Mawhiba: Gifted Education in Saudi Arabia (Part Two)

This is the second part of a two-part post on Mawhiba, the Saudi Arabian gifted and creative education programme. Part One is here.

In the first instalment we looked briefly at the history of gifted education in Saudi Arabia and the references to it in the country’s Ninth National Plan before reviewing three online documents relating to Mawhiba and its parent Foundation.

Part Two takes a closer look at how the structure of Mawhiba has developed, particularly the Mawhiba Schools Partnership, and offers a provisional assessment of progress.

Picture courtesy of S Raj

The Five Strands as Seen by McKinsey

We need to return to the original Mawhiba Strategic Plan Presentation to get a fuller treatment of the five strands of activity they advocated for the Mawhiba Project itself.

Mawhiba Schools Partnerships are not quantified by the number of schools involved, but McKinsey envisages that they will benefit 550 gifted pupils in 2008, 1,700 in 2009, 4,500 in 2010 and 6,600 in 2011.

Provision in these partner schools should include a common programme for all learners up to Grade 3 and, in Grades 4-12, a blend of separate classes for G&T students and mixed ability classes for all students, with admission of students into the gifted cohort following a selection process undertaken in Grades 4 and 7.

The Foundation is advised that schools need incentive systems to manage the performance of their leadership, and that mechanisms should be in place to ensure that disadvantaged students are not excluded.

Action is therefore required to:

  • develop and administer intelligence and creativity tests to select students;
  • design curricula to nurture giftedness and creativity and support schools in their implementation;
  • train teachers to teach gifted classes and principals to lead Mawhiba schools;
  • set standards for partner schools, select the schools and monitor compliance with the standards;
  • develop a funding model for the schools linked to the student and/or the teacher; and
  • establish a parental support unit to secure continued parental engagement in their children’s education.

The enrichment programmes will be introduced gradually over the full 15-year period. There will be:

  • after-school programmes covering Grades 4-12, with admission on the basis of interest but continuation on the basis of performance;
  • summer programmes, also covering grades 4-12, but open to students from partnership schools and other schools, though eligible students must have passed stage 1 of the Mawhiba selection process. These will be the flagship of the enrichment dimension in the first 5 years; and
  • competitions and awards covering grades 1-12 and university that are entirely open access.

The Young Leadership and Scholarship Programme should be open to all students entering their final year of high school, with selection based on prior academic performance, submitted essays and interviews. It should provide summer internship opportunities at top Saudi and international companies, supported by an online job portal and career guidance sessions.

There should also be: programmes to build language and entrepreneurial skills and offer research seminars with experts in various fields; mentoring provided by academics or industrialists, including regular 1:1 and group meetings; and scholarships to study at top international universities, as well as support with the applications process.

The Creative Work Environment initiatives will share best practice on nurturing creativity in the workplace by raising awareness, developing best practice material and providing training and workshops

The communications strategy involves getting stakeholders to endorse the strategy, building awareness and understanding across society and growing Mawhiba’s reputation as a national strategic organisation.

Outcome targets are defined in terms of numbers participating in each strand. Targets for the end of the initial five year plan are given as:

  • 6, 600 gifted learners in school partnerships
  • 5,000 suitably-qualified participants in enrichment programmes
  • 2,000 eligible students in the young leaders and scholarship programme

so 13,600 beneficiaries in all. (This is broadly similar to the 14,000 cited in the Ninth National Development Plan).

Some fairly dubious assumptions are then deployed to claim that, overall, some 28,000 different students will benefit by the end of this first phase, and that the programme will impact on 10 times as many people in all if one counts the gifted students’ fellow pupils and their families. This helps to give the impression that the programme is bigger than it first appears.

To achieve these outcomes it will be necessary for the Foundation to:

  • undertake concept development – co-ordinating activity across domestic and international partners;
  • commission programme delivery through implementation partners, setting performance targets and managing partners against them;
  • secure funding from sponsors and allocate it between projects; and
  • communicate with and secure buy-in from key stakeholder groups and co-ordinate an awareness-raising campaign.

Picture courtesy of Shabbir Siraj

The structure today

One can find online copies of several tenders for aspects of the Mawhiba programme (though not all of them) but they are not particularly informative, containing only the briefest outline of the programme itself.

The most recent, for the Young Leaders’ Programme , was dated 30 April 2011 (though I found it online a week or so before that date). It describes the five strands as follows:

  • ‘Mawhiba School Partnerships – work with top private and public schools to introduce a special curriculum for gifted students from Grades 4-12. Schools entering the partnership will receive support to upgrade their curriculum and physical infrastructure and to better train their teachers to deliver advanced curriculum to gifted and talented pupils. Key activities include curriculum design, teacher and principal standards and training, school selection and accreditation, student assessment, and parental support.
  • Mawhiba enrichment programs – develop summer and after-school programs and support competitions and awards for school-age students. Components of these programs that the selected partner will have to support include developing program content and policies, selection of training and staff, providing technical support and documentation.
  • Mawhiba Young Leaders Program – develop a program for students in their final year of school to bridge the gap between academic study and professional life. Objectives of the program will be to provide students with internship opportunities, mentorship programs, skill-building programs, and scholarships to top international universities.
  • Mawhiba Creative Work Environment Initiative – Develop and promote creativity in the Saudi workplace by raising awareness and offering creativity diagnostic tools, developing and sharing best-practice materials and conducting trainings and workshops with companies.
  • Mawhiba student selection – Develop and administer tests for selecting students for Mawhiba programs. In addition, develop process for selecting the students and support the process through means such as training of staff and expert advisers.’

The first four are pretty much as designed by McKinsey, but the final strand has emerged from under the wing of the Schools Partnerships and grown in significance, reflecting the separate reference to selection tests in the 2009 Brochure.

It is as if everyone has been committed throughout to a five-fold structure for Mawhiba, but no-one could quite agree what should constitute the fifth and final element!

Incidentally, the tender envisages a pilot for the Young Leaders Programme involving just 100 participants, so a long way short of the 2,000 projected by McKinsey for 2012/2013.

Selection Tests, Enrichment and Research

The growing emphasis on selection tests within these overarching descriptions of Mawhiba seems rather at odds with the ‘human capital’ approach described in Room at the Top:

‘KSA believes that it is most likely to develop this critical mass not through selection of a few students and special programmes or schools, but rather through the high performance approach – through the creation of high expectations in school, coupled with systematic nurturing of the advanced cognitive performance characteristics in students. By introducing advanced cognitive performance from an early age they expect to ensure that those with the capacity to excel will do so.’ (pp 48-49)

It seems that Mawhiba places some importance on building schools’ capacity to provide advanced educational opportunities and encouraging all pupils to achieve them. But there are also selection tests to identify a gifted cohort who are eligible for Mawhiba activities, presumably including scholarships to attend Mawhiba schools.

The emergence of this emphasis on student selection can be tracked back to a 2008 Memorandum of Understanding between the Foundation and the National Centre for Measurement and Evaluation. The two parties agreed to work together to develop and standardise a new test battery to identify gifted and creative students.

Earlier this year, reports suggested that this would expand into a ‘national project to identify gifted students’, beginning with pupils in Grades 3 to 9 in 16 regional education administrations, but expanding into a comprehensive national database of all gifted students in the Kingdom.

According to one report this project will use ‘the NAGC standards of identification’ as the basis for developing generic identification tools and procedures and related training for staff who use them. But the references on the Mawhiba site appear to suggest that identification will be confined to science and technology

Meanwhile there are various newspaper reports outlining the continuing expansion of the enrichment programme, especially the summer schools component.

In 2010, there were 27 domestic summer schools in science and technology, all of 2-4 weeks’ duration, provided by 22 different universities, colleges and research centres. They were attended by 1,369 students drawn mostly from Grades 5 and 6 and Grades 9-11.

Sixty were based at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM), which offered courses in computer programming, mechanics and maths taught by university lecturers.

A further 83 students attended international summer schools held at venues such as Cambridge, Johns Hopkins (CTY), MIT and Oxford.

McKinsey forecast 5,000 participants by 2012/2013. It is not clear whether other smaller-scale enrichment activities have put Mawhiba within reasonable striking distance of this projection.

The Mawhiba website suggests there has been some progress towards the second specific objective identified in the Ninth National Development Plan. The research and policy unit will include among its responsibilities:

  • Developing and maintaining a database of information about gifted education in the Kingdom, including quantitative data about the performance and progress of gifted students;

  • Developing written policies for all aspects of the programme; and

  • Undertaking evaluation of different initiatives, defining performance indicators where necessary

Picture courtesy of Johnrawlinson

The Development of School Partnerships

As far as I can establish, the Mawhiba Schools Partnership (MSP) began with 19 schools, increased by 17 in 2010 to 36 schools and is expected to reach 60 schools by June 2013. All Partnership schools are currently located in Riyadh, Jeddah or Dammam.

There were originally 250 scholars spread between the initial 19 schools. The 36 schools currently involved are said to serve 600-700 pupils, depending on the source. These are presumably those Mawhiba Scholars who have successfully passed the selection tests identifying the top 3%. Thiis dimension of the project is therefore undershooting significantly the numerical projections proposed by McKinsey in 2007.

We have extensive information about the process for selecting MSPs because the ‘School Selection Handbook 2009/10’ is available online.

It begins by setting out the objectives underpinning MSPs, which are to:

  • Select the schools capable of joining the Partnership and willing to ‘fulfil the vision’;

  • Support to improve these schools’ effectiveness at developing their students’ creativity and giftedness, so securing high performance;

  • Support the introduction of an ‘advanced supplementary curriculum and assessment framework’ designed to develop advanced learners, future leaders and creative entrepreneurs;

  • Introduce a contemporary pedagogy to develop the skills necessary for high performance and entry to world-class universities;

  • Offer professional development and support provided by international and local experts and through collaboration between member schools;

  • Select gifted and creative students who will receive scholarships to attend a member school; and

  • Ensure that parents are involved as partners in their child’s education.

Three different levels of membership are described: member, partner and advanced partner. All schools join as members but can then apply for accreditation as partners or advanced partners.

Much of the handbook is taken up with a Standard for Selection based on ‘international research into the characteristics of effective schools’ because:

‘providing a world class education system leading to high performance for the most able students requires integrated provision not just a bespoke programme for a minority of students’.

The standard has been informed by the work of Sammons and McGilchrist, two UK researchers, and benchmarked against international standards including ‘Ofsted UK, Investors in People UK, Professional Standards for Teachers in the USA and Australia and the Quality Standards for Gifted and Talented Education DfES, UK‘.

Selection depends on schools meeting eight standards: Student Achievement, Leadership and Management, School Ethos, Teaching and Learning, Classroom Management, Student Personal Development; Parental Involvement and Commitment. Each is assessed on a four-point scale:

1 – excellent

2 – good

3 – developing

4 – limited

Member schools need to achieve a minimum of ‘3 – developing’ on every standard except Commitment, for which they need to be rated ‘2 – good’.

Schools are invited to express interest, then submit a self-evaluation form. An external evaluator visits the school and the leadership team is expected to offer a presentation that demonstrates their commitment. There is also: observation of classroom teaching; discussions with the leadership team, teachers, students and parents; and analysis of students’ work and assessments.

These external evaluations are moderated before successful schools are selected by a ‘Mawhiba Strategy Group’. They must sign a formal Agreement, while unsuccessful schools receive feedback on how to improve. The handbook says the Panel will also take into account the balance between boys’ and girls’ schools, the geographical location and the ‘required number of places for Mawhiba scholars’.

Partner schools need to achieve a minimum of ‘2 – good’ on every standard. They must submit a further application and self-evaluation form for this purpose providing evidence of progression since the school became a member.

The evaluation also draws on other evidence including: orientation of Mawhiba Scholars, implementation of the advanced supplementary curriculum, feedback from consultants and co-ordinators, lead professional weekly reports, parents’ forums and the outcomes of an annual evaluation review. There is a further site visit followed by moderation and final judgement.

Advanced partner schools must already be partner schools, actively engaged in training other schools and achieve ‘4- excellent’ in Leadership and Management, Teaching and Learning and at least two further standards.

Applicants must supply, alongside a further self-evaluation: a case study exemplifying in-school training and development; evidence of professional development through networking; and an outline of how they plan to support and challenge other schools.

The site visit includes a formal interview with the leadership team and analysis of the two Standards that the school has nominated as excellent. There is again moderation before the Strategy Group take a final decision.

Progression through these tiers is slow since, other than in exceptional cases, member schools cannot apply to become partners until the have been in the project for two years – and must wait a further two years to apply for advanced partner status. Moreover, the status achieved must be re-accredited every three years.

Schools are requested to apply annually to become members. The handbook refers to ‘a range of incentives’ to encourage them but does not spell these out, referring readers instead to the Mawhiba website.

To a UK reader this comes across as excessively bureaucratic, heavily structured and top-down, suggesting that the team is not confident of schools’ capacity to self-evaluate. The process requires extensive evidence and, so a heavy investment of time and effort by the school. The demands on assessors’ time will also be significant.

This is not of itself a scalable and sustainable model and one might reasonably expect that ‘advanced partner schools’, once they come on stream, might take on some of the responsibilities currently undertaken by external consultants.

Outstanding Mawhiba Teachers and Leaders

There are separate and parallel accreditation processes for individual teachers and school leaders, known as the Outstanding Mawhiba Teacher Award (OMTA) and the Outstanding Leadership Mawhiba Teacher Award (OMTLA).

According to the 2010-11 Handbook for these,staff in MSP schools can benefit from:

  • Professional development including courses accredited towards a Masters Degree by the London University, Institute of Education (The London Centre for Leadership in Learning confirms in its Prospectus that it is engaged in designing and leading these programmes);

  • Specialised courses for science, maths, ICT and English teachers provided by international experts;

  • ongoing in-school support for all staff and parents by Mawhiba City Co-ordinators (MCCs) including training and support for nurturing giftedness and creativity in the context of whole school improvement;

  • training in the effective use of the advanced supplementary curriculum (ASC) ‘authored by World Class Arena (WCA) international curriculum development experts’; and

  • the OMTA and OMTLA, each based on a defined standard.

The OMTA Standard:

‘defines what an individual teacher needs to do in order to achieve the world class standards of education which Mawhiba Schools aspire to achieve’.

It too is based on international research – the work of Hattie and England’s TDA’s Professional Standards (currently under review) are particularly cited. It signifies that:

‘a teacher has been recognised as an expert teacher within a Mawhiba school and has consistently fostered high levels of performance in students through use of a range of effective, contemporary teaching and learning approaches’.

The OMLTA signifies:

‘that a teacher has been recognised as an expert teacher, as outlined above, but has also shown skills and expertise in leading others – within and across schools – to develop their practice in fostering high performance through use of the most effective contemporary teaching and learning approaches’.

The standards appear to be very demanding, as a Blog kept by a newly-appointed assessor reveals:

‘Last year only 3 out of 30 candidates won this award as they have to meet international standards. Thank goodness the final OMTA decisions are made back in the UK as I have to work with the Dammam teachers after the fact.’

Picture courtesy of Johnrawlinson

The Advanced Supplementary Curriculum (ASC)

We also have information about the ASC. A ‘white paper’ dated April 2009 is available online called ‘Designing a Programme for Giftedness and Creativity in Mawhiba Partnership Schools‘.

The preface says this: ‘brings together the best international practice and three decades of experience from leading work in this area in the United Kingdom’.

It suggests five underpinning principles for curriculum development:

  • High quality educational opportunities help to enabling gifted and creative students to demonstrate high performance.

  • While gifted students do not possess ‘unique learning strategies’, they are more creative and draw to a greater extent on a repertoire of intellectual skills. They deploy metacognition, strategy flexibility, strategy planning, hypothesis, preference for complexity, extensive webbing of knowledge about facts and processes.

  • We should aim to create autonomous and empowered learners who demonstrate extensive: subject knowledge and understanding, skills, values, attitudes and attributes.

  • Curriculum is supported through assessment for learning that monitors student progression enabling students to plan next steps with their teachers in the light of their personal strengths and weaknesses.

  • Provision must lead to qualifications that enable students to progress to leading universities.

It indicates that the ASC will be designed to help students develop expertise in maths, science, ICT and English, but also to generate the:

‘learning behaviours that will enable them to develop the high level knowledge, skills and concepts associated with expert performance in these specific subject domains and more generically’.

Students in Grades 4-10 will undertake the supplementary curriculum alongside their normal curriculum; those in Grades 11-12 will follow courses leading to internationally recognised qualifications.

This will be undertaken through a series of curriculum materials, supported by age-related ‘curriculum progression standards’ (Other material online suggests that Mawhiba Scholars need to achieve in line with these standards each year in order to stay on the programme.)

Learning activities will provide challenge through high expectation and enquiry based approaches that develop analytical, critical and creative thinking skills. Assessment will monitor the overall effectiveness of the programme as well as the progress made by students.

The broad approach to curriculum is illustrated by a table which is also published separately as a poster on the World Class Arena website.

The timetable for the publication of the materials is phased, so that those for Grades 4, 7 and 10 are produced first, followed presumably by Grades 5, 8 and 11 in the second year and then Grades 6, 9 and 12 in the third. All the curriculum materials published to date (Grades 4, 7 and 10 only at the time of writing) are available here including the Teachers’ Guides.

Provisional Conclusions

It has not been easy to gather together the information for this post. Given the wide variety of sources (some more reliable than others) and the tendency for key facts to be ‘lost in translation’, I hesitate to offer any meaningful assessment of either the scope of Mawhiba or the progress that has been made.

It is important to remember that we are only in the fourth year of a 15-year plan. It will take considerable further effort to realise the ultimate ambition of:

‘A creative society with a critical mass of gifted and talented young leaders who are innovative, highly educated, and well trained to support the sustained growth and prosperity of the Kingdom.’

However, the early stages seem to be progressing at a slower pace than envisaged in McKinsey’s five-year plan and the numbers of beneficiaries are also significantly lower.

There is a huge gap to bridge between 700 pupils in 36 Mawhiba School Partnership schools and a national programme that directly benefits 3% of the Saudi school population – around 140,000 pupils spread across some 26,000 schools – and indirectly benefits all of their fellow learners.

The design is hugely ambitious but the practical delivery to date does not yet begin to match it. The 14,000 participant target in the Ninth Development Plan looks a ‘big ask’. The subsequent roll-out process will be critical and very demanding, and it will depend heavily on the urgent development of sufficient homegrown Saudi capacity to support it.

There has clearly been enormous investment in the design of support systems for schools but, even if we assume that all pupils benefit, not just the identified 3%, the current unit cost per pupil must be unsustainable even for a country as rich as Saudi Arabia.

It is surprising that Mawhiba seems to remain entirely separate from the wider Tatweer education reform strategy. One might anticipate that a siloed gifted education programme is much less likely to succeed. Surely Tatweer and Mawhiba need to be brought into a closer relationship than is apparent at present.

I could trace no formal evaluation of the Foundation’s performance or of the progress to date on Mawhiba. Evidently it is not customary for Saudis to appear critical of any initiative which carries the name of their King.

Only one commentator is prepared to offer a public critique of Saudi progress on gifted education more generally.

In a presentation called ‘The Benchmarks of Gifted and Talented Education in Saudi Arabia’ given to an international conference in Abu Dhabi in October 2010, Dr Maajeeny, an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at King Abdul Aziz University (KAU), says most parents, professionals and other stakeholders are not satisfied with progress to date because:

  • only a few gifted students are identified and less than half of those can access provision;

  • testing is of questionable quality and there is too much small scale practice rather than ‘systematic scientific services’;

  • there are too few qualified teachers concentrated in a small number of schools and too few researchers with expertise in the field;

  • there is limited funding available, limited training and few incentives to encourage staff to engage with gifted programmes;

  • attention is confined almost exclusively to STEM subjects; older students and adults are not properly served and pre-school services are not yet available;

  • public awareness is limited, while officials and administrators lack enthusiasm and some are reluctant to accept changes to accommodate the needs of gifted learners; and

  • effective co-ordination between service providers is ‘still random and primitive’.

This view an expert may be contrasted with the picture painted in the article I referenced earlier about educational progress in Saudi Arabia more generally.

This suggests that wider education reforms are facing active resistance from powerful conservative religious interests and that they are at risk of being sidelined as a consequence of changes in national leadership.

Final thoughts

While progress may be perceived as too slow by those who understand and support the initiative – and by the gifted learners who stand to benefit – the conservative faction in Saudi society will have the opposite view.

Which is why effective communication, consultation and awareness-raising are going to be so critical to the success of Mawhiba.

Will the Kingdom be able to introduce a full national programme for gifted and creative education, or will it always be a supplementary pathway, confined to relatively few forward-thinking schools?

The international competition is fierce. The Ninth National Plan reports that:

‘Efforts to foster talent, creativity, and innovation culminated with the Kingdom ranking 32 among 130 nations covered by the 2008 Global Innovation Index produced by the Business School for the World (INSEAD)’.

This is quite true, but the 2009-10 INSEAD rankings place the Kingdom 54th of 132 nations, a sizeable fall of 22 places. This position is retained in the 2010-11 rankings, with no deterioration, but no improvement either. Saudi Arabia is headed by neighbours like the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. If this is a reliable yardstick, then the Kingdom faces an uphill struggle to improve its relative international competitiveness.

Will Saudi Arabia successfully make the transition to a successful KBE, following in the footsteps of countries like Singapore and South Korea, or is it destined to remain with one foot in the present and the other anchored firmly in the past?

It is simply too early to say.


May 2011

Mawhiba: Gifted Education in Saudi Arabia (Part One)

This two-part post is intended to draw together the information available online about Mawhiba, the Saudi Arabian gifted and creative education programme.

Compiling the post has not been an easy task.

The Mawhiba website is oddly constructed. There are actually two parallel sites – one for Mawhiba and one for the Foundation that preceded and created it – though the latter frequently tips one back into the former. Several of the most significant pages on the Mawhiba side are still ‘under construction’.

The online architecture reflects the puzzling real-life relationship between the organisation overseeing Mawhiba (its full name is the King Abdul-Aziz and his Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity) and Mawhiba itself.

Sometimes they are treated as quite distinct; sometimes as two sides of the same coin. Just occasionally the Foundation is also called Mawhiba. This can make it hard to interpret parts of the online narrative, particularly when they are generated by third parties whose relationship with either entity is unclear.

This third party material is also rather fragmented. Much of it has to be dredged up through exhaustive keyword searches. Significant chunks are in Arabic. While online translation tools struggle purposefully with the websites, they are not nearly so reliable when invited to tackle the PDFs that typically carry the important factual detail.

So preparing this material has required more detective work than usual. It has felt like piecing together a jigsaw with several missing pieces. I have drawn on all the material I could find at May 2011. If further documentation is published, or if readers have access to additional information that they can make publicly available, I cordially invite them to add it to the record in whatever way they prefer.

This is all rather surprising given the extensive involvement of international contractors in the design and delivery of Mawhiba, most of them working in English so presumably needing to have their work translated into Arabic.

It also shows up the limited depth and penetration of Mawhiba’s communications and awareness-raising strand, at least as far as the international audience is concerned.

The dearth of reliable information means that it is all too easy to underestimate or, conversely, to over-estimate the significance of what has been called:

‘the most comprehensive educational approach in the world to nurturing high performance and creativity’ (Room at the Top, page 48).

The real purpose of this post is to help us get Mawhiba properly into perspective.

Saudi Arabia and its Education System

We should begin with a short context-setting preface, to help those unfamiliar with Saudi Arabia and its education system to get their bearings.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is the largest country in the Arabian peninsula and the 14th largest by area in the world. It covers a land mass similar in size to Western Europe, although over 95% is either desert or semi-desert.

Courtesy of NormanEinstein


The national population is about 26 million, but over 20% of them do not have Saudi nationality, including a huge influx of visiting workers. The capital city, Riyadh, has a population of 4.7 million. Other large cities such as Jeddah, Mecca, Medina and Dammam have populations upward of 1 million apiece.

KSA is governed as a hereditary monarchy: since 2005 the King and Prime Minister has been Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz al Saud. (The Foundation that oversees Mawhiba was established by the King before he ascended the throne and he retained the role subsequently).

The country itself is named after the ruling family, which first assumed power in the 18th Century, although the Kingdom was founded as recently as 1932.

The education system comprises:

  • Kindergarten (ages 3-5) – non-compulsory and attended by about 11% of the relevant population;
  • Primary (ages 6-11 covering Grades 1-6). Children take the General Elementary School Certificate at the end of Grade 6;
  • Intermediate (ages 12-14 covering Grades 7-9). Pupils take the Intermediate School Certificate at the end of Grade 9; and
  • Secondary (ages 15-18 covering Grades 10-12). Students may attend a general, a religious or a technical secondary school. Those in general schools choose in their second year between three tracks: administration and social science, natural science, and shariah and Arabic studies. Technical schools may focus on industrial, commercial or agricultural studies.

Schools are segregated by gender but males and females follow the same curriculum and take the same examinations.

University students typically take a bachelor’s degree after four years of study. A master’s degree requires two further years and a doctorate three years more. Technical colleges and institutes offer courses leading to certificates and diplomas of up to three years’ duration.

The higher education sector has recently undergone rapid expansion and includes 24 public universities, 8 private universities and 45 technological colleges and technical institutes. There are 4,885 secondary schools, 7,826 intermediate schools and 13,626 primary schools. These serve some 450,000 teachers and around 4.6 million pupils.

(These figures are almost certainly already out of date but they serve as reasonable indicators of the relative size of the system.)

This US Embassy briefing provides additional accessible background material on education in Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom is engaged in a major and many-stranded education reform process, also instigated by the King. This is called Tatweer (meaning ‘Development’) and has its own website in English.

This recent press report describes vividly some of the shortcomings of the Saudi education system that Tatweer is designed to address, its limited impact to date and the huge obstacles that it needs to overcome. It suggests that some of these reforms will take a decade or even a generation to come to fruition, and there is real scepticism over the prospects of success.

The other Western news articles here and here and the Saudi take here provide more background on the purpose and scope of Tatweer. There is also a detailed delivery plan available online, dating from 2009.

National Development Plans

Since 1970, the Saudi Government has set out in a series of detailed five-year plans how it expects to reform and improve every aspect of national performance.

The most recent plans, available in English on the website of the Ministry of Economy and Planning, show how thoroughly the Kingdom has dedicated itself to the development path of a knowledge-based economy (KBE). They also position the national investment in gifted education within that broader context.

The current Plan, the Ninth, covers 2009-2013. Chapter 5 is dedicated to the country’s development as a KBE:

‘A knowledge-based economy is defined as “an economy that is capable of knowledge production, dissemination and use; where knowledge is a key factor in growth, wealth creation and employment, and where human capital is the driver of creativity, innovation and generation of new ideas, with reliance on information and communication technology (ICT) as an enabler”. Moreover, there is a positive correlation and mutual interaction between the “knowledge society” and the “knowledge–based economy”. In addition, “knowledge” has become a critical requirement for enhancing competitiveness of countries in the twenty first century.

Theory, experience and present international practices affirm that contemporary global drivers of economic growth are different than in the past. More than ever before in human history, the economy is now dependent on the knowledge factor for growth. To respond positively to these developments and ensure enhancement of competitive capacities of the national economy, it is essential for economic policies to pay attention to knowledge….

The Eighth Development Plan focussed on fundamental developments that laid the basis for heading towards a knowledge-based economy. These included starting implementation of the first five-year plan of the Science and Technology National Policy; adopting the National ICT Plan, the National Industrial Strategy, and the Strategy and Plan for Giftedness, Creativity and Innovation; establishing the Knowledge City in Medina, and the technical zone of the Saudi Organization for Industrial Estates and Technology Zones in Dammam; proceeding with preparation of a new strategy for higher education (AFAQ); and advancing privatization.

The Ninth Development Plan adopts the drive towards a knowledge-based economy through focussing on education, which disseminates knowledge, paving the way for knowledge transfer and accumulation and thereafter knowledge generation, and utilisation of knowledge in various economic and social sectors, particularly in production and service activities. Through these endeavours, the Plan seeks to enhance the comparative advantages of the economy, add to it new competitive advantages, diversify it, and increase its productivity and competitiveness, as well as create appropriate employment opportunities for citizens.’

It continues:

‘A knowledge-based economy is based on utilisation of the outputs of the knowledge system to create new products and services through innovation. Although, according to the Global Innovation Index, innovation in the Kingdom is still a significant challenge, a springboard for development of innovation has been put in place. For example, national industries have developed significantly over the past three decades, and now have strong bases of knowledge upon which to build towards the new economy, particularly with the adoption of the National Industrial Strategy, and its implementation mechanism that espouses knowledge-based economy, and the Strategy for Giftedness, Creativity and Innovation.’

The remainder of the Chapter identifies a series of challenges that need to be overcome, one of which is:

‘Giftedness, creativity and innovation: Growing interest in developing talent, creativity and innovation has been manifested in the adoption of a National Strategy for Fostering Giftedness, Creativity and Innovation, the establishment of the King Abdul-Aziz and His Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity, and the establishment of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Nonetheless, more efforts are needed to enhance the thrust of the drive towards a knowledge-based economy, and achieve excellence in universities and higher-education institutes, as well as of scientists, technologists and innovators.’

The plan includes two targets specifically relating to gifted education:

‘Increasing the number of (male and female) students who benefit from “giftedness and creativity” initiatives, to reach around 14 thousand annually by the end of the Plan.’

and, in the chapter on education:

‘Establishing a research unit for the gifted and qualifying existing centres to enable them to design, develop and implement special programmes for the gifted’.

There is also a descriptive piece on Mawhiba in Chapter 21, on Science, Technology and Innovation.

A Brief and Approximate History of Gifted Education in Saudi Arabia

One source suggests that there have been three distinct stages in the history of Saudi gifted education:

  • development of the National Project for Identifying and Servicing the Gifted;
  • implementation of that National Project; and
  • establishing the King Abdul Aziz and his Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity.

Elsewhere, we learn that the ‘General Document of Educational Policy’, produced in 1970, included the following provision:

‘It is very important to discover and identify the gifted learners among all Saudi young children and youth, nurture them by all means to unveil their potentials, and pay extra attention and efforts to provide them with special programs and appropriate opportunities that can be integrated easily into the Country’s Public Educational System.’ (Rule 57)

This led to the introduction of academic competitions and exhibitions, annual awards and scholarships and small-scale research.

More concerted efforts were made from 1991 when researchers from King Saud University and officials from the Ministry of Education and the General Presidency for Girls’ Education secured funding from the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology for a five-year programme to develop identification tests and enrichment activities in maths and science.

During this period a Bachelor of Education Degree in Gifted Education was also established in the Faculty of Education at King Saud University.

The Ministry of Education subsequently commissioned members of the same team to establish a ‘Gifted Identification and Fostering Programme’ in selected schools in some of Saudi Arabia’s major cities. The male students’ programme started in 1997 and the female students’ programme a year later.

These programmes included teacher training, the administration of identification tests, the introduction and evaluation of enrichment activities, and efforts to raise parental and public awareness.

The Ministry established its own directorate for male gifted education in 1999/2000 and, two years later, a parallel directorate for female students. The director of the former is accountable to the Minister of Education (who is also deputy head of the King Abdul-Aziz Foundation).

The directorate for male gifted education includes separate units responsible for Nurturing and Enrichment Programmes, Planning and Training and Discovering and Identification. It brokers a series of enrichment activities and ‘gifted Nurturing Centers’. The female equivalent presumably has a similar structure.

The Origins of the Foundation

To support these efforts, the King Abdul-Aziz and his Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity was founded in 1999, an independent non-profit organisation based in Riyadh and dedicated to identifying and supporting young gifted and talented Saudis. The King himself (then the Crown Prince) assumed the Presidency.

The Foundation was funded by King Fahad, the Crown Prince and other princes and businessmen. One source says that the total value of the Foundation is £50 million and that it also receives from the Government an annual running costs budget of about £2.5 million.

This record, reporting the first meeting of the Foundation, says that the King, the Crown Prince and Prince Sultan together donated 69 million Saudi Riyals (about £11.4m), 30 million was donated by the King, plus an annual one million Riyal contribution to ‘the King Abdul Aziz Organisation for the Care of Gifted Students’. The Crown Prince gave 29 million plus an annual grant of 500,000 Riyals and Prince Sultan a further 10 million Riyals.

Its original goals were to:

  • facilitate and foster giftedness, invention and creativity;
  • create professional pathways in medicine, environmental science, communication, education, the arts, telecommunication, engineering sciences and technology;
  • support and provide enrichment activities;
  • educate the population (parents, teachers and employers) about methods of nurturing gifts and talents; and
  • assist educational and professional institutions across the Kingdom to develop G&T education programmes.

Today the Foundation describes its mission thus:

‘To support the establishment and development of a creative environment and society so the talented and gifted individuals can harness and exploit their talents to serve the nation.’

And it identifies three main strategic goals: to nurture giftedness and creativity in both males and females; to support national abilities in generating innovative ideas; and to foster young, gifted and creative leaders in the field of science and technology.

Picture courtesy of FlickrJunkie

The Mawhiba Strategic Plan

Mawhiba, which literally means ‘gift’, ‘talent’ or ‘favour’ (and can be used as a name for either a boy or a girl) is essentially the Foundation’s 15-year strategic plan, launched in 2008 but prepared the previous year following an extensive consultancy by McKinsey and Company.

One used to be able to find online a Mawhiba Strategic Plan Presentation which appears to summarise the McKinsey work for the Foundation (but it seems to have been taken down since I first published this post).

The underpinning aspiration for the Project is expressed in terms of developing the infrastructure to support giftedness, creativity and innovation throughout the human life cycle. This initial ‘lifelong learning’ focus is almost immediately scaled back to focus on schooling, higher education and early working life.

The McKinsey team undertook extensive international benchmarking, a literature review and a domestic situation analysis. The benchmarking activity included a review of practice in 20 countries and 90 organisations as well as in-depth analysis of over 20 unnamed institutions in Finland, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Switzerland and the UK.

The situational analysis identified four key developments in the Kingdom:

  • increasing emphasis on knowledge-based industries, so increasing the demand for innovation;
  • a growing youth population leading to higher levels of youth unemployment;
  • (rather curiously) the admission of the USA to the World Trade Organisation in January 2005, leading to increased competition; and
  • more general international competition for highly-skilled workers, leading to a domestic shortage in KSA.

The presentation goes on to list several initiatives already introduced as a response to this scenario, explaining that Mawhiba will complement these by feeding the pipeline that supplies young gifted and talented leaders.

The long term vision, set 15 years ahead in 2022 is:

‘To be a creative society with a critical mass of gifted and talented young leaders who are innovative, highly-educated and well-trained to support the sustained growth and prosperity of the Kingdom.’

This vision is to be realised through three consecutive five-year plans, the first completed in 2012-13 (so broadly aligned with the Kingdom’s national 5-year plans).

During the initial 5-year phase, five priority initiatives are recommended:

  • Mawhiba school partnerships covering both the primary and secondary sectors;
  • Mawhiba enrichment programmes, involving summer schools and after-school activity for the primary and secondary sectors, plus competitions and awards that also extend into the HE sector;
  • Mawhiba Young Leaders and Scholarship Programme, designed for those in tertiary/higher education and the initial stages of employment;
  • Mawhiba Creative Work Environment Initiative for those in the early stages of emplyment; and
  • an overarching awareness and communications initiative spanning the full age range apart from pre-school provision.

There is also reference to a research and policy unit that will offer cross-cutting support.

There is no explanation as to why none of the five initiatives address the pre-school phase: this is presumably set aside until the second five-year plan. A note confirms that there is no automatic transition between the four student-focused elements, each of which has separate selection criteria.

The presentation includes positive comments from several international experts consulted on the draft plan, but they counsel staged implementation, recommending the Saudis to draw initially on international expertise but to concentrate on building domestic capacity in the medium to long term.

The Mawhiba Brochure (2007 Edition)

One can trace the influence of this work on a Brochure subtitled ‘Special Issue for King Abdullah University for Science and Technology Inauguration 21 October 2007’.

It confirms that a ‘Strategy and Action Plan for Fostering Giftedness and Creativity’ has been developed by the Foundation in collaboration with McKinsey which prioritises the development of science, technology and leadership, but also personal and social skills.

It refers to five main components, but these are different to those described in the McKinsey publication. Instead we have reference to the Foundation’s existing portfolio of activities:

Programmes and services:

  • Mawhiba Summer Programmes – enrichment events of four weeks’ duration based in domestic and international universities. The summer schools will develop students’ cognitive abilities as well as personal, social and emotional skills. The initial series comprised 16 events catering for 550 students.
  • The ‘Imagine Service’ which aims to develop innovation in middle and high school students by encouraging them to develop their ideas with online feedback and support from experts in the relevant fields.
  • The ‘Shawer Service’ (I’m unclear why it is called this) which provides advice and counselling for gifted students, their parents and educators through an online service, a telephone helpline and face-to-face counselling.

Conferences and exhibitions: in 2006 the Foundation organised the ‘Scientific Regional Conference for Giftedness’ an international event to raise awareness of gifted education in the Kingdom and in the wider Arab world. In March 2008 it organised with Aramco the first Saudi Innovation Exhibition.

Competitions and awards. There is an annual award for scientific creativity designed for male and female innovators up to the age of 25 and two competitions in robotics.

The National Portal for Giftedness, Creativity and Innovation for young people, their parents, teachers and educators. This is described as ‘an electronic oasis’ and is not expected to be in place until March 2008.

Finally there is a Customer Service Centre providing support for all those engaged in delivering the services above.

The Mawhiba Brochure (2009 Edition)

By 2009, the Brochure has undergone substantive revision, but there are still two competing sets of priorities. The five identified by McKinsey are stated very briefly but the second half of the Brochure is an updated version of the 2007 edition, once again outlining the existing Foundation work programme.

This perhaps suggests that the integration of the McKinsey plan into the existing work of the Foundation took some considerable time and no little effort to bring about.

In this version, the Foundation’s three fundamental objectives are essentially: improving and expanding the education offer for gifted learners; promoting society’s awareness of gifted education and creativity; and supporting the Kingdom’s sustainable development.

The document goes on to state several guiding principles that are said to emerge from these objectives:

  • (as per McKinsey) focusing on all phases of the education system and beyond into employment;
  • ‘nourishing the ambition of reaching a shortlist which includes the best 3% of all Saudi students’;
  • building and developing creativity, leadership, critical thinking and innovation and developing advanced skills maths, science and IT;
  • working in collaboration with any organisation or institution (public or private) that supports the vision;
  • the importance of admitting candidates from different backgrounds and from all sectors and categories of Saudi society; and
  • the need to raise awareness of Foundation programmes as well as wider issues relating to giftedness and creativity

There is still material about programmes and services, conferences and exhibitions, competitions and awards. The online portal has become the ‘National Electronic Gate for Giftedness and Creativity’

‘ It aims to provide the users with quality interactive services that enable them to communicate through educational games, a multi-media library, special forums, and chat groups’.

The fifth priority is changed to ‘education and enlightenment’ but there is no text to describe what it entails. Maybe this is McKinsey’s awareness-raising and communication strand.

The Brochure also explains that, in collaboration with the Arab League Educational Cultural and Scientific Organisation (ALECSO) the Foundation has established a parallel unified Arab strategy for giftedness with a vision for 2025. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed and the strategy approved at a Tunisia conference in December 2008.

This involves:

  • Approving national strategies for the sponsorship of giftedness and creativity;
  • Assigning national agencies and institutions to undertake them;
  • Improving existing opportunities for educating gifted people and promoting society’s awareness of the importance of giftedness and creativity; and
  • contributing to targeted sustainable development in the Arab countries

I have found no subsequent update on this parallel pan-Arab strategy, which may or may not be proceeding.


May 2011.

Room at the Top – A New Direction for Gifted Education? (Part Two)

This is the concluding section of a two-part post about ‘Room at the Top‘, a Policy Exchange Publication by Deborah Eyre which makes the case for a ‘human capital’ model of gifted education that would radically increase the proportion of high-performing learners in the education system.

England’s National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY)

Eyre, who was the Director of NAGTY throughout its five year lifetime (2002-2007) argues that NAGTY was the embodiment of a model for nurturing high performance that ‘provides a potential blueprint for transforming the educational landscape’ and is being applied in several other countries.

It is said that the NAGTY student academy supported 200,000 students aged 11-19, and that it was the world’s first national centre for high [academic] performance, akin to similar sporting centres of excellence.

The student academy ‘provided a unique insight into how best to develop advanced cognitive performance in the brightest students’. (But it also relied on the cohort paradigm, selecting in a defined percentage of students against fixed criteria, which placed it out of kilter with the human capital approach.)

Meanwhile, the professional academy worked with schools to improve their in-school provision.

‘NAGTY’s main achievements were not for the cohort it served but rather the development of a much better understanding of the routes to high performance and how to maximise them in individuals in the wider education system, plus the creation of structural models that might make this realisable.’

NAGTY demonstrated:

  • How students can learn to take more control of their learning and so influence their own educational outcomes;
  • That not all learning happens in school and that well-structured informal learning can make an important contribution to high attainment.

‘The student academy created a pedagogy for out-of-school informal learning based on a set of advanced cognitive performance characteristics’.

This was built around the idea of bringing students and experts together. Its online study groups were learning communities that linked learners with academics so recreating ‘the collegiate discursive environment’.

It provided a mechanism for organisations and individuals to make a meaningful contribution to education by providing out of school learning opportunities which were ‘carefully designed to make a serious contribution to high performance’.

The best schools used this to lever up expectations and performance in their own institutions.

  • That being from a disadvantaged socio-economic background and/or attending a low-performing school doesn’t have to be a barrier to academic success. NAGTY demonstrated that social mobility is possible on a large scale.

By 2007 it had 30,000 students from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds ‘destined for high academic attainment’. Once they joined this community of high achievers, these students from disadvantaged backgrounds went on to achieve highly.

  • That many schools under-estimate their students and fail to provide sufficient challenge. NAGTY students’ views chimed with those of OFSTED who found that ‘lack of intellectual challenge is a consistent feature in lessons in many schools’ – 46% of students found their work too easy and 42% found their schooling boring.

But some schools were getting this right and their practice is transferrable to others.

‘We now have, through NAGTY, a better documented understanding of what high performance looks like in practice and how to encourage it in various contexts’.

‘After five years of success NAGTY came under new management’. In the years that followed gifted education began to lose its momentum and drifted, but the lesson from NAGTY is abiding:

‘A national focus on nurturing high performance can benefit students, increase social mobility, and raise standards more quickly than the conventional standards agenda’.

Commentary V

I suspect that most independent and objective observers would regard this as an overly positive assessment of NAGTY’s actual contribution and performance between 2002 and 2007.

It took a long time to get started, as both membership and services developed relatively slowly. Moreover, there is relatively little hard data to back up the claims here about NAGTY’s impact on learner outcomes, or evidence of a methodology which isolates the impact of NAGTY from the other variables in play.

If such material did exist it would be referenced in the text of ‘Room at the Top’ – and the case for regarding NAGTY as a model to replicate would be significantly strengthened as a result.

If the statements above represent the theoretical position – at least as it has been formulated retrospectively – it is important to bear in mind that the practice fell short of this in some significant respects.

NAGTY’s record is reviewed more objectively in the Government’s independent evaluation a document that is ignored by ‘Room at the Top’, which relies instead on several publications by NAGTY’s own research arm. That in itself is telling.

Since I may not be regarded as an independent and objective observer, I will rely on the evidence in the evaluation report.

It is not easy to give a clear picture of NAGTY’s effectiveness through selective quotation from that document, so I urge serious readers to draw their own conclusions on the basis of the evaluation as a whole.

But here are some extracts that relate directly to the material summarised above. The paragraph references are included for ease of reference:

  • The total population eligible for NAGTY support was estimated at 200,000 (paras 108-9). By the end of its contract [ie 2007] NAGTY had reached, in terms of student Academy membership numbers, about 70% of this population, though it is unclear whether all of these were enrolled. The proportion of active members was also unclear but almost certainly small (paras 458-9).
  • NAGTY increased the volume and range of nationally-provided out-of-hours learning opportunities for gifted learners. By the last year of its contract it was offering over 14,000 places on various activities. But the rate of growth in activities barely kept pace with the rate of growth in membership and was never sufficient to offer all members a reasonable chance of doing something during their membership (para 446). No data was provided, but there was anecdotal evidence that most NAGTY members did nothing (para 448)
  • Feedback to schools on the activities undertaken by their students ‘was either limited or non-existent’. Lack of knowledge about who had done what meant schools were unable to build on what their pupils had undertaken and any momentum/enthusiasm could not be maintained (para 432).
  • The identification process was flawed, in that it was biased against those from lower socio-economic groups. (The GOAL programme sought to address this but the numbers benefiting were relatively small.) Moreover, the criteria did not select in those who might be excellent in a particular subject but not sufficiently good across the board (para 441).
  • With the exceptions of GOAL, financial bursaries and Aspire magazine, there was little evidence of NAGTY supporting the more rounded development of members. A careers advice service was offered at one stage but dropped owing to lack of use (para 442). The tracking undertaken was limited (para 445) as was the support offered to members and parents (para 459).
  • ‘Whether it is simply identifying a young person as being in the top 5%, as opposed to giving them NAGTY membership and access to a range of additional opportunities, which makes the difference in terms of aspirations and motivation is unclear’ (para 459).
  • Relatively few teaching professionals appear to have come into contact with NAGTY (para 504). It was not geared to have direct contact with teachers which meant that its activities had limited impact (para 505) .
  • In securing a high quality core education for gifted and talented learners, central to the ‘English model’, NAGTY was handicapped because teachers were not generally involved in its activities and it had no means of directly influencing what happened in the vast majority of schools (para 512);
  • NAGTY seemed to be focussed on building its own profile with the profession rather than acting as a development house. Trialling new ideas and then passing on those with merit to organisations better-placed to take them forward might have offered a better way forward (para 517)
  • While there is nothing to suggest bias, a degree of separation between NAGTY and its research arm would have ensured greater transparency and perceived objectivity (para 605).
  • We [the evaluators] are not persuaded that NAGTY has established itself as the key reference point for the English gifted and talented community (para 613). The Department [for Education] wanted a dispersed model rather than a single centre of expertise (para 615)
  • Overall NAGTY is something of a curate’s egg (para 701). The parts that are good relate to its core focus as provider of out-of-school activities and maintaining a high-profile for gifted learners. It was less good when it sought to depart from this.
  • There are a variety of possible ‘takes’ on whether NAGTY provided value for money. Overall the sense is that, apart from some ongoing benefits, the legacy appears thin and value for money limited (paras 901-932).

So we appear to have two different versions of reality.

It is not my intention to support one ahead of the other, but simply to state that there is substantive evidence in the public domain that should cause us to question the assertion that NAGTY successfully demonstrated how an effective national system for developing high performance might work in practice.

International Adoption of the NAGTY model

‘Room at the Top’ also asserts that some countries are successfully using the NAGTY approach as a means of achieving high performance across their education systems. Two in particular are described, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong (now part of China).

Saudi Arabia with support from McKinsey has developed the world’s most comprehensive approach to nurturing high performance and creativity.

It wants to secure ‘strong subject knowledge and the creativity that will enable innovation as well as efficiency’. It has a ‘two-pronged approach mobilising in school provision and out of school learning opportunities’, though the in-school dimension is dominant. It commissioned work to develop this approach using NAGTY as its design blueprint.

Each year a limited number of schools enters the Mawhiba Schools Partnership following a competitive process. Member schools are supported to improve their effectiveness in enhancing cognitive performance, through an ‘advanced supplementary curriculum’, professional development and support.

Schools can be accredited at Partner or Advanced Partner level and there is a similar scheme to recognise teachers who are outstanding at nurturing high performance.

Hong Kong already had a high proportion of learners with advanced subject knowledge but recognised following PISA 2006 that ‘they needed to convert that into more rounded and usable advanced cognitive performance’.

They adopted their 3-tier model of provision in 2000 and, in 2006 decided to create a Hong Kong Academy to co-ordinate informal learning activities. This:

‘organisation supported in principle by government but freed from government interference has proved a better basis for development of out-of-hours provision than the part-government directed NAGTY or its fully government-directed successor’

At this time the Fung Hong Chu centre (actually part of the Education Bureau) was made responsible for in-school provision which is beginning to focus on advanced cognitive performance.

Commentary VI

It would be easy to over-estimate the influence of the ‘theoretical’ NAGTY model on the basis of the treatment in the paper. Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong are both territories in which the author has been active as a consultant and one might reasonably expect her thinking to have had some influence.

While there is relatively little about the Saudi programme in the public domain (and I will publish a separate post about it shortly), we know that the dominant focus on in-school provision did not feature at all significantly in the NAGTY approach.

Moreover, the process that led to the development of the Saudi programme will have included an extensive literature review and rigorous sifting of evidence from practice worldwide. McKinsey would have ensured that the NAGTY approach was one of many analysed as part of the process of designing a system that would best fit Saudi needs and circumstances.

In Hong Hong, the three-tier model preceded NAGTY (and we were well aware of it as an influence on our thinking at the time NAGTY was under development). The Hong Kong Education Bureau will also have drawn on a wide range of models, including several in the United States, before deciding on the nature of their Academy.

While the thinking behind NAGTY may have had limited influence on the commitment to develop gifted education and high performance in a few of the world’s knowledge-based economies (KBEs) I can find no real evidence to suggest that it has been particularly influential. Should that evidence materialise, I stand to be corrected.

There is, unfortunately, very little information in the public domain to explain how this human capital approach to gifted education has developed in a number of KBEs, but it is much more likely to be grounded in publications by McKinsey and the OECD (including PISA) – and in an awareness of the economic arguments supporting human capital theory, which have been developing over the last 50 years.

I can see no clear relationship between that work and either the theoretical or practical manifestation of NAGTY.

It would also be good to see the evidence supporting the statement about ‘government interference’ in Hong Kong relative to England. The evaluation contains relevant observations on that subject in respect of NAGTY. I have not seen any public evaluation of Hong Kong’s Academy, let alone anything that treats its relationship with the Education Bureau and other parts of the Hong Kong Government.

In England, NAGTY and its successor enjoyed similar contractual relationships with Government. In both cases the substantial commitment of taxpayers’ money made it unthinkable that either could operate independently.

So there were the normal tensions between a contracted body that wants freedom to operate at arm’s length and a contractor that must hold it accountable for delivery of defined outcomes in return for the taxpayers’ investment.

The contractor offers ‘earned autonomy’ if the contracted body achieves the specified performance, but will ‘intervene in inverse proportion to success’ if it that is not the case.

The Proposed Solution

The Paper suggests it is advocating a different focus rather than an initiative or a programme, but also offers a series of recommendations.

At national level we should: ‘institutionalise excellence’ to help as many pupils as possible to reach high performance at 18; set clear expectations for the system in terms of outcomes and ‘reframe the national levers’ to focus on those, yet trust professionals to decide what methodologies to adopt to nurture high performance:

  • the National Curriculum should prioritise advanced subject knowledge, high level skills, ‘and the values attitudes and attributes associated with expertise in a given subject domain’;
  • the qualification system should focus on what children should achieve at 18 and there should be more opportunities to demonstrate advanced achievement, for example via extended essays;
  • there should be appropriate emphasis on high performance in the new OFSTED inspection framework;
  • targets based on borderline grades should be abolished;
  • high-level achievement should be made more transparent – eg by publishing data on the university destinations of school leavers; schools should move to a different performance measure – eg average points scored, perhaps capped; and high achievement data should be added to school performance tables

We should also enhance the significance of informal learning opportunities by accrediting providers and creating incentives for new providers to enter the system. There should be funding to support participation by learners from low income families.

And we should establish a National Centre for Advanced Performance in Education to act as a catalyst, offering advice, providing professional development and building capacity in the system.

Schools should: move away from the current marginal G&T agenda ‘with its narrow focus on small numbers of students seen as having inherited measurable characteristics’ and adopt the more contemporary human capital approach.

This does not necessarily require more resources since they would be reprioritising rather than undertaking anything new. They should offer advanced learning opportunities as the norm through classroom teaching and out-of-hours enrichment.

  • While free to decide the balance between mixed ability teaching and subject-based setting, there should be an end to ‘pitching to the middle’ and inflexible setting practices.
  • Schools should harness the support of parents and families. Each learner should have an assigned staff member responsible for coaching and monitoring their performance. Pupils should be directed to out of school informal learning opportunities and ‘schools should take some responsibility for’ securing suitable take-up.
  • Schools should reward and celebrate high achievement, developing a culture in which all pupils are encouraged to take responsibility for their work and ‘habits of success’.

Commentary VII

Despite the assertion to the contrary, these recommendations do read suspiciously like an initiative. If we take the opening statement at face value, then some explanation is needed as to why England does not need a holistic programme while other countries – such as Saudi Arabia – clearly do.

Despite the earlier statements about the relative insignificance of schooling relative to families, informal learning and a ‘growth mindset’, it is not entirely consistent that the bulk of these recommendations are targeted at schools.

There is no recognition in the recommendations – or indeed throughout the paper – of the different needs of the primary and secondary sectors respectively. It is not clear to what extent the treatment should be regarded as applying to both.

The reference to curricular and qualifications reforms would be entirely consistent with the adoption of a Singapore-style integrated curriculum as addressed in an earlier post.

The emphasis on achieving high performance at 18 appears to assume handover to universities at that point, although one might make a decent case for a blurring of the HE/school boundaries as being part of the solution.

Certain of the reforms proposed, eg publication of destinations data and ‘top grades’ are already commitments of the current Government. Indeed, the recent Schools White Paper was unambiguous:

‘For both primary and secondary schools, we will put greater emphasis on the progress of every child – setting out more prominently in performance tables how well pupils progress. It is clearly important that schools aim to raise absolute attainment…However, schools should take particular responsibility for how much each child learns while a pupil, and we should expect schools to make as much effort with a lower achieving or higher achieving pupil as with one whose achievement means that they are close to a threshold. So, performance tables will show more clearly how well all pupils progress’ (Para 6.13).

There is also a bow in the direction of the Government’s trust in school autonomy on matters of pedagogy and delivery, but no explanation of the processes to be followed if schools fail to share and embed effective practice throughout the system. Reference to the English Baccalaureate is conspicuous by its absence.

It is misleading to suggest there are no funding implications for schools. Allocating a staff coach for every single learner would be very expensive and the suggested ‘reprioritisation’ would leave something that schools currently fund unfunded, but what? Then there is the additional cost of informal learning opportunities for those from disadvantaged backgrounds…

The reference to schools’ role in identifying suitable out-of-school learning opportunities and securing the ‘fit’ with school-based learning is strangely half-hearted. My experience suggests this is essential.

Surely schools are best-placed to be the co-ordinators of learning for their high achievers and must help them to draw into a coherent whole their experience in school and all the different elements of their out-of-hours learning? This is a critical role for the allocated staff coach and could be supported through a VLE or similar platform and an e-portfolio.

The online (or blended) learning component of this overall learning experience is acquiring increasing significance. It would be desirable to push beyond the (now relatively primitive) methodology deployed in NAGTY’s online study groups and embrace the full richness of social media.

This would enable high achievers to learn from their peers worldwide – establishing their own personal learning network – as well as from experts. In the case of some, virtual schooling options could be appropriate to complement the ‘bricks and mortar’ experience, so creating a blended learning approach to gifted education. Diagnostic tools should be in-built, to tailor the learning experience to an individual’s needs.

At first sight, the suggestion of a national centre is a top-down solution entirely inconsistent with institutional autonomy and a distributed model. The Government would need to meet its running costs unless it could be assumed to generate sufficient income to cover them. This reads like a thinly-disguised plea for the recreation of NAGTY, albeit in a slightly different guise.

An alternative decentralised model, built around the emerging GT Voice network would be much more attuned with the zeitgeist. This will help to stimulate the market by providing information to the demand and supply sides respectively and could if necessary provide an accreditation framework to support and incentivise the supply side.

Contrary to the paper, I can see no conflict in continuing to provide a dedicated programme for the most disadvantaged gifted learners alongside a wider refocusing of the system on high performance. After all, the paper’s reference to financial support to help poor students access informal learning opportunities is more than a nod in that direction.

It would be only a small step further to provide a ‘flexible framework’ to support social mobility through progression to competitive higher education, as proposed in my post on Social Mobility through Fair Access to Higher Education.

Concluding Remarks

‘Room at the Top’ is quite right to argue that England needs to change its educational approach if it is to maximise the proportion of high educational achievers, so helping to secure its global economic competitiveness.

The analysis is similar in many respects to that undertaken in many posts on this blog, so it should be no surprise that I agree with the broad thrust of the paper.

But there are two substantive reservations.

First, although the description of the three different paradigms is consistent with the perspective of this blog, I see them as significantly overlapping rather than sequential. My perception is that all three – and especially the second and third – continue to thrive in different parts of the world, each with a significant band of adherents.

In England, national policy on gifted education has developed towards the third paradigm while retaining some elements of the second. ‘Room at the Top’ does not recognise this, perhaps because some of these changes were not introduced until after NAGTY closed in 2007. It gives the impression – perhaps unwittingly – that all developments after that date were somehow irrelevant.

The fundamental argument would have been more convincing had it properly reflected the interest there was at the time in ensuring that gifted education should have a system-wide and whole-school impact – an ambition that was eventually tested in practice by the National Challenge G&T Pilot which took place from 2009 to 2011.

The international examples of Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong are similarly hybrid approaches that draw on more than one of these paradigms. For the contemporary understanding of effective practice in gifted education – and the policy development that reflects it – is much less clear-cut than we are led to believe.

Second, the exaggerated value placed on the work of NAGTY, especially the suggestion that it somehow embodied the new ‘human capital’ paradigm of gifted education – and the intimation that international adoption of NAGTY-style practice is what is driving much of the current investment in gifted education by KBEs.

Both these shortcomings seem to me grounded in the same issue: a dissonance between the ‘idealised reality’ presented in the paper and the messier, more confused reality that we actually experience .

Instead of reflecting that complexity – the various ‘shades of grey’ – ‘Room at the Top’ presents an unremittingly ‘black and white’ view that fails to capture several important nuances or to acknowledge significant shortcomings.

Because we are not told the whole story, the strength of the central argument is undermined and is much less powerful than it might otherwise have been.

All that said, the ‘direction of travel’ is the right one and is compelling enough to secure support from the broad church of gifted education interests across the country.

It remains to be seen whether the Government, so publicly committed to learning from international best practice, will listen to these arguments and follow the trajectory of some of the world’s leading KBEs by focusing our education system on maximising high performance.


May 2011

Room at the Top: A New Direction for Gifted Education? (Part One)

This two-part post is a review and a critique of ‘Room at the Top: Inclusive Education for High Performance’, a Policy Exchange publication written by Deborah Eyre in April 2011.

Policy Exchange is a centre-right think tank in the UK. Deborah Eyre is Education Director with Nord Anglia Education, a UK-based company that operates twelve international schools and a range of learning services in the UK, Asia and the Middle East. These include a contract with the Mawhiba Schools Partnership, a substantial gifted education programme in Saudi Arabia.

From 2002 to 2007 Eyre was Director of England’s National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY). ‘Room at the Top’ draws significantly on her experience in that role and, subsequently, as an education consultant working particularly in the Far and Middle East.

The problem that the paper seeks to address is how to maximise the proportion of high performing learners in an education system, specifically the English education system.

I should say at the outset that I support entirely the broad thrust of the central argument. Many of the core messages are consistent with the views expressed on this blog over the past year.

I also have some fairly significant reservations about certain aspects of the treatment. I want to return to those in the second half of this post, but first I shall do my best to summarise the document, interspersing a commentary which raises these and several less substantive issues.

The Premiss

‘Room at the Top’ argues that parallel debates about improving system-wide performance and about supporting the most able pupils have mostly failed to connect with each other.

The former has neglected the latter, concentrating over-much on structures, while the latter has been preoccupied with ‘identifying a fixed and relatively small cohort with the ability to achieve… advanced levels of cognitive performance’, an approach which is unworkable.

A larger proportion of learners has the potential to achieve these advanced levels of cognitive performance but this demands consistently higher expectations and systematic nurturing of all learners, so improving system-wide performance.

The report has two broad recommendations:

  • That the English system is too preoccupied with achieving floor targets and mediocrity. Structural reforms are needed to the national curriculum, qualifications, the OFSTED inspection framework and performance tables to ensure we prioritise and celebrate high performance.
  • That the gifted and talented agenda has become marginal in many schools, but can be main-streamed by expecting high performance on advanced learning opportunities as the norm. This should be via a blend of in-class and school-based enrichment activities, as well as a range of informal learning opportunities.

Three paradigms of Gifted Education

‘Room at the Top’ charts three broad phases, or paradigms, in the development of gifted education over the past century.

First, a ‘Unique Individual Paradigm’, in place up to middle of last century, focused on a small number of unique individuals. The initial view was these few individuals had no relevance for thinking about education systems as a whole. There was no appreciation that giftedness could be influenced or developed.

Second, a ‘Cohort Paradigm’, surviving until the end of last century, which concentrated on identifying and selecting groups of gifted learners from amongst the general school population. Identification strategies developed from the use of IQ tests, introduced in the 1920s.

It was undertaken in the belief that these learners were different from their peers and so would benefit from being educated differently. At the same time, the cohort itself was assumed to be relatively homogeneous, with common learning needs.

This paradigm is associated with selective education as well as gifted programmes. There are significant benefits for those selected, relative to those who are not.

Third, a ‘Human Capital Paradigm’, introduced at the start of this Century, which switched focus to the educational conditions in which giftedness could be optimally developed.

This change is associated with a questioning of the assumptions underpinning selection, since:

  • longitudinal studies of high-performing adults demonstrate that they were rarely outstanding as children, casting doubt on the value of early identification;
  • there is a consistent bias within cohorts towards the affluent middle classes, although the few selected from poorer backgrounds achieve social mobility as a consequence;
  • beliefs about the nature of giftedness have shifted away from heredity and a single measure of intelligence. The majority now hold that it is a complex blend of nature and nurture, includes a motivational element and is not straightforwardly measurable;
  • research suggests that gifted learners deploy exactly the same learning strategies as their peers, only do so more creatively, implying that gifted education methods can potentially be applied universally;
  • labelling learners as gifted is perceived as unhelpful, if not for gifted learners then for those without the label, affecting their confidence and narrowing their learning horizons.

The ‘human capital paradigm’ is not primarily concerned with identifying gifted learners, but with the systematic nurturing of high potential across the system, by setting high expectations for all learners while also ‘encouraging excellence among any emerging elite performers’.

This nurturing process is undertaken in specific domains, in recognition that high performance is achieved in an individual’s specific areas of strength.

It works backwards from the ultimate goal – what is required to achieve expertise in the relevant domain – aiming to give learners the right blend of opportunities, support and encouragement to work towards that objective.

Some use ‘giftedness’ to describe the outcome of this process (as opposed to the starting point) or it can be called ‘high performance’ as it is throughout this publication.

The implications of the ‘human capital paradigm’ for education systems are that:

  • an (internationally) agreed definition of giftedness is no longer necessary;
  • it is unnecessary to pin down a cohort since the focus is on nurturing high performance in as many learners as possible;
  • this should be undertaken daily in the normal classroom through curriculum, pedagogy and a culture of high expectations;
  • the learner, his parents and mentors have a significant role alongside that of the school.

Unfortunately, while researchers have been influenced by developments in psychology and neuroscience, the public and policy makers alike remain stuck in the first of the two outdated paradigms.

Commentary I

The analysis raises several questions, such as whether:

  • Inclusion in a gifted cohort and entry to a selective school can be treated as two sides of the same coin in all respects. The latter denotes entirely separate education, normally for the duration of secondary schooling. The former does not typically involve separate education and is not necessarily a fixed, permanent arrangement.
  • Labelling can be avoided entirely in any approach, including the human capital paradigm, where excellence is recognised and celebrated. (The author argues later that learners should not be protected from over-demanding learning challenges. Much the same argument might be applied to labelling, since accepting there is always someone cleverer than you may be a valuable lesson in realism rather than a demotivating influence, especially if you know that the label isn’t necessarily denied you in future.)
  • The domain-specific approach of ‘expertise in development’ is an essential pre-requisite for the human capital paradigm. There is no clear justification for the relationship in the text – and it is hard to see the relevance of school subject expertise in strict human capital terms, since it is pretty unlikely that the learner will pursue the same field into undergraduate study and subsequent employment. Generic skills are surely more important, especially for younger learners in primary schools;
  • The distinction between enlightened researchers on one hand and gullible public and policy-makers on the other is quite as clear-cut as the text suggests. After all, there are still many academic apologists for the ‘cohort paradigm’ , as well as several more forward-thinking policy-makers!

Four Principles of a Human Capital Strategy

One can increase the proportion of high performers if the education system is refocused on different priorities. Four key principles are identified:

First, capitalise on any inherited predispositions. Although some learners are ‘gifted’ (ie ‘genetically predisposed to be more cognitively successful’) it is more important to develop the ability we all have rather than assessing which of us has relatively greater capability.

We do not yet fully understand the way environment impacts on inherited predispositions, but many more learners could benefit if given the opportunity. It is possible to overcome poor quality early years education and wrong to assume at any point in the education system that significant numbers of learners are unable to cope with advanced cognition.

Second, recognise the importance of families in providing a stable, encouraging environment. We need to help families to ‘nurture gifted behaviours’ by extending the benefits of parental involvement in middle class families to all learners.

Third, provide reasonable schooling. This is not as significant as the role of parents (and peers) because high performance ‘isn’t the same as being ‘school smart”. It is not just about passing exams, but also involves developing the skills that a domain-specific expert needs

Because high performance isn’t entirely dependent on the quality of schooling it is possible to compensate through parental support, personal motivation and informal learning. Hence it is not necessary to wait until all schools are high-performing.

On the other hand, good schools are typically better at facilitating high performance, so the more there are the better.

Fourth, instil a ‘growth mindset’ (the text does not actually employ this term, which is conspicuous by its absence). It is essential to help learners to understand that their educational performance lies in their hands.

While other cultures understand that trying hard is important, our practice of labelling and choosing cohorts suggests to learners that they cannot achieve beyond a certain level. Learners need to understand that their achievement is not dictated by their family background, their school, or where they live.

Commentary II

There is perhaps the basis for an equation here, parallel to that which the author herself now calls ‘the Eyre Equation’ (indeed does so earlier in this Paper):

High Performance =

(Capitalised) Inherited Ability

+ Family Support

+ (Effective) Schooling

+ Growth Mindset)

x All Learners

But the Paper is not particularly informative about the relationship between these four variables. Although it is suggested that schooling is less significant than often assumed, no empirical evidence is given to support this statement, or to quantify the relative weight attached to the other variables.

While the ideal is presumably to have all four in play, is it possible to compensate for any one that is relatively less secure? Any two? Any three? Are there essential minimum levels of given variables that need to be in place for individual high performance to have a reasonable chance of being realised?

In short, the limited treatment we are given begs many more questions.

It is surprising, too, that there is no real recognition of the sizeable potential impact of poverty on high performance, even if it is part of the hypothesis that this is too often used as an excuse. It is widely understood that the impact of poverty dwarfs the educational effects and really needs to be tackled directly.

The emphasis on keeping doors open at all stages is clearly antithetical to selection. So selective schools and ‘fixed’ gifted cohorts are inappropriate, but so is much setting practice (because the sets are too infrequently adjusted).

If we were to be purist about this it would not be acceptable to require a specified level of achievement to secure admission into a sixth form or, indeed, for admission to a given university course. While such an open access approach is laudable in theory, it is doubtful whether our education system could apply it consistently and with rigour.

This is surely more about a state of mind – and about being prepared to give learners second chances – than it is about the practical operation of the system.

Four Attitudinal Problems that England Must Overcome

The Paper identifies four sets of beliefs and assumptions that must be overcome if England is to maximise its proportion of high performing learners.

First, we hold outdated beliefs about ability and academic performance. There is still a widely-held view that ability is genetically determined, even though we also accept that there are some environmental factors in play. This belief is reinforced by putting 5-10% quotas on the gifted and talented population in schools for ‘society feels more comfortable with norm-referencing than criterion-referencing’.

Second, we mistakenly assume that we must choose between an education system focused on nurturing an elite and one that is effective for the majority. ‘We are always trying to be fair but sometimes this is at the expense of opportunity and excellence’. The political focus is on allocative fairness rather than on stretching all learners.

On the right this manifests as meritocratic fairness; on the left as ensuring that demographically representative populations get through. Both are mired in the false belief that only a fixed number can succeed.

We are preoccupied with floor targets.

‘We have created a system that requires that most pupils reach mediocrity and which asks schools to arrange their structures with this as the primary expectation’.

In an ideal world, shifting one student from A to A* would be as significant as shifting another from D to C. GCSE data is quoted showing that increases over time in the proportion of students gaining a B grade or above in each of maths and English is significantly lower than the increase in the proportion achieving a C grade.

Our broader cross-party consensus on the significance of the standards agenda in schools has outlived its usefulness, because it has become focused on raising average performance rather than encouraging more learners to reach advanced levels.

Third, we wrongly assume that large-scale social mobility is unattainable. International benchmarking studies show that our education system is relatively inequitable and we have come to believe that this is an insurmountable problem.

The demonstrable link between performance and socio-economic background has led us to conclude that learners from poor backgrounds cannot achieve highly. Schools limit opportunities, for example by restricting access to triple science, and getting a C grade represents the pinnacle of success.

Fourth, we wrongly believe we must protect learners from cognitively over-demanding work. There is a climate of false kindness in schools, but learners must be given the opportunity to try – and to fail.

Commentary III

Although a broadly accurate analysis, I would again question some of the detail:

  • I am not sure there is necessarily a logical connection between belief in genetic giftedness and a quota-based approach to gifted education. Moreover, it is wrong to suggest that quota-based populations are current Government policy, since schools are free to determine the size of their gifted and talented populations. This is evident from the very publication referenced to evidence the contrary statement in ‘Room at the Top’: ‘Identifying Gifted and Talented Learners – Getting Started (p. 1)
  • The emphasis within England’s approach to gifted education on securing G&T populations that are broadly representative in demographic terms is therefore less about allocative fairness and more about recognition that potential for excellence is found equally amongst learners from disadvantaged backgrounds and other underachieving groups. So it is consistent with the human capital paradigm and can support progress towards large-scale social mobility.
  • While there is other data to support the argument that schools have been concentrating on borderline grades at GCSE at the expense of higher grades – see for example my November 2010 post about STEM and high achievers which makes pretty much the same case – recent emphasis within our assessment processes on progression as opposed to raw attainment would suggest that this is already being addressed.
  • Similarly, the assertion that we believe social mobility to be an insurmountable problem isn’t really borne out by the emphasis given to improving it, both by the last Government and the current Coalition. Indeed, both have declared it a top priority.

Why High Performance is Important

The paper gives a brief treatment of the reasons for investing in talent: to fill talent gaps for high-level skills that are already evident and to enable England to compete in a globalised economy where highly-skilled workers are increasingly internationally mobile.

Other countries are already investing in developing their stock of high achievers and England cannot afford to lag behind. This requires a step-change rather than small-scale incremental improvement.

We should move beyond a ‘rescue mentality’ that benefits a few more disadvantaged learners. And we need to focus on competition with those in other countries rather than a ‘micro-preoccupation with who is in and who is out’.

The key to social mobility is raising our general level of expectation – in the highest-performing countries the ‘excuse’ of coming from a poor background is not accepted. Hong Kong is given as an example.

Commentary IV

This is very familiar territory for regular readers of this Blog and it would not be too difficult to strengthen the arguments in ‘Room at the Top’ by reference to the economics of gifted education, highlighting work by Hanushek et al on the economic value of cognitive development and also material about the cost of the ‘excellence gap’.

It would have been interesting and useful to have had an insight into the rationale by which different knowledge-based economies have made a link between gifted education and increasing the national supply of highly-skilled workers – and some treatment of the reasons why that connection has not been made in England.

I am not sure whether the economic arguments would justify a definition of high performance based primarily on expertise in subject domains. As we have noted already, relatively few learners study at university the subject they were best in at school and still fewer enter employment that requires expertise in the same discipline.

Moreover, HE and employers tend to be interested primarily in examination grades and (in the case of graduates) the perceived ‘quality’ of the institution at which those grades were obtained. They are engaged in ‘screening’ for the best candidates rather than worrying particularly about the value added by their education.

So far so good the, apart from some minor hiccups, but in Part Two of this post we begin to engage with the business end of ‘Room at the Top’, as well as the section – about the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth – that causes me the greatest difficulty. Stay tuned!


May 2011