EU Talent Day Conference – April 7-9 2011: Part One

This is a 2-part post about the recent EU Talent Day Conference in Budapest Hungary and its potential implications for European gifted education.

Part 1 is about the Conference itself; Part 2 considers the declaration that emerged from the Conference and whether the Hungarian approach to talent support is scalable to the rest of Europe.

I had hoped to offer a live blog from the conference but there was too little free time in which to write the entries and I only began sketching out this post in the Departures Hall of Budapest’s Ferenc Liszt International Airportand on the plane back to London.

I had arrived four days beforehand, in the early evening of 6 April, in the company of Joan Freeman and Margaret Sutherland. We were kindly met by Csilla Fuszek, who works as the International Co-ordinator for the Hungarian Genius Programme.

She escorted us to our excellent Hotel, on the Buda Bank of the Danube where, later that evening, there was a reception and introductory session for conference speakers hosted by Peter Csermely, Chairman of the Hungarian National Talent Support Council.

Csilla and I also spent some time planning the session that we would jointly chair the following day.

The Conference took place in Budapest’s History Museum. For those who know Budapest, this is part of Buda Castle on the Hill overlooking the plain on the Pest side of the Danube. One can either climb the stairs or take the Castle’s impressive Funicular Railway up from the River bank.

The plenary sessions took place in the Museum’s Baroque Hall, which has a glass roof. The first day of the Conference coincided with a Budapest heatwave and the delegates grew progressively warmer as the morning proceeded, especially those – like me – who had packed for a temperate climate!

The full programme is here. As you can see, there was much to listen to, but not too much opportunity to discuss, at least not during the formal proceedings. The listening was via dual translation in English and Hungarian, which made it more demanding.

Those of us used to the participative events more common in Western Europe had to call on all our reserves of mental stamina.

Day 1 of the Conference: Morning

The opening session was chaired by the Deputy State Minister for Compulsory Education, Zoltan Gloviczki and the President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Jozsef Palinkas.

Amongst the points he made in an informed contribution:

  • The real work of talent development has to be undertaken by schools: it is an integral part of schools’ responsibilities to put gifted learners on the right path;
  •  Teachers’ personal attention is crucial to the business of talent development – every teacher everywhere in Europe needs support to undertake the task;
  • It is important to ‘identify each and every talent in the smallest school in the smallest village’.

Following a short musical interlude (the presentations were interspersed with excellent performances by talented young Hungarian musicians) the Minister of State for Education, Rozsa Hoffmann made what I thought was an impressive speech.

She:

  • acknowledged the variety of different – and sometimes conflicting – approaches to gifted education, while emphasising from her own perspective the value of effort and commitment in the realisation of talent;
  • suggested that developing the talents and remedying the relative weaknesses of every learner in a class of 30 or more pupils was perhaps the greatest challenge faced by teachers;
  • recognised that it is not always easy for teachers to embrace and celebrate talents in their pupils: high ability can sometimes stimulate jealousy and other negative feelings in the teacher. (‘Mediocracy likes to throttle talent’ was the neat way our translator expressed her remark.)
  • argued that a true indicator of teaching success is whether pupils end up knowing and understanding more than their teachers; and
  •  applauded the fact that Hungary had agreed a 20-year Talent Development Strategy and had committed significant funding towards it during a period of recession.

She concluded by recalling the Parable of the Talents. We have to manage our talents well, she said, and by ‘polishing and chiselling diamonds of talent’ we can help to enrich and strengthen Europe.

Our third speaker was Peter Csermely who stressed the lifelong learning dimension of talent development:

‘Everyone may hide a form of talent: until someone dies there is always a hope that a talent is hidden in that person’.

This emphasis on talent development in adults was something of a leitmotif during the conference and seems a recent addition to the Hungarians’ objectives given the predominantly youth-focused nature of the Strategy’s presentation online.

Csermely asserted the strength of a networked approach to talent development, saying that ‘well-developed systems allow all members to be at their centre’. (Csermely, a Professor of Biochemistry, is an expert in the topology and dynamics of complex networks.)

He described Hungary’s evolving talent support network and spoke of pan-European support for the inaugural Talent Day, making special reference to the declaration of a National Talent Day by Ruairi Quinn, the Irish Minister for Education.

He remarked the apparent belief underpinning the EU’s Europe 2020 Strategy that talent grows and develops naturally, but this is a false assumption: the aim of the Conference was to build the case for the EU to invest in the support and nurture of talent.

The next speaker was Stefaan Hermans, from the EU’s Directorate General for Research and Innovation who talked about the need for a major increase in the number of researchers across the EU and a current consultation on the future of EU research and innovation funding, noting in passing that the new European Institute of Innovation and Technology has its HQ in Budapest.

The final speaker in the morning session was Miroslaw Sielatycki an Undersecretary of State from Poland’s Ministry of National Education, who described talent development in his country. (The Poles have the EU Presidency after Hungary and have agreed to continue to support the talent development initiative during their six months in the lead.)

Sielatycki anchored his presentation in data from PISA 2009 about the relatively low proportion of high achievers in Poland relative to some other countries. Poland at least is paying attention to this data as well as mean levels of achievement.

While several Polish NGOs are engaged in gifted education projects and there is active participation in international competitions, the distribution of gifted learners is uneven between districts.

‘Is it the seed [the student] the soil [the environment] or the gardener [the teacher]’ that explains this state of affairs’, he asked? In an attempt to discover the answer, Poland has named 2011 its ‘Year of Discovering and Exploring Talents’.

One Polish initiative is an online environment co-ordinating the talent discovery process. This includes interactive maps showing the location of over 400 Talent Discovery Schools and a further 500 Talent Discovery Places. The Poles have also appointed Talent Development Ambassadors and confirmed a number of Partners in the endeavour.

Polish schools celebrated EU Talent Day on 21 March, by cancelling normal classes and undertaking a variety of talent development activities instead.

This is very similar to the Hungarian approach, as we shall see below. As is the case with Hungary, Poland is embarked upon a three-year strategy (2010-13) supported by EU funding.

Day 1 of the Conference: Afternoon and Evening

We walked next door to the National Széchényi Library where our lunch was served before reconvening in the Baroque Hall to hear from Laszlo Andor, the (Hungarian) European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion.

He spoke of the potential role of the European Social Fund in talent development, arguing that the current recession reinforces the case for EU investment in human capital as a route to economic growth. Investment in the development of talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds helped to strengthen social cohesion, he said.

He went on to identify three key challenges:

  • avoiding the waste of talent, with begins in the earliest stage of life. Every sixth young person in Europe leaves school without completing secondary qualifications, while national education systems tend to ‘tolerate’ creativity rather than actively developing it. Many young people gather irrelevant knowledge and skills in their schools and are not properly prepared for lifelong learning;
  • securing labour mobility – the EU faces skills shortages in some sectors and forecasts a particularly acute shortage of 700,000 skilled IT communications workers by 2015;
  •  supporting social innovation – some 10% of EU businesses are ‘social businesses’ established by people ‘on the periphery of society’ who need support to succeed.

He was followed to the lectern by Leo Pahkin from the Finnish National Board of Education, who told us something of LEO, a national development programme for gifted education in Finland.

The implicit message was presumably that even Finland – whose education system enjoys an enviable reputation owing to its top position in PISA and other international benchmarking studies – needs to invest in talent development.

The attention being given to gifted education in Finland receives little publicity – and never features in the OECD’s own analyses of the way the Finnish system is responding to PISA and other data about its performance.

Pahkin’s presentation is here. He explained that LEO – coincidentally also his christian name – is one of 30 or more voluntary national development activities currently under way in Finland and involves around 30 schools. There is also an outline of the initial phase of the programme in English here.

The final speaker in the plenary session was Johanna Raffan, Secretary of the European Council for High Ability (ECHA) who advertised ECHA’s services. The Hungarian conference organisers did not address directly the relationship between their initiative and the work of ECHA and there was no explicit endorsement of it in Johanna’s presentation.

During the second part of the afternoon, we broke into three parallel sessions:

  • Social Cohesion though Talent Support, focusing on support for gifted young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, which featured contributions from Csilla Fuszek, me and Kata Kerenyi from the Zold Kakas Liceum in Budapest;
  • Talent Creativity, Innovation – the relationship between talented young people and mobility, considering the application of talent in a European context, including pan-European co-operation between young talents and ways in which member states have protected themselves against ‘brain drain’. This featured Gabor Szabo of the Hungarian Association for Innovation and Erika Landau of Tel Aviv University Israel;
  • Decision Makers – Science – Professional Realisation, looking at the development of national policies and legislation, which featured Janos Gyori of Eotvos Lorund University Budapest (who, according to his biographies, actually seems to work elsewhere currently) and Taapio Saavala from the EU’s Directorate General for Education and Training.

Our session – and so presumably the others – proved quite difficult to plan for given the competing needs of the domestic audience, who wanted to explore Hungarian practice, and those of us with an international perspective, who wanted to concentrate on developing the draft resolution to the EU to be agreed by the end of the Conference (of which more below).

I decided to focus my brief contribution on the big picture: the case for supporting the identification and development of disadvantaged gifted learners as part of a wider European talent development initiative. You can find my slides here.

All this was rather abstract for my native Hungarian audience, but it seemed to me important to ground their more parochial concerns – notably about talent development amongst the Roma – in the wider European context.

In the evening many of us attended the Conference Gala Dinner, a welcome opportunity to network with the other delegates.

Day 2 of the Conference: Morning

We were welcomed by a speech from the representative of the Mayor of Budapest (who did not turn up in person) and then Joan Freeman gave a presentation based on the Tower Group Report ‘Worldwide Provision to Develop Gifts and Talents’

(I was responsible for quality assurance of this publication and, although not listed as an author, Section 4 draws heavily on material that I prepared while undertaking this role.)

Then we heard three short presentations on talent support in Germany (Christian Fischer), Poland (Wieslawa Limont) and Scotland (Margaret Sutherland) respectively.

Fischer provided a round-up of the key activities under way and organisations active across the various Lande, as well as the role played by the federal Ministry of Education including the publication of this survey.

Limont spoke mainly about the Academic Secondary School of Nicholas Copernicus University in Torun while Sutherland described the role of the Scottish Network for Able Pupils (SNAP).

At this point, we were introduced by Janos Gyori (mentioned above) to a publication we had received in our delegates’ packs. It is unclear whether this will also be published online: I can’t find it there at present, either in Hungarian or English.

Called ‘International Horizons of Talent Support, 1: Best Practices Within and Without the European Union, 1’, this has been compiled by an 11-strong Foreign Relations Research Team within the Hungarian Genius Programme.

They visited Austria, England, Finland Germany, Israel, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain and the USA, interviewing some ’50 foreign talent support experts’ and used this raw material to compile the report. Gyori is the editor.

As Csilla Fuszek’s Foreword explains, this is not intended to be a complete guide to talent development practice:

‘…each chapter provides an overview of the society and talent support activity of the country under scrutiny, but the main focus is always on presenting one (sometimes two) example(s) of good practice in talent support’.

I have as yet only read the text about England, so this critique may not apply to the volume in general, but the treatment does seem rather idiosyncratic.

There is a long, curious commentary on the wider English political and educational context that would have benefited from scrutiny by a native of the country. The section on talent development is rather lacking in detail, and draws insufficiently in my view on the extensive background material I provided through interview.

Consequentially, the attention given to NACE is not properly contextualised, giving the impression that it has relatively greater significance within the wider gifted education ‘scene’ here in England than it enjoys in reality.

I fear the publication bears the hallmarks of rushed preparation and relatively poor quality assurance. The draft text should really have been shared with ‘national correspondents’ so they had an opportunity to correct any errors prior to publication.

Although I commend the Hungarian Genius Programme for the ambitious nature of the exercise, I think it should have been handled differently. If this material is to be used domestically in Hungary for professional development purposes, I would urge that a strong ‘health warning’ is attached.

The next presentation, from Zoltan Gloviczki provided information about the Arany Janos Hungarian Talent Support Programme which supports gifted and disadvantaged young people from predominantly rural areas.

The Programme is managed top-down by the Hungarian Education Ministry and now serves 3,000 students who undertake a 5-year programme in one of 12 secondary schools and 24 boarding schools. Since the budget is 8.7m Euros per year, this gives a generous unit cost of 2,900 Euros per student per year and 14,500 Euros per student for the entire programme. About 80% of participants are admitted to higher education (preparation for HE is one of the core aims).

Finally in the morning session we heard from a panel of business leaders who were asked to give their thoughts about their role in talent support and about the potential for corporate social responsibility activity in the field. As one would expect, they concluded broadly that talent development and support is an important priority, but that too few businesses have yet realised this!

Day 2 of the Conference: Afternoon and Evening

Following lunch in the Library we again divided into three parallel sessions:

  • Social Responsibility – European Responsibility, which picked up the pre-lunchtime discussion by examining the role of the business and private sectors in talent support. The session was chaired by Gabor Varjasi of MOL Group, which sponsored parts of the Conference, and Roland Persson of Jonkoping University in Sweden;
  • Research results and decision-making, considering the scope for evidence-based decision-making, chaired by Laszlo Balogh of Debrecen University and Franz Monks of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands;
  •  The role of networking in the practice of talent support, chaired by Monika Reti of the Hungarian Institute for Educational Research and Doris Jorde of the University of Oslo, Norway.

I had planned to attend the third of these, but missed a significant proportion owing to an interview with Hungarian Radio and then a session in which I was able to offer my personal feedback on the draft resolution of the Conference (see part 2 of this post).

I had hoped that the resolution would be placed online as a draft text, allowing for a short consultation period, to enable those not able to attend the conference to comment upon it. Unfortunately, this seemed to be impossible, so a few immediate ‘drafting suggestions’ were called for.

The conference ended with brief reports back from the chairs of each parallel session – which were of variable quality and did not really add much of significance to the proceedings – and a warm closing speech from Rozsa Hoffmann, who also read out the resolution.

In the evening the speakers attended a further celebratory dinner close to the next bridge along the River – an opportunity to relax after the hard work over the two previous days, and to congratulate the organisers on the success of the conference.

For the few critical remarks above should be kept in proportion. I am a notoriously harsh judge of conferences and even I was impressed by the smooth organisation and overall positive atmosphere of the event.

The Talent Daily

During the three-day event, the Press Office attached to the Conference and Talent Day produced two editions of a newspaper ‘The Talent Daily’ as a supplement to the Budapest Times, providing news and information related to the event.

The first edition includes a mixture of features an interviews including one with Joan Freeman and another with Sandor Csanyi, founder of the Csanyi Foundation programme for gifted disadvantaged children.

The second edition includes a summary of the resolution, titled The Budapest Declaration on Talent Support, as well as a picture of an avatar you might recognise and a short article about my recent presentation in Second Life as part of a series organised by Roya Klingner of the Bavarian Centre for Gifted Children.


Day 3: Talent Support Day

The Talent Day celebration was end-on to the Conference. It took place at the Hungarian Culture Foundation and was opened by the indefatigable Rozsa Hoffmann. As at the conference, the presentations were interspersed with great performances by talented Hungarian musicians and dancers.

The keynote presentation was given by Francoys Gagne who set out his model of giftedness and talent . Gagne seemed a strange choice since his rather conservative, narrow concept of gifted education does not sit entirely comfortably with the much more inclusive approach apparently favoured by the Hungarians. However, Francoys carried off the event with his customary charm and elan.

This was followed by a series of brief presentations by different Talent Points, including:

A talent fair provided the opportunity for representatives of different countries to display materials and resources. Then the more energetic and extrovert delegates joined in a mass Csardas while the rest watched on with the obligatory expressions of bemused amusement.

Finally, we broke for lunch, said our goodbyes and made our way back to our hotels prior to departure to the Airport. After a brief but vain attempt to find novel yet reasonably-priced souvenirs for my family, I walked back down the steps to the Hotel and, shortly afterwards, caught an airport shuttlebus with Franz Monks, who was on his way back via Dusseldorf.

I reached home at about 10.30pm UK time, after what seemed an interminable journey by tube and train. It should not be necessary to wait for half an hour on a Saturday evening for a Piccadilly Line train to serve Heathrow Terminal 5!

GP

April 2011

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