo schooling (Leo foundation, schools, and Leo charity funds), and therefore a bit closer to available info.

    I am actually surprised as to how much information you actually have. You’ve got a pretty decent source!

  6. The money recently made available, though not an insignificant sum, is spent mostly (as far as I am aware) on research programs and the like. There is also a lot of money going to schools to, like you suggest, invest in mainstream educational facilities for gifted children.

    I can’t say if it has been wasted and although there is probably no nearby ceiling to the amount of money that could be spent, I think that the bigger issue is that the most effective means of improving mainstream education is training the teachers. That is hardly a financial problem (although cumulative costs of the training itself + replacing that teacher for that day do add up) but much more a human one.

    IMHO, it requires a mental shift for teachers, school administrators, psychological professionals that work in education, etc. Many, many, many still fail to grasp the most basic concepts when it comes to giftedness.

    I’ll grant that it is not an easy task to change some of your fundamental approaches to teaching when you have 5, 10, 20 or more years experience behind you, but that really is the starting point for any meaningful improvement and sensible spending of the money that is made available.

  7. Thanks Peter. Teacher training and teacher education is at the top of the list of needs in pretty much every country I’ve studied, so you’re not alone!

    I think we could do a lot more to collaborate on that, across Europe and indeed globally. It seems odd to me that countries invest heavily in their own training packages, even though other countries have already produced highly relevant resources. It shouldn’t be beyond us to create an international repository of training materials which can be adapted or translated as necessary.

  8. Thanks Floris. I don’t think it’s a secret that I learned my craft briefing Government Ministers! But I had some trouble with this piece since Google Translate seems to have problems with several Dutch phrases!

  9. Watch closely the internet; Jan Hendrickx is starting a new project for all children, what will shake Holland again 🙂
    I tell you more in about 2 weeks!

  10. “there is now at least one school in each of the 12 Dutch provinces.”

    This struck me as an odd statement earlier, but it only just now occured to me why: the norm in commuting distance for primary school pupils is around 5 minutes–by bicycle, if we can help it. So having a Leonardo primary school in the same province, but outside of that 5 minute perimeter (or 15 minutes by car max) is about as useful as having it on the other side of the North Sea.

    Regional clustering of school boards tends to be city-specific, rather then focused on provinces, so there’s no consistent or significant advantage there either.

    Why did (or do) you consider this to be an important metric?

  11. Peter

    From this perspective, the fact that there is a Leonardo presence in each province suggests that the initiative is nationwide.

    The distribution of schools by province may not be relevant in terms of travelling distance to attend, but I would suggest that it might be symbolically relevant?

    Of course, I don’t know if it was a target to secure a school in every province as early as possible, but I think that would have been a sensible outcome to pursue because of the political purchase it gives at provincial and national levels?

    By the way, when can we expect the Ministry’s action plan? Is it imminent or likely to be at the end of March?


  12. “… the fact that there is .. Leonardo .. in each province suggests that the initiative is nationwide…”

    Fair enough; that is a good paint to make. That said: the same point would be made better from the geographical distribution. In other words: the distribution across provinces is irrelevant. Whereas provinces have (afaik) some resources to spread around, this tends to be towards the development/maintenance of water systems (lakes, rivers, etc), managing areal use for various purposes and nudging local stakeholders to coöperate for economic development purposes. Managing education (systems) is divided between centralised government and very localised (greater city area at most) schoolboards; there is no (again, afaik) inbetween.

    “I don’t know if it was a target to secure a school in every province as early as possible”

    I can’t say I know either, but it reeks of overestimating the level of strategy involved in the actual process.

    “I think that would have been a sensible outcome to pursue because of the political purchase it gives at provincial and national levels?”

    I see your point, but as indicated above, there is not really that much influence in the hands of the provinces.

    NB: provincial government is still a significant party to engage with for the ‘Friends of ..” foundations, but the angle is that they can influence municipal rules around getting money or facilities to help with transport costs (2×15 min — or more — drive five times a week at Dutch fuel prices does add up…) and such. So they do not influence the workings of the educational establishment as much, but they can still make a significant real world impact, allowing parents an actual choice.

    “When can we expect the Ministry’s action plan? Is it imminent or likely to be at the end of March?”

    There was a debate yesterday, in which budget costs of 300M earmarked for special ed were maintained. It involves a re-allocation; the money will go to other education purposes, but what I gather from it, is that at this moment the other side of the curve is getting hit. Given that problems that gifted children have already suffer from a 20 years lag in general recognition and understanding compared to those of the lesser endowed (what IS the proper term?), I think it is highly unlikely there will be ANY money flowing towards Leonardo anytime soon.

  13. The initiative is nationwide but it is not a controlled action that makes it so. All over NL, parents and schools pick up the model because the need is so high. Very often parents are the driving force. (Which isn’t strange if you have to fight with one or more children – 7 or 8 year olds – every morning to get them to school, and / or children having stress, belly ache, head ache, nasty dreams, or lying awake at night because the’re not challenged thus not tired.)

    At this time, around 50 primary schools and 8 colleges are working with the model, and more are investigating its possibilities.

  14. Thanks Peter and Floris for your further comments. I’ve read the debate in translation – though I could find no direct reference in it to support for gifted education. I wonder where the action plan will be published – on the Ministry website maybe?

    I shall be writing an article shortly on wider provision for gifted education in the Netherlands. I wonder whether you would be able to look at it quickly and let me know whether I have made any serious errors? It will take a neutral position on Leonardo v the Government’s preferred options.

  15. “… no direct reference in it to support for gifted education …”

    I don’t there was any. Rather, it seems likely that if a group that is widely recognised by the general public as deserving of help (i.e. not-so-gifted children) gets 300M in budget cuts, there will be even less of a chance of any money going towards Leonardo.

    Actually, from what I gather, the governmental line seems to be ‘one school fits all’, take it or leave it. If you choose to leave it, you are on your own in terms of additional cost. Oh, and we’ll provide some training to enable the overburdened teachers of (very) mixed ability classes to cope without too much dropouts.

    An article? Yeah sure, run it by us. We’d be happy (Floris and I know each other and in this case I dare to speak for him) to pass it along to some other ‘Friends of Leonardo’.

  16. I am currently trying to help my child who completely fits the description of a gifted child who is being misunderstood at school and clearly is not responding to bottom up teaching. I am told “your daughter is always trying to leap up there and doesn’t take the time to learn the steps”. As a result, my daughter who has an IQ of 159 and scored extremely gifted in all facets of academic, critical thinking, etc. is underachieving her potential at school. We are seriously thinking of schooling her outside of the UK where perhaps she can finally be schooled how she needs to be taught, rather than constantly scolded for being disorganised and discussing issues in class that don’t have to do with the topic at hand. We are at a school that has a G&T program that is considered very good to UK standards, but I think G&T in the UK really only means academically able, not gifted in the purest sense. It is failing my child and I would love something like the Leonardo method to be established here. Please!

  17. I don’t readily see why the basic assumptions and choices of Leonardo would not travel internationally, but the actual implementation (which is where the year and years of work go into) feels like it could be waaay more difficult. Then again, it might be easier–many of Leonardo’s problems stem directly from the way the ‘regular’ system is organised. For instance, but paying for the whole thing, unless there is special care involved and then denying that gitftedness requires such special care.

  18. I have been determined to address this post since I first read it several weeks ago! Fortunately, there have been quite a few comments to keep the author busy. My perspective is a bit different than those who have already commented.

    One sentence in particular in this post, stood out with regards to gifted education anywhere in the world … the concept of the “tremendous waste of human potential that this represents, and the loss to the Netherlands in terms of wasted human capital”. Well stated!

    There is a debate in academic circles that we should not expect gifted children to solve the world’s problems as this puts too much pressure on them. That is all well and good. However, there are gifted students who ‘want’ to achieve at higher levels and strive for positions of leadership. Underachievement for these children is tantamount to failure … not theirs; but ours and the system that lets them down.

    Inclusion and differentiation are all the rage today in education. In theory, it could work; but in reality, it doesn’t. This is especially true for gifted education simply because of lack of teacher training at the university level, lack of quality professional development for established teachers, and the process of selection for those who choose teaching as a profession. All points well made in this post.

    Time and time again, gifted students are short-changed by the short-sightedness of politicians who seek to balance their budgets by turning their backs on their country’s best and brightest. It is at their own peril if they continue on this path. No country benefits once a ‘brain drain’ begins.

    I am encouraged by the work of Jan Hendrikx and believe that his principles are sound. It is almost pathetic that his Leonardo Foundation must be required to provide ‘incontrovertible evidence’ to ensure survival when few other initiatives in education are required to do the same. Perhaps a link to human capital and return on investment would sink in with officials in the Netherlands. And then only 130 other countries to convince!

  19. Thank you Lisa for your support! Knowing that there are others out there that appreciate the hard work to get this on the agenda does help to keep us going.
    (After all, we’re all just busy parents)

  20. “Underachievement for these children is tantamount to failure”

    I often use the analogy of racing horses vs ‘normal’ horses. A thoroughbred does not want as much as need to be exercised daily. It is a physical punishment not to be allowed to perform what they do best.

    This somewhat applies to gifted children: it is not a case of an opportunity to use their massive capabilities for the greater good of mankind. Rather, it is something that for many, you would be doing them a great service by merely allowing them to do so and not get in the way.

  21. GP,

    The minister’s report has finally been published. As it is wholly devoid of concrete statements, the implications for Leonardo are still unknown.

    I do know that some of the ‘right’ people have been involved in creating the plan, so there is very slight reason to be optimistic.

    In any case, lots of money is supposed to go towards ‘excellent’ schools. One could naïvely think that gifted children are naturally excellent, but that is not a given by far. And even if it were, two classes of gifted children counted among 23 classes of ‘mainstreamers’ is not likely to win many awards. I have no details, but since Leonardo classes are formally part of ‘host’ schools, it seems likely their results will not show up seperately in any government statistics.

  22. Thanks Peter. Do you know if the report is available online? I understand that it won’t tell me much about future support for Leonardo, but it would be interesting to read nevertheless.

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