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

The first part of this post provided a report on the proceedings at the recent EU Talent Day Conference in Budapest, Hungary.

In this second part, I take a closer look at the declaration produced by the Conference and ask whether the Hungarian talent support model is straightforwardly scalable to the rest of the EU.

The Budapest Declaration on Talent Support

The full text of the Declaration covers the following main points. The sections in bold below are those which reflect comments I made on the draft:

  • Although it is acknowledged that there are terminological and definitional differences in the field, broad consensus is sought around an inclusive concept, embracing a wide range of talents and people of all ages;
  •  The identification and development of talent benefits individuals and society, whether in member countries or in Europe as a whole. It helps to realise the EU’s strategic goals for innovation and sustainable growth and so should be integral to the Europe 2020 Strategy. It is the shared responsibility of governments, non-governmental organisations, businesses and local communities;
  • Talent support programmes can strengthen social cohesion and social mobility. They should balance the pursuit of excellence for all and support for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who will be a differently constituted group in each country. They help disadvantaged communities, such as the Roma, to progress;
  •  The Hungarian network model may provide the basis and pattern for an EU-wide network supporting partnership and collaboration. An annual Talent Day, around 25 March, will continue to provide a focus for this effort and the EU is called upon to make this the official European Day of the Talented and Gifted.
  • The significance of talent support should be reflected in key documents of the Commission, Council and Parliament and there should be a joint effort to ensure that it receives due attention in all member states. To monitor activity and co-ordinate progress, the participants propose to establish a European Talent Resource and Support Centre in Budapest.
  •  Stakeholders will be invited to convene annually to discuss talent support issues, the next occasion being in Warsaw, Poland in 2012.

As I have indicated above, there was no formal opportunity for conference delegates to discuss the whole of the draft resolution and to discuss possible amendments, and no consultative opportunity after the event.

To some extent, therefore, the Declaration is a ‘rubber-stamped’ version of the draft presented by the Hungarian organisers at the outset of the conference. The changes introduced are marginal amendments rather than a wholesale redraft.

I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, there is the argument that it is always a mistake to attempt to draft by committee. Moreover, the divergences in the gifted education world are so pronounced that, had we been given the chance to discuss the draft openly, we might never have agreed the substance.

On the other hand, although I personally had a chance to influence the text, as did a few others, I felt that the same opportunity may not have been afforded to all the delegates.

Some of the broad statements in the declaration are ‘motherhood and apple pie’ – it would be hard to disagree with them. But there are places where it might have been helpful to acknowledge a broader range of opinion, or at least to offer a slightly more nuanced text.

That said, I think most delegates were satisfied that the resolution was broadly ‘fit for purpose’. Whether the same applies for those who read it without having had the benefit of attendance at the Conference – including those who receive it on behalf of the EU – remains to be seen.

The Hungarian Approach to Talent Support

All delegates received in their packs an updated version of a brochure ‘Hungarian Genius Integrated Talent Support Programme’ which is similar to the material on the English section of the Hungarian Genius Portal. What follows is a summary which synthesises material from the Portal and the updated brochure.

Aims and Objectives            

The Hungarian approach starts from the premiss that everyone may be talented in something, while also recognising that some are more talented than others.

The descriptive material switches regularly between the terminology of ‘talent development and support’ and of ‘gifted and talented education’ treating them as effectively synonymous

The National Talent Programme (NTP) aims to help:

  • young people discover the talent in themselves
  • adults recognise talent in young people, providing training, motivation and network support
  • ensure that people’s potential can be realised through performance and achievement
  • challenge social myths around concepts such as ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’
  • improve the quality and accessibility of talent support to children in all regions and from all backgrounds

so creating:

‘a talent-friendly social environment in which people are encouraged and supported to identify and develop their capabilities, and can realise themselves for their own happiness and for the benefit of the public’.

To achieve these aims, action is needed to:

  • develop a strategic and systematic vision of talent support
  • provide the right training and network support for experts, professionals and volunteer helpers, so mainstreaming the basic concepts of gifted and talented education
  • involve educational institutions in the developing network, especially in parts of the country where awareness of gifted and talented education is limited.

As indicated in the first part of this post, although talent development in adults of all ages was regularly mentioned as an aim during the Conference, it is much less prevalent in the background material, which strongly emphasises support for talented youth.

It is also worth noting that the focus is heavily on out-of-school activities, even where schools are involved, despite the strong European tradition – articulated by Palinkas at the Conference – of stressing the contribution made to effective talent support (in some fields at least) by teachers working with learners in the regular classroom.

I wonder whether these tensions are evident and recognised by the organisers. It is possible of course that they reflect differing views amongst those developing and running the programme as to the priorities that should be addressed.

Pragmatically speaking, it is probably necessary to play different cards for different audiences, especially when funding depends on it!

Structures

The Hungarian Talent Support Council (HTSC) was established as a non-profit organisation in 2006 by the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in the field. There are currently 30 member organisations.

It aims to promote talent support, acting as a co-ordinating and representative body. It collects international evidence of best practice, organises professional development and conferences and identifies resources that be utilised for talent support purposes.

The HTSC devised the 20-year National Talent Programme (NTP), which was ratified by the Hungarian Parliament in 2008. The NTP is supported by a National Talent Fund (NTF) of 5 million Euros per year

The Hungarian Genius Integrated Talent Support Programme (HGITSP) is a three-year EU-funded programme lasting from 2009 to 2011 and marks the first phase of the NTP.

The HTSC is assisted by a Programme Unit comprising a Professional Manager and five thematic support teams responsible for:

  • network development and co-ordination;
  • theory and methodology;
  • international relations;
  • training and professional development; and
  • supporting talent amongst those from disadvantaged backgrounds and with special needs.

There is also a 14-strong project support team.

This network currently consists of over 400 Talent Points (TPs) – providers that have been accredited within the HGITSP framework – and over 200 talent support initiatives which have been developed within the framework.

TPs are the nodes in the network. They join it voluntarily and are responsible for talent identification and development, counselling and sharing information and best practice through the network. More mature TPs provide support to newer ones.

The network extends beyond the national borders to include talented young people amongst Hungarian minorities in the neighbouring countries of Romania, Slovakia, Serbia and the Ukraine. It is expected to reach some 20,000 young people by autumn 2011.

In its initial phase, the HGITSP is prioritising the training of adults who support talents.

This is achieved through an overarching network of regional, cross-regional and thematic Talent Support Councils (TSCs) each comprising representatives of business, education and local government.

To date, 24 TSCs have been established and this may increase to as many as 75 by the end of 2011.

Their role is to organise forums for talent support activists, conferences and talent days and networking between TPs. They have delegated responsibility for decision-making.

An organisation called ‘Friends of Talent Club’ has also been established for those undertaking talent support activity in a voluntary capacity. The membership includes mentors, counsellors and educators

Activities

The Programme Team has accredited 10-30 hour training courses in almost 80 subjects available throughout the network. These are to support professionals and also to raise parental awareness.

In the period of approximately a year, from Spring 2010 to early March 2011, over 9,500 teachers and other professionals undertook training in 526 different groups throughout the country. By the end of February 2011, over 12,000 had applied for training since the beginning of the scheme.

There is a strong emphasis on monitoring and evaluation. A summer 2010 survey reveals that the Hungarian system experiences the same problem we have encountered in other countries – and, indeed, in Europe as a whole:

one of the greatest challenges we face is to decrease the competitiveness, lack of trust and parallel work in between organisations of the network in order to strengthen the bonds and facilitate cooperation among network members.

This challenge points out the necessity to help individual organisations to reframe the narratives they tell to themselves, and leaving a competitive approach behind, help them realise and value the interconnectedness with other talent care initiatives that they share long-term ambitions with.’

A set of professional development publications have also been produced, available free in hard copy and online. Topics covered include assessment, mentoring, development of critical and reflective thinking, guidance on talent care in specialist fields and development of entrepreneurial and project management skills.

The network promotes and supports Talent Days to celebrate talent and raise the profile of talent support activity. The first Talent Days took place in 2006. They are partly professional networking events and partly opportunities for talented young people to meet each other.

They provide an opportunity for the local community to thank their talent supporters and renew the community’s collective efforts to continue with the process.

The Programme Team is developing a Talent Credit Scheme (TCS) or talent loan with the help of a working group chaired by the CEO of Volksbank, Hungary.

This is planned to support talent development in those from disadvantaged backgrounds and will operate in a similar way to the Hungarian student loan scheme. The loans may be used for a variety of purposes related to talent support.

The planned continuation of the HGP from 2012 to 2014 is called the Talent Bridges Programme (TBP). There are two different sets of objectives in the materials but, combining these together, the priorities include:

  • filling gaps in TP network
  • improving the relationships between the different levels in the system
  • developing ‘talent peer communities’ amongst the young people themselves
  • supporting the engagement of talent with social responsibility
  • raising the media profile of talent support and
  • arranging ‘the preliminary steps of setting up an EU Institute of Talent Support in Budapest’.

The broad focus will swing away from professional development of adults towards direct support for talent in young people, while also securing the longer-term sustainability of the network.

The Hungarian Genius Portal is an online platform supporting communication and information-sharing across the entire network. In a very real sense, the online environment is the ‘nervous system’ of the whole operation.

At its heart there is an Interactive Talent Map which identifies the geographical location and core activities of all the TPs. Most of the content is uploaded by network members rather than buy the central team, emphasising the distributed nature of the endeavour.

However, the project team claims to publish all relevant documents to ensure that the operation of the programme is transparent. (Although my translation tools may be at fault, my reading of the site suggests that some material is nevertheless withheld.)

In sum…

Overall then, the Programme represents an ambitious and well-resources effort to establish a fully comprehensive talent support network. This is still in a state of relatively rapid expansion, but momentum is being sustained through significant effort and support from the centre.

The big question is whether the model can achieve sustainability. Will it develop the capacity to run itself with only minimal central co-ordination and is it capable of becoming self-funding, or will it forever be reliant on a considerable injection of Government and EU support?

These questions apply in the first instance to the Hungarian programme, but they are equally relevant to plans to extend the model across the EU.

Is this Model Scalable Across Europe?
Funding

I am not 100% clear on the exact size of the current funding agreements, but as far as I can establish:

  • The NTP is supported through the National Talent Fund supported by an annual grant from the Hungarian Government and an annual contribution from the EU. The EU contribution since 2008 is 8.3m Euros, paid through the European Social Fund, and total annual sum available is 5m Euros, suggesting that at least 50% of the funding comes from the ESF;
  • The HGITSP receives a further 3.1m Euros from 2009-2011 (though this sum is sometimes said to be 2.4m Euros). Although there are plans for continuation and expansion through Talent Bridges, the current funding runs out in December 2011. It will therefore be necessary to make a fresh bid to the EU, unless the slack is to be taken up by the Hungarian Government. The sum required will be considerable if the budget is to meet the cost of establishing a EU Institute of Talent Support.

During the Conference, we heard arguments about the relevance of talent support to a wide range of EU activity, including the 2020 Programme, Innovation, Science, Research and Education.

It is unclear to me, under current arrangements at least, how a sufficiently large flow of funding can be secured and distributed to enable all EU members to develop an extended network on the Hungarian model.

Some small initial steps might be undertaken through the Comenius Network category in the EU’s Lifelong Learning Programme. But the maximum amount available from that source (at least for 2011) is a mere 150,000 Euros per year over a total of three years. And there is also a requirement for at least 25% of the funding to come from sources other than the EU.

That will not take us very far. But maybe the EU will develop new mechanisms that will enable it to divert sufficient funding towards pan-European efforts to feed the talent pipeline required to make the 2020 Strategy successful.

If so, it needs to do so quickly, otherwise the time-lags involved will mean it is already too late: the graduates of 2020 are already starting their secondary education.
Design

The basic distributed network model seems to me powerful and resilient. Similar approaches are already being adopted in several other countries including England, where GT Voice is based on similar principles (though without the funding to support implementation).

I do have some reservations however:

  • I am not yet convinced that the idea of establishing a European Centre in Budapest is necessary, or entirely in keeping with a distributed pan-EU network. Ideally, such a network should be capable of thriving with the smallest possible central hub which exists almost entirely online. The notion of a Centre smacks somewhat of the centralised top-down solutions that the network is intended to render unnecessary. It is not clear what responsibilities it would undertake and how it would add value to the overall endeavour. It could very easily become a ‘white elephant’.
  • The Hungarian network model has been designed with Hungary and its expatriate community in mind. While the basic principles are exportable to any context, the detailed operational structures should be a matter for determination by each participating country, so achieving the right balance between prescription and autonomy. It would be wrong in my view to try to force every country to follow the exact design developed by the Hungarians; there should however be sufficient similarity to secure effective partnership and collaboration across national borders, subject only to resolving the linguistic difficulties that this presents.
  • Given the size of the task and the level of resourcing likely to be necessary, it is essential that there is shared prioritisation. A lifelong learning approach, encompassing talent development at all ages, may simply be too big a challenge to take on. If talent support for young people is the priority, to what extent is the effort biased towards equity (supporting those from disadvantaged backgrounds) as opposed to excellence (supporting everyone regardless of background)? From an economic perspective, it may be argued that the latter includes a significant element of ‘deadweight cost’ – in that much of this talent would have been recognised and realised without additional support – while the former yields proportionately greater benefits. If disadvantaged communities are to be a top priority, the acknowledgement in the declaration that the target group will be very different in different countries becomes increasingly significant.
  • There is a political issue lurking in the relationship with ECHA. The Hungarians seem to have gone out of their way to court ECHA to date, but their aspiration for a pan-European network rather calls into question ECHA’s raison d’etre. Put bluntly, if ECHA had succeeded in achieving its objectives, the current Hungarian initiative would not be necessary. Similarly, if the Hungarian initiative succeeds, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that ECHA would be redundant. This issue needs to be addressed head-on from the outset, not swept under the carpet.
  • Finally, there is a pressing need to engage representatives of other nationalities in the early stages of planning towards the achievement of a European Network. The original proposals from the Hungarians spoke of plans to establish an Open Method of Co-ordination (OMC) Expert Group on Talent Support to provide a basis for ongoing EU-wide discussion of talent support issues, for agreeing common objectives, establishing benchmarks and monitoring progress. The meeting in Budapest was a start, but an ongoing pan-EU planning process now needs to be introduced, building on the momentum created in Budapest.

All that said, the basic approach is sound and every EU member stands to gain significantly from taking part. I will do my best to encourage colleagues in England to continue to support this endeavour – and hope I can be of some service in helping to realise the wider ambition.

For, even if we fail to secure from the EU sufficient funding to roll out the Hungarian approach across Europe, we can make very significant progress towards much-improved pan-European collaboration with real commitment to a common purpose and much smaller sums.

GP

April 2011

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